- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2002

The moon, though slight, was moon enough to show
On every tree a bucket with a lid,
And on black ground a bear-skin rug of snow.

Robert Frost,'Evening in a Sugar Orchard'

MONTEREY, Va. The sugarhouse is hissing steam and vapors. "Pour in some more," Jim White shouts above the din, waving a hand to his wife Lorraine as they work like engine room firemen below deck on the Titanic. Passing deliberately between steaming evaporators and pumps, they pause intently to pull handles and yank levers in the dim, crowded, wood-planked sugaring room.
"It's bubbling hard," says Mr. White, a teacher at nearby Highland High School.
In the damp, dark labyrinth of their sugarhouse, the Whites trample over wood laid down before the Civil War. The Whites make maple sugar the old-fashioned way, boiling down maple water tapped from their trees in the forests high in the mountains of western Virginia about 150 miles from Washington.
That dying art and the couple's exuberant sharing of the hand-crafted methods that still produce dazzling maple sugars, syrups, candies and other goods is the heart of the 44th annual Highland County Maple Festival running this weekend and next in a tight circle of sites.
That is, "if it doesn't snow," cautions Mr. White, laughing at the memory of a blizzard that wiped out the first festival so many years ago.
Still, if the weather holds, visitors will white-knuckle it over steep mountain roads running up to 4,000 feet above sea level. They will ply the sweet little folds and rills of a place locals call the "Switzerland of Virginia" to see and hear the old stories, buy sugar directly from producers such as the Whites and stick around for a remarkable vision of American life vanishing from more developed areas.
It begins tomorrow night at the Highland Center on Spruce Street with a hoe-down with local fiddlers, banjo pickers, mandolins and mass dancing.
The Sugar Shakeup Dance is set for Saturday night at Stonewall Ruritan Building in the neighboring town of McDowell and the Festival Fling Dance for March 16 at the same time and place.
Line dancing and square dancing to live bluegrass and country music run throughout the festival at the Highland Center, along with continuous showing of a silent movie filmed in Highland County in 1921, "Tol'able David."
Most festival sites offer powerful taste-tweakings for hungry visitors, such as pancake suppers and a trout fry, a barbecued-chicken roast and myriad maple-flavored dishes sold at the fire station and the high school and elementary school.
On the courthouse lawn are country crafts, a gristmill, blacksmithing, basket making and sheepskins sellers among squadrons of exhibitors trying to peddle their wares in the circle beneath the statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the columned building.
Although Highland County voted against Secession, the Confederates seized the town and fortified the area with breastworks against Union forces.
The Whites' sugarhouse in McDowell site of Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's first military victory during the Civil War was built in 1854 and stands beside the redbrick house briefly used as Union headquarters during a raid in 1862 before the Yanks were driven off by Jackson's men.
Four other sugarhouses like that of the Whites are welcoming visitors and potential customers during the two-weekend festival. This gives city folk opportunity to walk among tapped maple trees that are running "sugar water" and filling old-fashioned buckets .
More modern apparatus include tubing plugged directly into the trees to run water to huge plastic barrels and strange-looking clear plastic bags like something from a hospital emergency room.
"It's more complicated than in the old days," says Mr. White, 59, who oversees the high school's talented-student programs. "We run 30 miles of tubing to tap about 7,000 trees we own or rent.
The collected water fills squat plastic containers riding on flatbed trucks that can haul as many as 1,500 gallons, he explains, water motored directly to the sugarhouse for processing. The water is pumped from the tanks through a filter to catch debris, and then a reverse osmosis machine costing as much as $20,000 which extracts about two-thirds of the water before passing the fluid to roaring gas-fired boilers in the middle of the sugarhouse.
"In 24 hours, we can run about 13,000 gallons of water," he says, pointing a finger to his wife. Lorraine White oversees the 150-year-old general store out front, which sells sugar products; maple, apple and other fruit butters; baskets and pottery; and other area collectibles, and is the president of the county historical society.
Fieldwork requires hiring a few strong men to help lay the tubing and haul the sugar water, but the Whites who have five grown children and a granddaughter count on family and friends to pitch in as needed.
"I hit bed at 4 a.m. this morning," he says, explaining that after leaving work at the high school he spent the night hauling sugar water in from the hills to process at the sugarhouse. "You can't let this wait it's nature and when the water runs you've got to be there to do the work."
"I got to bed at 2 a.m.," says Mrs. White, 53, who grew up on a farm in western New Jersey. She shows visitors how the finished syrup is drained from the tanks, cooled and stored for bottling at the sugarhouse when the hectic pace of sugar boiling finally lets up as the weather changes.
Making maple syrup is the same in Monterey today a town of 200 named in 1847 to honor President Zachary Taylor's victory at the battle of Monterrey in Mexico as it is in Washington, where any maple tree will give sugar water during a thaw after a freeze.
"The freeze drives the water up into the tree," says Mr. White, who delights in giving informative tours to sugarhouse visitors, "and when temperatures rise above freezing, the water rushes downward again toward the root ball."
This phenomenon can be found in maple trees from Canada through New England, the Middle Atlantic states through Virginia and western North Carolina, westward through Kentucky and northward to the Plains states of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas, he explains.
Last year, the Whites drew 57,000 gallons of sugar water from their trees, he says. To make a gallon of maple syrup requires boiling down about 50 gallons of sugar water. Highland County maple syrups contain no additives or preservatives, as many breakfast syrups do.
"It's a natural food that anyone can make," Mr. White says with a laugh and a sweep of his hand around the sugarhouse, "long as you're willing to do the work."
Historians believe that American Indians were the first to discover that sap from maple trees could be used to produce sugar. One Iroquois legend tells of how Woksis, a chief, first tasted the sap as a sweet syrup because he had an ingenious wife.
One day while hunting early in March, the story goes, he yanked his tomahawk from a tree where he had hurled it the night before. The weather turned warm and the gash in the tree, a maple, dripped sap into a container that happened to stand close to the trunk.
That evening, Woksis' wife needed water to boil their dinner and saw the trough full of sap. Cautious but frugal, she didn't like to waste anything, so she tasted it a little sweet but not bad and used the water for cooking.
Woksis smelled the luscious maple aroma as he was coming home from hunting and knew something special was stewing. The sugar water had boiled down to syrup and sweetened their meal and their marriage, according to the legend.
By Colonial times, early settlers traded for sugar with the Indians and then learned the process themselves. Life was tough in a subsistence frontier economy, and sweetness was prized, even though it came only from honeybees and sugaring trees.
But beekeeping wasn't for everybody, so sugaring became a vital activity in most rural communities in colder climates until after the Civil War. Then railroads brought cheap Caribbean-produced sugar cane products into every home.
Country people had refined the sugaring process and abandoned Indian practices of gashing maples to release the sap. They drilled holes in the trees for spouts made of wood, then metal, to collect the water in a bucket with a lid to keep out rain.
They boiled the fluid in caldrons and big iron pans. By 1860, evaporators came into use. Long metal troughs were divided into sections that opened at one end to allow cold sap to run in and finished syrup to be drawn off at the other end cooked by a fire roaring below the same process widely used today.
For the Whites of Highland County, the work begins in January when plastic tubing is brought out of storage and laid over the steep rills of their sugar orchards.
Plastic and steel taps are driven into the 6,000 sugar maples and 1,000 red maple trees the couple use mixing the two waters to make their own blend, as a winemaker might adjust grape types from different fields to mix wines.
Two holes per tree about an inch deep are bored into the wood 180 degrees apart every year, explains Mr. White, who learned the process as a boy from his father, a farmer and game warden. Taps are driven in the holes, and gravity alone draws about 40 gallons of water per mature tree per season through the tubing into catch basins or plastic barrels below.
"See this," Mr. White says, holding up a large wooden disc sitting on a shelf in his sugarhouse. It is a cross section of a sugar maple felled on his land by a highway crew recently, a 90-year-old slice of a tree he saved because clearly visible are maple taps from many years ago still lodged in the old wood.
"You can see that the wood grew around these holes," Mr. White explains, pointing to a circular series of dents centered deeply within the wood. The wounds came during the Great Depression of the 1930s, he speculates, when the tree wasn't really mature enough to produce well.
"But times were hard then," he says. "Maybe they needed that sugar bad."

