Saturday may have been a dreary, cold day, but things were steamy in the Fort Warwick sugar shack in Green Bank where visitors enjoyed a tour, lesson and taste test during the first of two Mountain State Maple Days.
Visitors were greeted by Bob and Elaine Sheets’ Great Pyrenees, Susie, as they sloshed through mud and into the sugar shack. Gathering around the fire in the rectangular brick oven and watching the maple sap boil down into a tasty sugar, guests learned the process of making maple syrup and the history of syrup in the region.
The process begins with hanging metal buckets on trees to collect the tapped sugar water. The collection is emptied into barrels, then into a metal pan resting on the brick oven where it is warmed by a crackling fire.
After the water is boiled out of the sap, the remaining syrup is filtered and finished on the stove before being poured into jars to be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The metal pan used at the Fort Warwick sugar house has its own interesting history and has served the county well in making maple syrup.
“This pan was built sometime in the 1930s on the Pennington place down in the Hill Country by the high school,” Bob said. “Allen Sheets bought it from those folks. My dad was always envious of this pan because it was better than what he had. We had a big ol’ flat pan of his that I made syrup in. This one is especially effective because of the baffles that give you some control over the syrup flow. As you can see, we’ve got a much darker content up here in the syrup.”
Son Jed Sheets helps with the syrup processing, and one day, while using a temperature gun, he realized the baffles also serve as another heat source which boils the water away faster.
The process used at Fort Warwick is the “old-timey” way – a tradition passed down from generation to generation. Maple syrup was being made on the property long before the Europeans arrived and built Fort Warwick during the Revolutionary War.
While they may not have had metal pans to boil down their sugar water, the Native Americans in Pocahontas County found a way to make the sweet syrup.
“When the colonists showed up here, they learned how to make maple syrup from the Native American tribe, the indigenous people,” Bob said. “What indigenous groups didn’t have was – they didn’t have metal – so they couldn’t boil like this. Their process involved in getting the sap – they would gash a tree and collect the sap, and they would allow it to freeze, then pull the ice out of it.
“We still do that here,” he continued. “Jed and I went around the other morning and the sap was frozen in the buckets, and we flipped the two or three inches of ice out of the top of the bucket – that concentrates your sap and reduces your boil time.”
Once the Native Americans had the concentrated sap, they would set it out in pottery on a sunny day and allow it to evaporate until they had a more concentrated syrup.
“For the Native Americans, it was a sweetener – something that made their life a little bit better – although their life was pretty good,” Bob said.
Visitors were given an opportunity to taste the syrup as it was boiling to tell the difference between it and the final product.
Along with Fort Warwick, Frostmore Farm in Dunmore gave free tours of its facility. Owners Adam and Rachel Taylor have opted to use a more modern approach in making maple syrup – complete with stainless steel equipment and large vats to hold the sap before it is processed into syrup and other products.
Several local restaurants also participated in the Maple Days celebration with all day breakfast and special maple-inspired menus.
The next Mountain State Maple Days is March 16. Watch The Pocahontas Times for a schedule of events and list of participating restaurants.