LOWDOWN ON THE HOEDOWN
The Maple Festival is all day Saturday and Sunday, and again on March 31st and April 1st. Maps outlining the route of the tour are available from the information booth at the courthouse on Main Street in Monterey. For more details, call 703/468-2290.
Virginia brags about its lovers and fighters, its statesmen and speakers, and even its hams. But it seems to have overlooked one of its finest products -- its maple syrup.
All except in Highland County, the northwest corner of the state, where 60 thousand sugar maples produce 15 thousand gallons of syrup. This weekend and next, in the county seat of Monterey, the 21st annual Maple Festival gives everyone a chance to appreciate this arboreal effort close up.
In the Allegheny Mountains, Monterey nestles in a long, narrow valley surrounded by an area called "Virginia's Switzerland." Fewer than 300 people live in Monterey and festival time is a big event. Artists gather to weave, throw pots, or makes applehead dolls. Local cooks at public schools and Ruritan clubs preside over pancake and syrup suppers. Evenings bring bluegrass, and dances -- "Maple Sugar Hoedown" and the "Buckwheat Stomp" -- at the elementary school in the nearby town of Blue Grass.
But the biggest event is touring the sugar camps. There are 34 maple sugar producers in the county, and three of their sugar camps will be open to visitors during the celebration. Here you can see how maple sugar is made.
The colorless, almost tasteless sugar-water starts running sometime in January and keeps going through March. When this happens, the producer bores a hole in the tree and inserts a small pipe, and sometimes attaches a bucket to the tree to collect the "water." A more modern method uses plastic tubing to carry the water from the trees to storage vats and eventually to the evaporating pans.
The producers are at the mercy of the weather. They get a maximum flow when nights are below freezing and days are above. Prolonged periods of either warm or cold weather will halt the flow entirely. After all this, it takes about 40 gallons of sugar-water to make one gallon of syrup. The water from an average tree produces only one quart of syrup.
A tour through the sugar camps will take you through a land of forest-covered mountains, small villages and rolling hills dotted with sheep, down through the long Blue Grass Valley where Hereford, Black Angus and white Charolais cattle graze on the blue grass indigenous to the area. Long lines of zigzagging split-rail fences divide the pastures. They say there are more split-rail fences in Highland County than in any other county in the United States.
At Hightown, in the heart of the valley, the headwaters of the Potomac and James Rivers divide, with the Potomac flowing to the north and the James to the South. You'll pass through the peaceful hamlet of New Hampden, where an old mill sits quietly by its pond; then through the village of Blue Grass, sheltered under a towering, rugged rock formation known as Devil's Backbone. Over 100 years ago this area was the scene of fierce battles between the Confederates and the Yankees.
One of the sugar camps open for the festival belongs to Everett Rexrode's family. They've been in the maple syrup business for three generations and some of their maple trees are over 200 years old. (Sugar maples can't even produce before age 25 or 35.) Rexrode uses plastic tubing to bring in sugar-water, but he says there's one problem with that: "Those danged squirrels have a sweet tooth and keep gnawing through my tubing." Rexrode's camp uses the open-pan method, evaporating sugar-water over a wood fire.
At the Puffenbarger operation the most modern equipment is used, including oil-fired evaporators and a vacuum pump, which "milks" the trees, thereby increasing the speed of the flow.
Lohr Vance employs the old-fashioned method of making syrup at his camp in the Cowpasture River Valley, south of McDowell. In this outdoor operation the sugar-water is put in enormous iron pots, each holding 55 gallons, then slowly simmered over smoldering coals. A pot produces a little over a gallon of syrup. Oldtimers say this is the sweetest and most flavorful syrup. Vance runs a one-room log cabin country store on the side. Here you can warm up at his fireplace and choose among horehound candy, jaw-breakers or maple pralines. Homemade jams and preserves line the shelves, and deer skin jackets and vests dangle from the low rafters. Here, and at every stop, jugs of maple sugar are on sale.
If all this traveling gives you an appetite, Monterey Hotel's dining room is open from 8:30 to 8:30. The wooden hotel, with long upper and lower porches and gingerbread railings, was built in 1904 and has been closed for only a year and a half in that time. General Rommel, the Desert Fox, stayed there in 1930 when he was in the States researching infantry tactics of the Civil War.
Allegheny Mountain trout are a local delicacy. For a taste, Highland High School in Monterey will be serving trout dinner during festival days, from 11:30 to 6. But you can take a side trip to the Virginia Trout Farm just outside of Monterey and catch your own. The farm will clean and pack them in ice for you.
Then at the Monterey Elementary School and Stonewall Elementary School in McDowell, and at the Bolar and Blue Grass Ruritan Clubs, local cooks preside over pancakes and buckwheat cakes swimming in maple syrup, accompanied by great slabs of country ham and sizzling sausage, with homemade breads, candies, and maple-sugar doughnuts to carry home.