The Highland Maple Festival
Virginia’s sweetest celebration
Soon to mark its 60th anniversary, the Highland Maple Festival has grown exponentially in attracting people to Highland County, “Virginia’s Sweet Spot.”
The event today multiplies by many times Highland County’s tiny population during the second and third weekends in March. This year’s festival is set for March 10-11 and 17-18.
The Highland Maple Festival began in 1958 when an Ohio surgical-supply salesman visited the county’s longtime physician, the late Dr. Thaine Billingsley, according to The New History of Highland County, Virginia. The salesman asked Billingsley why Highland maple syrup sold for only $5 a gallon, nearly 40 percent less than in Ohio. “Demand is low,” Billingsley replied.
The salesman suggested Highland needed to host an event similar to the Geauga County Maple Festival in a rural community about 30 miles east of Cleveland.
Billingsley, then president of the Highland County Chamber of Commerce, along with county agent Austin Shepherd, decided to give the idea a try. They marshaled forces to organize Highland’s first maple festival in only a few weeks. Shepherd served on the chamber’s executive committee and was a member of the Monterey Lions Club. Today, the Lions and the county’s five Ruritan clubs provide most of the volunteer workforce, which the chamber coordinates as festival sponsor. More than 600 people, twice the number expected, turned out in cold and dismal weather to the first, very lightly promoted festival and were treated to an open house at George Hevener’s sugar camp west of Monterey.
Determined to keep the festival rolling, Billingsley, Marvin Eagle, Joseph Pritchard and Melvin Puffenbarger later traveled to Ohio to learn about the Geauga festival and bring their knowledge back to Highland. They visited another maple festival in Meyersdale, Pennsylvania, on their return trip.
Thanks to their planning and the work of many others, the Highland Maple Festival now attracts roughly 150 vendors and tens of thousands of visitors to what is now one of the top events of its kind in the Mid-Atlantic. Highland High and Elementary schools in Monterey are festival focal points for arts-and-crafts, plus food sales. The schools also serve as good launching points for exploring the maple orchards and camps throughout the county.
Money raised by civic organizations returns to the community through scholarships, contributions to the volunteer rescue squad, fire departments and civic organizations. Highland County is served by BARC and Shenandoah Valley electric cooperatives.
In 2014, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed off on Del. Richard P. “Dickie” Bell’s proposal to designate Highland’s annual event as the official maple festival of Virginia. The festival is a source of local pride that showcases Highland’s unique heritage as the southernmost commercial producer of maple syrup. Ten camps make most of the sweet stuff, and seven provide tours for visitors. The festival annually brings in upwards of 50,000 visitors to observe the processes of tapping trees, collecting sugar water and making syrup.
“This event is one of the commonwealth’s most unique events, and it deserves to be among the ranks of the cardinal, the dogwood, and the foxhound as an official Virginia symbol,” Bell said after the festival’s designation. The festival has been listed on the Southeast Tourism Society’s Top 20 Events and has been designated a Local Legacy by the Library of Congress.
Highly dedicated volunteers make Virginia’s sweetest festival possible.
Last March, Sonny Varner stepped out of subfreezing temperatures into the Stonewall Ruritan Club at 4:30 a.m. to get ready for the first festival shift of the season. Every year, he helps coordinate preparation of tons of pancake batter and sausage over the two-weekend festival. Varner is one of a small army of unpaid laborers who are essential to the success of the Highland Maple Festival, the nation’s second-largest maple festival. Stonewall is one of three Ruritan clubs to offer the ever-popular pancake breakfasts, the other two being Bolar and Blue Grass Ruritan clubs. The fourth Ruritan club, Mill Gap, makes and sells maple doughnuts. The Lions Club’s specialty is fried pork skins.
Varner joined Stonewall Ruritan Club in September 1979, having moved back to Highland in July 1978 after retirement.
“I wanted to do something for the community and make it better. I always liked the work of a good organization,” Varner said in an interview for an article recognizing some of the longest-serving festival volunteers. “Without people giving their time, this is not going to happen,” he says of the festival.
“Our members could not do this by themselves. We rely on a lot of volunteers in the community to help us.” About a dozen volunteers work in the kitchen alongside club members.
“I like to work behind the scenes. There’s a lot of work in the Maple Festival.” For Varner, the work begins the previous September when he places orders for provisions: for instance, 700 pounds of buckwheat flour, two tons of sausage and 82 gallons of maple syrup. Local producers including John Sayers and Glenn Heatwole of McDowell, Raymond Lightner of Headwaters and Jim Blagg of Doe Hill supply the syrup. Lightner and Blagg are club members.
