Friday, October 8, 2021

Whatever Floats Your Boat


Navy foresters at NSA Crane assess a white oak tree set aside for future use in repairing the USS Constitution. (U.S. Navy/Bill Couch)

Whiskey has only four ingredients and one of them is white oak, but there is a certain 50,000 acre stand of white oak trees that will never be used to make whiskey barrels. It is in southern Indiana, about 25 miles southwest of Bloomington, near the village of Crane.

Crane, Indiana is very much a company town and that company is the United States of America, specifically our Navy. Southern Indiana may seem like an odd place for a naval base, since it can't be reached by water, but Naval Support Activity (NSA) Crane is there nonetheless. 

NSA Crane was established in 1941 under the Bureau of Ordnance as the Naval Ammunition Depot. Weapons are produced, tested and stored there. It is remote; there aren't many people. That is by design, since Crane is where the Navy makes things that go boom. 

As naval weaponry became more sophisticated, so did Crane. Today, Crane provides a variety of advanced technical products to the Navy, but one of its products is ancient: hardwood timber, white oak.

It is hard to overstate the historical importance of white oak. Because it is so hard, humans didn't make much use of it until we developed iron tools that were strong enough to work it. After that, we used white oak for everything: buildings, weapons, containers, furniture, vehicles. Sure, there are other hardwoods, but plentiful and strong white oak is the unglamorous workhorse of wood.

White oak is used for whiskey barrels for several reasons. Strength is one of them. Barrels made from it are very sturdy and durable. Even more important is that they don't leak. Occlusions in the wood's large pores, called tyloses, protect the tree's sap when it is alive and provide leak resistance thereafter. The tyloses also contain a water-soluble compound that tastes a lot like vanilla, but that's a bonus.

White oak was, for centuries, used to make containers for all kinds of liquids. Even well into the 20th century, beer was kegged in white oak barrels. So was crude oil and many of the products made from it, such as kerosene. Today, most things are better off in metal or plastic; it's mostly wine- and whiskey-makers that still need white oak barrels.

White oak trees harvested for whiskey barrels are usually 60-75 years old, but that's not old enough for the Navy. For shipbuilding--or, in this case, repair--trees in the 200-year range are preferred. Those, too, once were plentiful but today not so much. Providing a stock of old growth white oak is part of NSA Crane's mission too.

The base at Crane covers about 62,000 acres and most of that is white oak forest. The stand's informal name is Constitution Grove and its mission is to provide enough white oak timber to keep afloat the USS Constitution, the oldest ship in the world that still is afloat. The Constitution was made from the same type of wood used to make whiskey barrels, white oak.

Although white oak is very durable, it doesn't last forever. Wooden warships usually don't last 227 years, but the Constitution is special. From time to time, parts of it need to be replaced. It is a real world ship of Theseus.

The USS Constitution is the only still-commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy that has sunk another vessel. (Shown here, doing it.)

Begun in 1794 and launched in 1797, the USS Constitution was one of six three-masted heavy frigates authorized by the Naval Act of 1794 and the third one constructed. It saw action against Mediterranean pirates and against Great Britain during the War of 1812. It was used for training during the Civil War, an era that saw the introduction of iron-clad ships. Soon the age of wooden warships was over. Today, the Constitution is a museum ship permanently docked in Boston's Charlestown Navy Yard

If after keeping the Constitution shipshape the Navy finds itself with excess white oak timber, Independent Stave has a stave mill in Salem, over toward Louisville, about 60 miles SSE of Crane. (A little closer if you take it out the back door.) It will be well-used. Maybe Spirits of French Lick can work something out.

1 comment:

Shane Campbell said...

I love it when someone reveals something remarkable that's gone unnoticed in my backyard. Of course I knew about Crane but had no idea about the Constitution Grove. Thanks so much Chuck, you are a light!