Wiltsee Family Donates A Slice Of History Worth $35,000

BLACKSBURG, Va., March 28, 2003 – The forestry department at Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources is the recipient of an unusual book collection valued at $35,000. Ann Phillips and her brothers, Bill and Charles Wiltsee, have given the department their "American Woods" collection, which provides a historic look at the evolution of the world's only renewable resource, wood.

Phillips graduated from Virginia Tech in 1956, just as her father Donald Wiltsee had done in 1925. Last summer, the Wiltsee family agreed to donate the 12 volumes dated 1893-1911 that sat in her brother's attic for over 30 years. "American Woods," authored by Romeyn Beck Hough, originally had 14 volumes. Each volume contains 25 plates and a reference book.

Each plate contains three shavings of a particular tree labeled simply as tangential (ring patterns from sides), transverse (cross-sectional), and radial. Forestry department head Harold Burkhart says, "Each shaving is cut very thin, so when you hold it up to the window you can see light pass through the wood. The history behind each sliver is incredible. Each slice of wood is shaved thinner than paper and it was done without the use of a machine. You have to wonder what was used to obtain such thin slices that have been able to last all this time."

After appraising the collection, the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America appraiser, James S. Presgraves, notes, "This set of books is the only one known which provides the reader with the range and breadth of actual samples of woods found in North America>. Some titles exist with some actual samples, but none approach the representation of over 300 species with over 1000 actual pieces of wood. The terra cotta covers are generally clean, and the metal corner pieces and clasp actions are all bright. Only one buckle is loose and that can be easily reattached. Only a few wood samples show age lines, with even fewer samples having actual cracks. In all, this is a very presentable set and I estimate the value to be worth between $28,000 and $35,000."

"Before getting the professional appraisal, we estimated the books overall value to be $1,000," recalls Phillips. "I thought, hey, maybe the forestry department at Virginia Tech would have some interest in them." She approached Burkhart, who understood what a rare jewel they were.

"These unique books are highly valued due to the different common names, classifiers, species names, and Latin names found on certain plates," explains Burkhart. "Many of the names are not used anymore. For example, the red cedar's common name on these plates is pencil cedar, but pencils are now made by a western species. I've never seen pencil cedar as the red cedar's common name during my career."

Each leather-bound plate provides information on a particular tree species, its habitat, where it grows, and other identification notes. The reference book for each volume contains more details on each tree species and is printed in marbleized ink. The front cover on each book reads: "If damaged please return to Lowille, N.Y., along with 10 cents and we will replace all damages."

"Somehow this beautiful collection of books have remained the same, surviving over 100 years of weathering, moving, and industrializing," adds Burkhart. "The forestry department is honored to be given these one-of-a-kind books. These special pieces will be placed in the Virginia Tech library's air-controlled reserve room on display for anyone interested in viewing."

Written by Sarah Kayser, University Relations intern