Varner works with the chamber of commerce on setting up booths for dozens of arts-and-crafts and food vendors who sell their goods on the club grounds during the festival.
Kenneth Robertson, 87, of Rocky Ridge, is the longest active member of Bolar Ruritan Club’s 32 members, and has been for
most of his life, since 1958, the first year of the Maple Festival. The club started serving pancake dinners in 1961 or 1962, he recalls. He’s worked every one of them.
“I was interested in trying to do something to help the community. I worked the Maple Festival from the beginning. I haven’t missed one. I’ve done about everything.” says Robertson.
“For probably 10 to 12 years I bought all the supplies. I’ve waited tables and seated people the last couple of years. I enjoy being a club member. It’s a great asset to the community. I’ve held every office in the club. I’ve been president five times and zone governor three times.”
Hungry visitors start gathering at the Blue Grass Ruritan Club front door for pancakes and sausage before 8 a.m. Doris Folks, president, joined the club in 1983, the first year it allowed women to become members. She wanted to join because her husband, Bo, was a member.
“I wanted to volunteer and become a part of the community,” Folks says of her motivation to join the club. “If you don’t volunteer, you don’t have a community. It takes everybody to make it a good place to live. We need to help everybody we can.” As do the other Ruritan clubs, “We help the rescue squad, the fire department, seniors and anybody in the community that needs help. We give scholarships. We buy lambs from 4-Hers at the fair,” Folks continues.
Joe Brock of Valley Center starts working at the Mill Gap Ruritan Club doughnut trailer at 4 a.m. Saturday getting ready for a huge turnout of visitors who buy an estimated 1,500 boxes of doughnuts.
“I like what the club does for the community” Brock says. “Highland County couldn’t offer services such as the maple festival without Ruritans and Lions. The main thing is they are helping youths with scholarships and buying lambs and calves at the fair. Like any organization, it’s not a one-man show.”
For the 60th annual event in March, festival organizers have planned a sugar maple tree-tapping ceremony to open the festival and have invited state officials to take part. Chamber executive director Dorothy Stephenson has worked with Missy Moyers Jarrells of Laurel Fork Sapsuckers sugar camp in Hightown to send out invitations. Last October, Laurel Fork won a research grant aimed at growing the maple sugar industry.
While maple syrup is made all over Virginia, even in Virginia Beach, Highland is the state’s oldest and largest producer, Stephenson explains. “We were agri-tourism before there was a word for it.” Highland’s elevation and climate make for prime maple production. “We probably have the highest concentration of sugar maples in the state,” she says.
Chamber president Tim Duff, owner of Duff’s Sugar Camp in Meadowdale, points out Highland producers have begun exporting their maple products to Asia and Europe. “They’re putting their products out there, and they’re being extremely well received,” Duff says.
The festival attracts international visitors as well as people from all over the U.S. and Canada. Duff and his fellow producers, listed as official tour stops, have presented syrup-production demonstrations to carloads and busloads of visitors.
“We have a lot of folks who come here to see how it’s done on a small scale. They come back in a couple of years as producers. They pick our brains, and we pick their brains. They give their input and become part of the tours,” Duff says.
Highland producers have been developing new products. Laurel Fork Sapsuckers sugar camp sells syrups infused with vanilla, cinnamon, elderberry and other flavors. Back Creek Farms makes rye-barrel syrup by extracting flavors out of wooden casks from rye whiskey distillers. In a double trade, the distillers craft maple-flavored whiskey using the same casks. “It’s all about value-added products,” Duff says. “The initiative to modernize and develop new products by maple producers shows Highland’s commitment to the industry.”
Some producers are making a living year-round with sugar maple products. Sugar Tree Country Store in McDowell, Bruce’s Syrups and Candies in Blue Grass, Back Creek Farms, Eagle’s Sugar Camp in Doe Hill and Southernmost Maple Products near Bolar are examples.
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Of the older camps, including Rexrode’s, Puffenbarger’s and Eagle’s, Stephenson explains Eagle’s Sugar Camp has produced sugar maple products for more than 200 years. Rexrode’s Sugar Orchard has sugar maple trees more than 200 years old.
“Today’s families are more health conscious and want to know about their food and where it comes from,” Duff says. The maple festival is one of the oldest events to provide a real-life, detailed look at a centuries-old food industry.
“We may not be the largest, but we are the oldest sugar maple industry,” Stephenson says, adding, “We want to work with our West Virginia neighbors and want to lend them our hundreds of years of expertise.”
For information about the 60th annual maple festival, click here to visit the Chamber of Commerce Event Page or download the brochure here.
video by Highland County. Visit http://www.highlandcounty.org to learn more!