A sweet harvest flows from mountain slopes

SHORT HOP

West Virginia: The town of Pickens taps its trees and celebrates their product: maple syrup.

February 06, 2000|By Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher | Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Deep in the heart of the hardwood forest in West Virginia's Randolph County, along a fork of the Buckhannon River, lies the small town of Pickens.

During the winter, Pickens is fairly sleepy, but come March, things turn sweet.

During the annual Maple Syrup Festival (March 18-19 this year), folks come down from the hills and hollows to socialize, listen to music, sell crafts made during the winter and feast on pancakes with locally produced maple syrup.

The festival includes a big pancake feed, along with other activities: a 5K run, woodchopping and ax-throwing demonstrations, free musical entertainment and a chain saw sculptor. But the star of the show is maple syrup.

You can visit the sugarhouse and watch the syrup-making process firsthand, and you can sample a variety of sweet things made from the sugar maple tree.

Pickens has the distinction of being the wettest place in West Virginia. It receives more annual precipitation than most places in the Eastern United States -- much of it in snowfall. Those wet conditions, along with the high mountains and cool weather, have conspired to produce an abundance of sugar maple trees -- such as one would expect to find only in Vermont.

Tradition has it that Native Americans discovered the wonders of the sugar maple by a hatchet thrown into a maple trunk. A taste of the oozing sap was found to be sweet. Figuring a way to concentrate that sweetness, they gathered the sap, placed it in a trough and dropped heated rocks into it to cause evaporation. Evaporation is still at the heart of syrup production today, but it takes 50 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup.

Made by settlers

Early settlers in the region used maple trees as their primary source of sugar, because imported white sugar was expensive. Settlers boiled the syrup down to dry brown chunks. It wasn't until the mid-1800s, when sugar from sugar cane produced on slave plantations in the Caribbean brought the price down, that maple sugar was displaced.

The sap is gathered over a six- to eight-week period from February to mid-March and must be processed quickly. A succession of freezing nights and temperatures reaching the mid-30s to mid-40s in the day starts the sap flowing. Gathering involves drilling a hole about 2 1/2 inches into the tree trunk and inserting a tap or spout into the hole. To collect the sap, a bucket is dangled from the tap or a plastic tube is attached. The tubing connects many trees and drains into large collection tanks. Each tree may have up to three or four taps.

Mike Richter, of Richter's Maplehouse, provides the bulk of the syrup consumed during the festival. Richter works 100 acres of land with about 4,000 sugar maples and maintains about 21 miles of plastic tubing.

In addition, there are still buckets hanging on several taps, each of which must be tended by hand. For all the effort, about 1,000 gallons of syrup are produced in an average year.

Richter, originally a carpenter from Pittsburgh, decided he wanted to live "where it snows a lot." Checking weather records, he found that Pickens fit the bill. Work was hard to come by in Pickens, though. He made custom furniture and remodeled homes, and then a neighbor invited him to tap some maple trees.

"What we made we sold right away, and that caught my attention," Richter says, referring to those first few gallons of syrup.

Business is growing

In 1983 he decided to attempt "sugaring," as it is called, as a business. He tapped 300 trees that year and produced 75 gallons of syrup. Today his syrup is found in the Red Foxx Restaurant of Snowshoe Mountain Resort, and he is a private-label producer for the upscale Greenbrier resort.

Syrup isn't the only product Richter turns out. There are also maple candy, sugar and our favorite, maple cream.

For the latter, the syrup is boiled down to a certain thickness, then Richter whips it with a mixer before it is cool. The finished product has the consistency of margarine. Few taste sensations compare with maple cream on a hot biscuit.

A recent innovation in the production of syrup is the use of a reverse-osmosis process. This process cuts down on evaporator time. It removes about 35 gallons of water from 50 gallons of sap, leaving only a sugar-laden concentrate for the evaporation process. The process forces pressurized sap through a membrane that separates the pure water molecules -- which has led to the area's latest business venture, Richter's Treewater.

Last year, instead of dumping the pure water as he had in the past, Richter started bottling it for retail sale.

Pickens' weather in March is unpredictable. We have been there with sunny temperatures in the 70s, and we've been there with snow on the ground. The best tip is to dress in layers.

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