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February 18, 2010

Bolar, Virginia, in the far western corner of the state, is a ghostly village most days of the year. But on a blustery Saturday morning in mid-March, with the wind whipping and the sky a steel-gray portent of snow, a line of people has formed outside the door of a lap-sided, middle-of-nowhere country church. Some 70 zipped-up and mittened patrons exhale puffs of white air as they huddle against the church building, taking shelter against the cold.

These stouthearted folks are up early and braving the elements for a simple reason: to eat buckwheat cakes and sausage served up by the Bolar Ruritan Club. This is the first day of the two-weekend Highland Maple Festival, going strong for 52 years. For locals who like a hearty breakfast and want to support the annual festival—including just about all of the 2,500 residents in isolated Highland County—the question is not whether you will eat pancakes slathered with sweet, locally produced maple syrup; it’s where you will do so and how early you’ll get in line.

The Bolar Ruritans—one of more than a dozen organizations throughout Highland County that take part in the Maple Festival—have been firing up their griddle since the first festival, in 1958, when members made pancakes on a coal-fired stove. Today, in a converted meeting hall room at the church, they offer the only made-on-site pancake batter in the county. A lot has changed in 50 years, but the recipe for the Bolar Ruritan pancakes hasn’t been altered a smidgen. County resident Harriet Criser offered her pancake recipe to the club in the 1950s—and today it is still taped to the club house wall.

Inside the eating room, veteran Maple Festival early birds pack into rows of long tables dotted with glass pitchers containing the light amber syrup that put Highland County on the map half a century ago. Bustling up and down the rows, club members take orders. There, longtime Ruritan Bill Bratton, 65, flips cakes and works the spatula with the dexterity of a short order cook while bantering with a half-dozen fellow Ruritans who are teasing him to work faster. Bratton’s hair glistens with grease accumulated from the steamy air, and he occasionally wipes his brow with the corner of his apron, but working the festival is a treasured tradition for him. His father, also a Ruritan, did it before him. Bratton and Ryan Hodges, his partner at the griddle, will turn out about 4,000 cakes before this weekend is over. “I’ve always liked to cook,” Bratton says. “I can remember the very first Maple Festival that was held here. As a kid, I always wanted to bake the cakes, and I’ve been doing it ever since then.”

Owing to its mountainous topography, Highland is the least populated county in Virginia. With elevations ranging from 1,800 to 4,400 feet, the county occupies higher (and prettier) ground than just about any place east of the Mississippi River. Visitors must cross four separate ridgelines (part of the Allegheny Mountains) on Route 250, and negotiate more than a few hairpin curves, to reach the county seat of Monterey—a town best known for being Virginia’s maple syrup headquarters. Highland County was settled mostly by Scotch-Irish, but it has marketed itself for decades as “Virginia’s Switzerland,” even though the landscape here is more reminiscent of Ireland than the Alps.

Highland’s hallmark, and the foundation of its tenuous economy, is the production of pure maple syrup. The locals have been making it for a long time, but no one seems to know exactly how long. There are more than a dozen so-called sugaring operations in the county, six of them open to the public and nearly all family-owned businesses handed down from generation to generation. For this reason, the Maple Festival, held the second and third weekends of March, is a big deal. It’s the most important event of the year in Highland—a time when this rural enclave pops to life and upwards of 50,000 visitors trek in to taste the nearly translucent golden syrup from the native sugar maple tree. Tourists also take part in festivities ranging from craft exhibits and live music in Monterey to pancake breakfasts in Williamsville and Bolar to the Festival Fling Dance in McDowell.

Carolyn Pohowsky, the executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce and Highland County’s tourism director, says the event is a major fund-raiser for nonprofit groups and produces the lion’s share of annual earnings for many local businesses. That is why, she notes, “every warm body that can stand upright is doing something during the Maple Festival. At least half of the adult community volunteers for this.”

One reason is that many of the families in Highland County go way back. Deep-rooted local names—Simmons, Rexrode, Stephenson—can still be seen on the sorting boxes in the old post office in Hightown, just west of Monterey. Pohowsky’s uncle, 83-year-old Jacob Hevener, is the sixth generation of his family to own Dividing Waters Farm in Hightown. Every year, during the festival, Hevener opens the old Hevener General Store in Hightown to give visitors a peek at the past. Both the store and the post office have been closed since 1994. Walking inside the store on a damp March morning and nestling up against a warm potbelly stove in the back conjures up memories of the 1950s, when Hevener began running the store and serving as Hightown’s postmaster. “We carried anything and everything,” Hevener says, “soap powders, groceries, hardware.” He points to the amber-toned tin ceiling, the now virtually empty shelves, and says with some regret, “A country store got to be a thing of the past. When the post office closed down, so did the store. The post office was half the income.”

A few miles north of Hightown, in the sweeping open landscape of the Blue Grass Valley, another old-timer, 72-year-old Ivan Puffenbarger, shoots the breeze with visitors to his syrup making operation. His family has made maple syrup in this valley for more than five decades. The Puffenbargers’ sugar camp is one of the largest in the county and one of few where, on festival weekends, the public can see firsthand how syrup is made. On the day of my visit, scores of tourists, their cars lodged in the gravel and mud outside the camp, are taking advantage of the opportunity.

