Witch Hazel: Connecticut is the Source
It’s only a slight stretch to say that the skin of America’s women depends on a handful of New England woodsmen with rough hands and weathered faces. Without these “brush cutters,” as they call themselves, there would be no witch hazel to put into the dozens of lotions, creams, gels, moisturizers, cleansers, conditioners, and shampoos made by, among others, Estee Lauder/Clinique, L’Oreal, Neutrogena, and Olay. Teenagers would panic at the disappearance of Proactiv. New Agers would miss mouthwash from Tom’s of Maine. The deskbound would gingerly pine for Tucks Medicated Pads and Preparation H. Not to mention the throngs who pour witch hazel straight from the bottle to remove makeup or to soothe burns and bites.
Curtis Strong, his son Stephen, Ben Hall, and Ben’s son Troy don’t seem burdened by this responsibility for the hide, hair, and backsides of the American public. They do like to talk about witch hazel — its peculiarities, the difficulty of finding it in the woods, the hard work of dragging the brush through snow and scrub, and how some things in the trade have changed while others never do.
Curtis Strong, like most who’ve done this work, comes from a long line of brush cutters. He’s also an amateur historian of witch hazel. As a boy working with his grandfather, he chopped through the slender trunks — “usually two swipes” — dragged them to a wooden sled, and piled them high. Oxen or horses pulled the load from the woods to a wagon. Now 67, Strong semiretired his ax some years ago (and his razor long before that, judging by the length of his gray beard), but he still enjoys swinging at a good stand of brush.
The white-bearded senior Hall, 68, calls himself “the new guy” because he’s been at it only since age 16. Brush cutting is part-time and seasonal — November to April — so Ben and Troy, 40, piece together a living that also includes firewood cutting, excavations, and bulldozing. Both families grew up in East Hampton, Connecticut, the heart of witch hazel country.
“You know the path on the right side of the Salmon River, near the covered bridge?” asks Curtis Strong. Ben Hall nods. They’re standing in his barnyard in East Hampton. “We took a lot of brush out of there years ago,” continues Strong. “Must be ready for cutting again.” Hall’s eyebrows go up like radar. Witch hazel regenerates.
Cutters spend a lot of time walking the woods, scouting. Sometimes they get tips from state foresters. They pay a set rate to cut in state forests and make individual deals with private owners. Then they sell their brush to the witch hazel distillery in East Hampton.
“You probably spend more time looking than cutting,” says Strong. “But hard as it is to find it, I think it’s even harder now to get permission to cut it.” That reminds him of a dairy farm with a big stand of brush, probably 10 tons. “But they’d never let me cut it,” he says. “I even used to bring the wife perfume. But nope.”
“Now people are buying up the old farms,” says Hall.
“And they turn them into house lots or they won’t let you on to cut,” says Strong.