Although much of future state forest was too steep and the soil too thin for agriculture, it nonetheless was part of a growing Virginia economy. The first industry to use the forest was iron ore furnaces established in the mid 18th Century and existing until after the Civil War. Isaac Zane, a Quaker from Pennsylvania built the first of these furnaces and got grants of forest land which included the future state forest to be used as fuel. These furnaces used a great deal of charcoal and they largely denuded the original forest. In 1868 a tannery came along and consumed the forest for the tannin-rich bark on the trees. The cost of moving raw materials is high, so tanneries move to where the trees are. This one too moved on, leaving only its name attached to the nearby town of Star Tannery. After that inhabitants cut firewood and timber, and local wood and charcoal fueled kilns that produced quicklime from limestone in the Shenandoah Valley. It takes a lot of wood to heat limestone to the high temperatures needed to produce lime, and this came from the first forest. By the middle of the 20th Century very little forest remained on the slopes of North Mountain.
John and Bernice Hoffman established the current forest on the land by planting timber stands of loblolly pine, encouraging natural regeneration of native hardwoods, and working to re-establish the once and future king of the Appalachian forest, American chestnuts. The chestnuts that once made up a quarter of the forest in the Appalachians have been absent for nearly a century after a fungus introduced from Asia destroyed an estimated 3.5 billion trees in the early 20th century. John hopes his trees will in their small way help restore the chestnuts to their former glory and that some of them will resist the blight.
The fact that Devil’s Background State Forest looks to the casual observer as a forest primeval is a tribute to both the work of man in reestablishing trees and the resilience of nature.