Two years ago, the Puffenbargers lost everything when a fire struck

their sugarhouse. For Ivan Puffenbarger, who revolutionized the family business in the 1960s when he got the idea to hook his old milking machine up to the maple trees to increase production, the fire was devastating. The family lost their entire operation and inventory, including the reverse osmosis machine they had bought in the 1980s to replace the milking machine.

“I thought I was going to give it up,” says Puffenbarger, perched this morning on an old milk can in his sugarhouse as visitors wander through. “I rebuilt the sugarhouse. It was the people’s choice. They said, ‘You’ve gotta rebuild.’” So he did. He bought the materials, and his friends, neighbors and even a few out-of-towners supplied the labor to get the sugarhouse up and running again before the next sugaring season. While syrup making has been modernized somewhat in recent decades, it remains a labor-intensive business. It takes around 40 gallons of sugar water to make one gallon of pure maple syrup.

Mike Puffenbarger, 51, no relation to Ivan, is another longtime Highland County syrup maker. He is proprietor of Southernmost Maple Products in the southern end of the county, just north of Bolar. “I’ve always had a fascination with syrup making,” he says. “When you drill a hole into a sugar maple and hear that ‘tap, tap, tap,’ there’s just something about it—I can’t put it into words.”

He made his first batch of maple syrup when he was 10. Two seasons ago, he and his two granddaughters put the first tap in a maple tree Puffenbarger and his own grandfather had planted 33 years before. “Maple syrup is still my favorite thing,” Puffenbarger says, noting that he hasn’t missed a year of production in three decades. In a typical year, the Puffenbargers have about 10,000 taps on maple trees within a 25-mile radius of their farm. Some 1,000 of those taps have buckets attached—the old-fashioned way to gather sap.

Syrup isn’t the only maple commodity to be found in Highland. Another festival favorite is the maple donut. It—or, more accurately, they, as almost nobody buys just one—can be purchased county-wide, but most folks line up in front of the Mill Gap Ruritan Club donut stand in Monterey. Diehards will wait in the queue for up to an hour for these soft, sweet, syrupy treats. The club has sold maple donuts at the festival for more than 40 years; some members drive to Monterey at 1 a.m. to work the first donut shift. “Most of our help has worked the donut trailer since they could walk,” says club member and local maple syrup producer Tim Duff. The donuts are a big fund-raiser for these Ruritans, who sell anywhere from 70,000 to 80,000 donuts each year, making a net profit of $12,000 to $14,000.

Highland’s young people seem to get as excited about the festival as the veterans. Twenty-five-year-old Dorothy Stephenson has been working the event since adolescence, but she doesn’t tap trees; she taps her toes. Stephenson heads up the Little Switzerland Cloggers, a group of young amateur dancers who perform at The Highland Center in Monterey. Stephenson is something of a local celebrity, having recently been named to the American Clogging Hall of Fame’s All-American Team. She has been clogging since she was 6 years old and took over leadership of the 20-member troupe when she was only 19. “I was in the group from the beginning, and I wanted to keep it going,” she says, standing in black sequins, waiting for the group’s next show to begin. A circle of similarly clad teens, clicking toes and heels, waits nervously behind her.

Highland County has a vibrant community of young people, and many are entrepreneurs. Todd Frye, 34, is one of many craftsmen-vendors who depend on the festival for his living. Proprietor of Mountain Jack Rustic Woodworks, Frye makes custom furniture from reclaimed chestnut—pieces from torn-down barns, old fence rails, sometimes even old chestnut found in the woods. Lisa Jacenich left her teaching job at George Washington University 12 years ago and moved with her husband, Jim, to Highland County. “Our plan was to be artists in the mountains,” Jacenich says as she shows off one of her creations—a wool felted shawl in a soothing mélange of lavender, sage and blue. During festival weekends, Jacenich displays her textiles on the second floor of Highland County Crafts on Main Street. She and Jim, a reporter at The Recorder, a weekly newspaper, are among an ever-growing batch of Highland newcomers. “We chose Highland because of the beautiful vistas and incredible nature,” says Jacenich, “but what has kept us here is the sense of community. People really care about you.”

At dusk, as the first day winds down, the crafters pack their wares and the day trippers pile into their cars. The quiet for which this area is best known begins to settle again. Still, one couple carries on with their business. Linda and Junior Kimble, owners of Country Convenience in Blue Grass, work from sunrise till about 9 p.m., selling everything from stovepipes and greeting cards to gardening gloves and Colby cheese wheels, and anything you could want for supper from their deli.

A few stragglers survey the shelves, eager for a look at this century-old general store. This is one of the few weekends of the year when the traffic is not predominantly local. “I know all the local addictions,” Linda says—“what everybody smokes and what kind of soda they like.” Her teenage granddaughter, Emily, an award-winning clogger, asserts that she’ll be taking over this store one day. 

The Kimbles, like many Highland families, say that the mountains have a special pull—strong enough to keep youngsters on the farm or in the family store even as kids in other rural communities head for the city. Syrup maker Mike Puffenbarger, agrees: “We could probably fry hamburgers at McDonald’s and make more money, but you can’t breathe fresh air at McDonald’s or see the animals and the mountains.”

As with the Kimbles, Puffenbarger’s daughters and granddaughters help run the business—and there is every chance that they’ll be greeting visitors to the family sugar camp in decades to come, doing their part for the county and its traditions, for as long as the sap flows. HighlandCounty.org

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February 18, 2010

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