Chestnuts more than a holiday tradition for Sackls

By Marty Mendenhall

“Chestnuts roasting over an open fire. Jack Frost biting your nose.

So begins one of the most popular Christmas songs ever recorded – “The Christmas Song” by Robert Wells and Mel Torme. But how many people actually know what a chestnut is or where it comes from?

Tony and Lilly Sackl from Georgetown know the answer, they grow chestnuts on 2 of their 5 acres. The Sackls are immigrants from Austria and arrived in California after passing through Canada.

They bought their property over 30 years ago, traveling back and forth to the Bay Area while they were building their home in Georgetown.

“We were our own sub-contractors for our house, putting the exterior siding, doing the finishing and concrete work,” said the Sackls. The couple celebrate two big events in December – one being Tony’s 90th birthdaye birthday and the second celebrating their 63e wedding anniversary.

The Sackls spent a lot of time looking for the right property to grow chestnuts, as trees need good soil, shade, drainage, and their Georgetown property was perfect. Chestnuts take several years to grow the first nuts. The Sackls got a handful of their first nuts after 10 years. “We learned as we went,” they said.

Their first trees were too close together and a number of them had to be removed. They started selling small packets of nuts and now they are growing enough to sell them to a warehouse in Stockton. Most of their buyers are regular customers who are familiar with Sackls. They also sold their chestnuts to the Placerville Food Co-op.

There are different types of chestnuts and they come in a variety of sizes. The Sackls had a tree where 23 chestnuts weighed a pound, but the average is 50 to 60 nuts per pound. Chestnut trees also need two different types of trees to pollinate themselves.

Chestnuts look more like a grain than a nut. “It’s grain that grows on trees,” Lilly explained. The grain or “nut” grows surrounded by a thorny shell that can be broken. The “nuts” are then roasted by hand, releasing the skin which must be removed to reveal the edible “nut”. Watching Tony skillfully roast chestnuts over an open propane flame, it’s easy to understand the romance associated with chestnuts. Especially when the nuts are spread out and shared with others who remove the cover to enjoy the delicious meat. Thus, the holiday tradition is shared.

The Sackls grew up during WWII in Europe and have vivid memories of food shortages and the hardship of life back then. Tony recalled that he just couldn’t get enough chestnuts.

After the war Tony decided to engage in anything that involved metal fabrication. He was a sheet metal worker, welder, metallurgist, blacksmith and maintenance engineer in a uranium mine in Canada. Tony enjoys working with steel and laughed, saying, “If I need a tool that I can’t buy, I will. When there is something that requires welding steel, if the part is not long enough, I can always weld another part to make the tool work. During the war there was a shortage of metal, so he always dragged metal from his home. People would often come to him with a project and ask if he could do what they needed, and Tony said he was almost always able to do it.

In Europe, apprenticeships were common and Tony apprenticed as a blacksmith and auto mechanic. He also liked motorcycles. In an era when motorcycles were chrome and black, Tony saw someone working with candy apple red paint. He took his bike apart piece by piece and each piece was painted candy apple red.

Tony and Lilly love to work and have created a wonderful home. They grow their own food and Lilly loves to do it. They grow apples, plums, cherries, grapes and make their own grape juice. She prepares the most delicious sweets. Lilly is an experienced dressmaker and has been active with Music On The Divide. They also have a small pine forest offering greenery for holiday decorations and the annual Christmas tree for the IOOF hall.

The Sackls met in Switzerland where Lilly, at 18, was working as a machine operator in a factory. Tony was a frequent visitor to Switzerland, as it was where the closest chestnuts grew. Tony visited Brazil, returning to Austria when he married Lilly. They immigrated to northern Saskatchewan, 25 miles south of the Northwest Territories, where their two children, Daniel and Lilliann, were born. After a particularly cold winter in 1961-62 when the temperature dropped to minus 65 degrees Fahrenheit with no wind, they decided to move to a warmer climate. Later, after moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, he bought a sheet metal shop in San Jose working in metal fabrication where he said, “Loved it! “

The Sackls have four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

Tony has a brother who lives in Colorado and two sisters in Montana, and Lilly’s sisters live in Italy and Switzerland.

Tony said: “We are lucky to have good health and we are still together.”

“We work well together, share the same language, the same food and the same religion,” Lilly added. “It makes life easier. “


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