COLUMBUS — Don and Marilyn Niedermair share a love for Wisconsin hickory nuts, so much so that they named their residence outside Columbus “Hickory Glen.”
“My wife and I picked hickory nuts in the Horicon and Beaver Dam area when we were first going together,” Don said. “We’ve always appreciated hickory nuts and the taste, especially in chocolate chip cookies.”
Their interest in hickory grew as time went on and more trees sprouted on their land.
“We bought our property 41 years ago and there were 12 oak trees and three hickory trees; the rest was open pasture. We burned it off every year and all of a sudden we noticed hardwoods coming up,” Don recalled. “Squirrels planted everything; it’s turned into a woods. There are now a couple hundred of hickory trees on the property.”
About a year ago, the Niedermairs joined the Wisconsin Hickory Association after attending the organization’s hickory feast, which was held in Ripon. Mike Starshak, president of WHA, gave a presentation at the event that the couple found fascinating.
“Mike spoke about the history of hickory in Wisconsin and how it went back at least 10,000 years. He shared how the Native Americans used all of the hickory tree — the nut, the meat, the wood and the bark” Don said.
Through research, Starshak found that in addition to using the nuts for food and wood for heating and cooking, Native Americans made bows from the saplings and used the inner hickory bark to make baskets and to line birch-bark canoes.
Starshak is from the Green Lake area and he started the nonprofit Wisconsin Hickory Association in 2014 as a way to preserve, promote and protect the hickory tree. He would also like to see the hickory nut declared the “state nut,” and has petitions signed by about 2,000 people.
“There are so many uses for hickory,” Don said. “The WHA helps educate and develop this state resource.”
The Niedermairs have two different types of hickory trees on their land — shagbark and bitternut. The trees generally grow wild and are quite common in the lower half of the state. Most hickory trees in the region produce nuts every other year. Hickory nuts begin dropping in early fall.
Although hickory nuts aren’t exactly rare, they are not found in grocery stores. That’s because they are labor-intensive to shell. It takes skill and patience to remove the nutmeats without shattering them into tiny pieces.
“I think hickory nuts are one of the best eating nuts,” Don said, “and they can be substituted for pecans or walnuts in cakes, pies and cookies.”
One of Don’s favorite things to do around Christmastime is to make special hickory-filled treats with his granddaughter to give away as gifts.
“We call them ‘Hickory Glen Delights’ and they have dark chocolate, hickory nuts and maraschino cherries in them,” he said. “Last year, we made over 120 pieces of candy. It’s nice to give a present you can’t buy in stores.”
In addition to using the nuts for baking, Don has tried his hand at carving hickory wood.
“I’ve made a few walking sticks and Christmas ornaments for my granddaughter,” he said. “There is so much that can be done with hickory trees that I haven’t discovered yet.”
Don and Marilyn will host a Wisconsin Hickory Association outdoor educational workshop on their property Sept. 16. The workshop is for anyone interested in hickory, whether it would be growing hickory trees, utilizing the nuts or creating a hickory-based business or hobby.
Participants will take a tour of the property, discuss growing conditions, health and disease, nut production and history. A nutcracking workshop will be held. They will also get to taste hickory food samples, including nuts, cheese, syrup, coffee and meat.
Old Hickory Golf Club in Beaver Dam is the venue for another WHA event this fall. The Third Annual Hickory Feast is set for Oct. 8. The meal will feature hickory wood for cooking and the nuts will be used in the dishes, such as a hickory bourbon glaze for the porterhouse steak and a hickory nut turtle cheesecake.