Life Is Sweet Here -- At Least In Early Spring


March 14, 1993|By CINDY STACY

Life gets awfully sweet this time of year in Somerset County, Pa. Just ask the 2,500 residents of Meyersdale, just north of Garrett County on Route 219. Maple-syrup manufacturing is big business in these parts, and Meyersdale does its part to boost the industry by holding a five-day festival over two weekends every year to celebrate.

The tapping of maple trees typically begins in this area between late February and early April. The warm days and cold nights of early spring cause the sap (sugar water) to rise in the dormant trees. When this happens, the county's 70 maple syrup producers are ready to go to work.

Whether they use the modern method of catching sap (through a plastic tubing network attached to a spout in the tree) or the classic method (attaching a metal bucket to a tree to collect sugar water as it drips from a spout), the result is deliciously the same: good old maple syrup.

Rather than read about how sugar water becomes maple syrup, why not visit Meyersdale to see the real thing? The Pennsylvania Maple Festival's dates this year are March 27 and 28 and April 2, 3 and 4.

The Wagner Sugar Camp, situated in West Salisbury, just outside Meyersdale off Route 219, will be "operating and open for visitors," says Dale Jeffrey, a fourth-generation syrup producer. "On your way to the festival, just run left at the Salisbury traffic light and follow the signs to the sugar camp." The camp is operated by several generations of the Wagner, Jeffrey and Blocher families.

Since its beginning in 1948, the maple syrup festival has grown immensely, both in size and popularity. When all the activities couldn't be fit into one weekend, another was added. And there are now 34 separate committees that coordinate various aspects of the event, which showcases maple syrup, of course, and local history, local color and live entertainment as well.

Working on the festival has become a family affair for many residents.

"Look at the pageant," says Ed Hoover, a volunteer on the festival's incorporated organizing board. "Families grow with the Legend of the Magic Water.' " This year, Mr. Hoover's wife, Deb, and all three of their children are in the historically based musical production. Held at Meyersdale High School, the pageant is continually updated so that the story of the Indians' discovery of sugar water includes other town milestones.

History buff Mary Neimiller, 71, is another festival volunteer, and her responsibilities grow each year. Just last year, the festival added a maple products bake-off, and put Ms. Neimiller in charge. But for the past 12 years, she has chaired a committee overseeing historic Maple Manor, a former grist mill and home built in the late 1700s. The structure is a focal point of the town's permanent Festival Park, which is open only during the festival and draws crowds with its old-fashioned country store, old-fashioned doctor's office and working maple sugar camp.

Ms. Neimiller and some 20 other board members work year-round on the maple festival. "I started out serving pancakes," she recalls, referring to a festival mainstay, the Lions Club Pancake House, at the corner of Main and Grant streets. There thousands of festival goers eat dinners of pancakes and sausage, featuring 100 percent pure Somerset County maple syrup.

Pancakes and locally produced syrup are serious business in Meyersdale. Festival president Kathy McClure proudly reports that last year the Lions Club Pancake House sold more than 12,000 dinners, using 6,675 pounds of sausage, 1,800 pounds of pancake flour and some 3,378 pounds of syrup. And four-term Meyersdale Mayor Paul Fuller, 79, points to the Maple Valley Park and Pool, built and paid for with the Lions Club pancake profits.

Believe it or not, Meyersdale does have a life apart from the festival. Although the once-important coal industry has mostly disappeared, there are farming and manufacturing jobs for the people of this Allegheny Mountain town. There are schools, churches, a hospital and pretty Victorian homes.

But it is the festival that keeps Meyersdale on the map. When the weather is good, the event can draw 50,000-60,000 visitors to the town.

While there are always a few residents who complain about the traffic and congestion at festival time, Mr. Fuller says the majority of townsfolk support the festival. "The future of the town is in tourism," he says.

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