For nearly 200 years sugaring has been done on the Eagle farm and sugar camp a few miles away in Doe Hill, site of a fiercely fought retreat by Union troops fleeing from Jackson's victory in McDowell.
Today, Ray Eagle, 81, hangs on to the farm. His father, Jonathan, and mother, Ida, grew up "across the hills there," he tells a stranger visiting perhaps the most authentic sugar camp remaining in the area.
Rude planks frame a "new" sugarhouse made in the 1950s and set amid a jumble of stacked cordwood and iron caldrons probably 100 years old. The caldrons hang on metal rods over blazing embers when visitors come during maple fest.
Mr. Eagle's son Jay, 55, a roofer in Charlottesville, drives over the mountains every winter to sugar with him. They use no modern equipment, just oak fires under older evaporators to boil sugar water collected from the 150-acre farm and 900 acres they rent from other farmers in the valley.
Last year they made 1,800 gallons of maple syrup, Mr. Eagle says. "In '96, things were poor and we made 86 gallons."
It's quiet in the hills there no roaring gas-jet furnaces boiling maple water. Visitors can walk in peace among the trees to examine taps dripping water into buckets with lids, or long plastic tubing connecting trees to holding tanks. Occasionally a deer flits by, and the sound of a wild turkey is faintly reported through the trees.
A stream trickles down the hills behind and to the right of the camp. Unmelted snow gathers in clumps near the ruins of a sugar camp put up in the 1920s. A black bear holes up high above the mountain laurel bushes, says Mr. Eagle, pointing up the hill behind the old camp.
"He killed 11 of my ewes last spring," he says without anger.
Pointing to charred embers and collapsed roof of the sugarhouse, he says, "there was a fire that got out of control, you see." That was when he was a boy, tapping his first maple at about age 5, and riding around with the men on horse-drawn barrels bringing in the water, he remembers.
During World War II, while serving in the infantry, he wrote his mother to send some sugar, and "she sent me sugar cakes," says Mr. Eagle.
"All my friends sure liked them."



Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide