Maple Museum Encourages Education, Participation

10/19/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

EDINBORO, Pa. — Not many farms can claim to have a museum, or a tie-in with a book that won a Newbery Medal.

Hurry Hill Maple Farm is such a place.

The maple syrup museum, which opened in 2009, is the project of Janet Woods, a retired high school principal and lifelong maple sugar maker.

“I’ve always been a little crazy about making syrup,” she said.

Woods is also concerned about preserving the maple syrup industry’s past and getting more people interested in making maple sugar. The museum, which hosts 4,000 visitors a year, according to Woods, holds nonprofit status to give a tax write-off to the many people who donate old sugaring-related items. Admission is free, and Hurry Hill Maple Farm products are available for purchase.

Most of the exhibits focus on the history, process and products of the maple industry. Visitors start out with a short movie showing maple sugar making on the farm. They then progress to an alcove showing a chestnut trough used for collecting sap in the 1850s and a reproduction of a letter that a French traveler sent to his sister-in-law describing his first encounter with powdered maple sugar.

At the center of the room sit authentic old-time evaporators. A “Saturday Evening Post” cover showing the product in use accompanies one of the evaporators.

The ceiling is part of the gallery space. It is covered with hundreds of old V-shaped sap bucket lids. Woods points out one lid that is stamped with a simplified fleur-de-lis. Quebec, she notes, produces 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup.

Several “tree cookies,” or slices of old maples, show the holes people made to get at the sap. In time, the tree trunk grows over the holes.

At the farm museum, some of the “cookies” serve as tables for children’s crafts. Kids’ activities include making “cootie catchers” — a folded-paper game using maple facts — and tracing a metal maple leaf on a paper plate.

Another exhibit shows different implements used in making syrup. The oldest spiles — the spouts tapped into the trees and named from a colonial mispronunciation of “spill” — were made of wood, while newer versions are made of metal or plastic.

Amidst the collection of old sap buckets are a repurposed motor oil can and coffee tin, symbols of sugar makers’ ingenuity.

An assortment of consumer syrup containers has its own appeal. The oldest piece dates to 1887 and is from Ohio. Many early cans were rectangular and required a special key to unscrew the lid. Manufacturers started adding lithographs in 1948.

The museum also pays homage to the Native Americans who tapped maple trees before the white settlers arrived. The Indians heated the sap by rolling hot rocks back and forth in a wooden trough.

The Native Americans could not store syrup, so they heated it to 250 degrees, evaporating all the water and leaving crumb sugar.

Syrup is produced at 6 degrees above the boiling temperature of water, and maple cream and candy are produced between that temperature and 250 degrees. If you heat syrup to 260 degrees, “you get the fire extinguisher,” Woods said.

Maple hard candy and similar value-added products also get a display in the Hurry Hill Maple Farm museum. Like most other maple-related tools, candy molds were first made of wood. Those were followed by metal and, after World War II, rubber molds.

Crumb sugar played an important role in the early United States. Thomas Jefferson urged his countrymen to tap maples as a way to reduce the importation of cane sugar from the British West Indies.

“He thought we could supply sugar to the world,” Woods said.

White sugar gained popularity after the Civil War, but maple sugar made a comeback during the rationing years of World War I and II.

The Great Lakes region is the only place in the world where maple syrup is produced, and sugaring is woven into the region’s cultural heritage. People used to congregate at a sugar bush, or group of sugar maples, in the winter to celebrate the first sap run and cook syrup.

“It signified the end of winter. It signifies the hope of spring,” Woods said.

That spirit of community involvement is starting to come back, too. Woods welcomes many strangers to the sugar house each year who show up to watch her make syrup.

“Who are all these people? They come because they can,” she said.

Though many syrup makers have added propane heaters, electrics lights and plastic tubing, Woods prefers to keep her sugar house more traditionally rustic. She burns about 20 cords of wood each winter, and the only light comes from windows, vents and lanterns. She collects all of the sap in buckets and uses a gravity feed instead of a vacuum pump to bring the sap into the sugar house.

The lack of electricity in the sugar house might seem inconvenient, but Woods said, “I don’t want it. People come here to take pictures of buckets” and the old way of doing things.

The pumps, like most other innovations in sugar making, came from dairy farmers, like Woods’ parents, who needed something to do in the “fifth season” between the end of winter and the start of plowing.

Paul and Mary Woods built the sugar house in 1958 next to the previous owners’ smaller 1930 version. Janet Woods grew up making syrup and has won numerous Pennsylvania Farm Show awards. This year she took first place in light, medium and dark amber in glass and was named premier exhibitor.

Woods taps 400 trees using 800 buckets on her 55-acre farm. Hurry Hill produces an average of 330 gallons of syrup a year. The 2013 season was weaker, netting only 250 gallons, because temperatures were a little too low for the sap to run, Woods said.

Woods’ advice for making sugar is “pay attention.” Sap should be boiled as soon as possible, equipment must be clean, and syrup temperature and density matter.

Woods commands 40 volunteers during sugaring season. She has a few paid sap gatherers, but most hang buckets simply for enjoyment.

Growing maple trees themselves is much less labor-intensive than most types of agriculture, but it is much more time-consuming. Sugar maples have to be 30-40 years old before they start producing sap. Many of the trees Woods taps are significantly older.

She started planting more maple trees in 1998 and will soon be able to take the snow fencing and soap off the oldest of those trees. The physical barrier and smell of soap deter deer from rubbing the bark off younger trees and killing them.

The Book

Virginia Sorensen was a rising star in children’s literature when she published “Miracles on Maple Hill” in 1956. She wrote the book in Edinboro, in northeastern Pennsylvania, where she lived from 1952-58, while her husband taught at Edinboro University.

“Miracles on Maple Hill” tells the story of a girl named Marly who meets a syrup-making couple named Mr. and Mrs. Chris. The characters in the book are based on real people from Edinboro. The models for Mr. and Mrs. Chris were Harvey and Amy Kreitz, dairy farmers who were friends of Paul and Mary Woods.

“Miracles” won the Newbery Medal in 1957, beating the book version of “Old Yeller” and several other nominees.

Sorensen also wrote other now-obscure books about northwestern Pennsylvania. “Plain Girl” told of an Amish girl from Mercer County, Pa., and “Annie-Get-Your-Gun” profiled a school nurse from Erie, Pa. Sorensen, a Mormon, also wrote books about her native Utah.

The real Maple Hill is on the south side of Edinboro and is called Mount Pleasant today. It is partially visible from Hurry Hill.

While anyone can pick up the science of making syrup from a textbook, “to learn the art of making maple syrup, you have to read Miracles on Maple Hill,’” Woods said.

The book teaches sugaring creatively. Readers learn that the season is over, for example, when the spring peeper frogs croak at night.

The museum displays copies of Sorensen’s original manuscript with edits showing her familiarity with the details of the sugaring process. For example, she corrects subtle differences between sap and syrup, sap thickness and sweetness. The museum also preserves numerous artifacts from Maple Hill captured in the book’s illustrations, including a lantern, wooden chain made by a local hermit, fire grate and mailbox.

The “Miracles” exhibit helps draw school field trips to the museum. Several thousand children have visited since 2009.

There is a catch: students have to read the book or have it read to them before they can take the field trip.

“I want vested interest,” Woods said, noting that the exhibits are more meaningful and fun if the students already know the plot.

The museum also posts relevant quotations from the book in the other exhibits throughout the museum.

Woods has nominated Sorensen for inclusion in the Erie Hall of Fame.

The Hurry Hill Maple Museum is open 2-5 p.m. on Sundays from September to November and again from March to May. Woods closes the museum in January because the snow is too deep; as Sorensen wrote, “Edinboro, old-timers told us with an odd, fierce pride, had the worst winters in the world.” Woods opens the museum at other times throughout the year for private tours and groups.

The marquee sugaring event for Woods each year is the Northwest Pennsylvania Maple Association’s Taste and Tour weekend, which she helped start. Groups of 60-90 people cycle through her sugar house every 20 minutes during the 15-producer tour. The 11th annual event will run March 15-16, 2014.

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