The Highland Maple Festival is an annual spring
event celebrating all things maple
. The festival
takes place in Highland County, Virginia
A word about the host
Highland County consists of 416 square miles of high valleys surrounded by mountains. To the east lies the Shenandoah Valley and to the west lies West Virginia. Highland County is often referred to as Virginia's Switzerland because of its topography. The land is suited to the production of cattle, sheep, and forest products, including maple trees. Highland County has the smallest population of any of Virginia's 95 counties. According to the 2000 census, the county boasts a population is 2,536. The county seat is Monterey with a population of 158. Highland County is accessed by either US Route 220, (which runs in a north/south direction through the county) or by US Route 250 (which runs in an east/west direction). The highways intersect in the town of Monterey, also the county seat. Monterey, (named after President Zachary Taylor's victory in the Mexican-American War), is the location of the Highland Maple Festival. The festival celebrates its 49th year in 2007. The first festival was sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce to draw attention to the county's maple sugar industry. It drew a modest 600 attendees. In 1983, a Maple Museum was added. Todays festival draws about 60,000 visitors for the two weekend event.
Maple Syrup/Sugar Production
Highland county supports the growth of the sugar maple tree because of its high elevation and cool climate. Maple sugar was introduced to European colonists by Native Americans. Maple sugar and syrup production are most famously centered in Canada as well as New England, but also occurs in the midwest US and east coast states where the climate allows. Maple syrup production comprises part of Virginia's agricultural heritage. All maple trees produce sap which can be used in syrup production. Maple syrup is sometimes called 'tree 'lasses' by the local folk. That's 'tree molasses' for those who need the translation. Maple syrup is produced by reducing the sap of the sugar maple tree (acer saccharum)or sometimes the black maple (acer nigrum) through evaporation until the water is removed and the sugars are concentrated. This happens when the sap starts to 'run'. Freezing cold nights followed by above freezing days start the sap flow. Taps are placed in the trees to catch the sap. In earlier times buckets were hung from the taps to catch the sap. Modern methodology utilizes small diameter plastic tubing which are connected to a vacuum pump which then pumps the sap from the tree directly to the sugarhouse. The sugarhouse is where the evaporation occurs. Sap is reduced by a 40/1 factor to make syrup. That's 40 gallons of sap to get 1 gallon of syrup. The syrup which results differs depending on the part of the season it is made. Light syrup comes from the early sap flow. Darker syrup results as the season progresses. The darker syrup is due to progressively more contaminants being produced in the tree itself during the sap harvesting cycle. The finished syrup is filtered, graded, and finally packaged for sale. In about 9-10 weeks the sap becomes unusable for syrup production, making real maple syrup a seasonal activity. Further processing of the syrup produces maple cream, maple butter and finally maple sugar.
Get your hiking boots ready!
A number of sugar camps are open for public exhibition where you can see the actual production process. Methods vary from the early iron kettle production to more modern usage of large evaporators. Sugar camp visitors are encouraged to wear warm clothing and good walking shoes. It's sunny (usually) in the spring, but the wind blows and it can be quite chilly! The town itself hosts the main festival. You can sample and enjoy pancakes adrift in a sea of fresh maple syrup, maple donuts, maple funnel cakes, or even maple flavored barbecued chicken. My family and I tried the chicken (with some trepidation on my part), only to find it absolutely delicious! It seems every civic group, club, church or organization in the county has an exhibit or concession. Then again, how many can that be in a county with a population of 2,536? They are there to serve an annual attendence of around 60,000. For the 2 weekends of the festival the county population swells to over 20 times its norm! There are booths showing and selling mountain crafts, curios, food and drink, and many other items common to outdoor festivals. Not all exhibitors are local folks but come from other areas to share their goods. Don't forget the maple syrup, maple sugar, maple candy, and other maple products. Local performers exhibit clogging, line dancing and music. The booth I remember most from the 2006 festival was one in which Native American artists offered woodwind instruments for sale. The music they played to demonstrate was indeed very beautiful! The festival has become as important for the county's cultural heritage as it is to the maple syrup production!
And that isn't all, folks!
The county also has much more to see and enjoy beside the Maple festival. There are hiking, fishing, biking and other outdoor activities. It is the site of the Battle of McDowell, part of Stonewall Jackson's 1862 Valley Campaign. The George Washington National Forest extends into Highland County. The county is unspoiled and a delight for sightseeing with its mountains and valley vistas. It is a perfect place for the annual fall foliage spectacle put on by nature.
Enough, when is it? What else should I know?
The schedule for the 2007 Highland Maple Festival is March 10-11 and also March 17-18. Visitors should be aware that lodging in Highland County is rather limited. Reservations at local inns, motels and bed and breakfasts should not wait until the last minute. Accomodations are available within a reasonable drive and include the luxurious 'The Homestead', located in Hot Springs, Virginia. "The Homestead' offers championship golf, a spa, and much more. The Highland Maple Festival is wonderfully suited for a family day trip or as an overnight adventure to enjoy both days of either weekend of the festival.
For additional information, please contact the following:
The Highland County Chamber of Commerce
P. O. Box 223
Monterey, Virginia 24465