What satisfies sugar maker Janet Woods even more than Hurry Hill's blue ribbon maple products? Teaching others the art, science and history of maple syrup. "People today are interested in natural, sustainable food and want to produce for their own families," she says.
In the sugarhouse, Janet Woods holds the scoop as she checks her equipment. The bottle on her right holds a food-grade defoamer, and the tube hydrometer hangs beyond. The evaporator is made of stainless steel.
Photos by Bob Ferguson.
Skilled not only in maple sugaring, Woods applies her training and zeal as an educator to the thousands of visitors who enjoy her Hurry Hill Farm in Edinboro, located in northwest Pennsylvania, each year.
This high school principal conducts demonstrations of her maple syrup production operation, runs a museum that illustrates early maple sugaring, and maintains a walking trail complete with explanatory markers and handouts that trace the history of maple sugaring in the area and on the farm.
At the end of the walking tour trail the leaflet admonishes visitors, "Don't be in a 'Hurry' as you walk through the woods." Earlier, it explains the origin of the Hurry Hill name. The locals say the 19th century owner, who remained unruffled when informed that his barn was on fire, asked, "Why should I hurry up that hill when there will be no barn to put my sweaty horse in when I get there?"
Today the barn is indeed gone, but the trail marks artifacts in the maple sugar grove where Native Americans long ago tapped the trees for sap to make maple syrup. The maple sugar bush, planted after the early owner's clearing, is still there.
Woods has made maple syrup as long as she can remember. She recalls her father scolding her when she was 6 and cut herself climbing over the dishwasher to reach a thermometer to see if the temperature was cold enough for good sap flow the next day. She wasn't crying because she had gotten hurt, but because it wasn't cold enough, so she wouldn't be going to the sugarhouse the following day.
She still makes maple syrup the old-fashioned way. The sap is collected in buckets, wood fires the evaporator, and gravity feeds the filters. From 800 trees, Hurry Hill Farm produces 225 to 440 gallons of maple syrup each season. In general, she says, "The bigger the tree, the sweeter the syrup."
The prizes affirm the quality. Hurry Hill Farm attained best of show at the 2009 Pennsylvania Farm Show and premier exhibitor status at the 2009 and 2010 competitions. Five feet of snow during the 2010 season deterred her from entering in 2011. However, this year, Woods bested over 80 entries to win the coveted "Best Syrup of Show" honors. The point system judging spans the package, density, clarity, color and flavor. Her score, along with two others, reached 100 points. But Woods' Hurry Hill Farm was judged the best. To reach perfection in the process, she explains, "It takes a little bit of luck, and a lot of paying attention."
Sugaring is both science and art, Woods says. Although warm, sunny days and frosty nights are considered ideal for sap flow, Woods' kinship with sugar making undoubtedly aids her timing ability. Sharing an old-timers adage that sap runs best with the wind in the west, she notes, "Actually, on Hurry Hill it runs the 'best' when the wind is out of the southwest."
In 1958, her parents, Paul and Mary Woods, built the sugarhouse. The stainless steel, 4-by-16-foot "Leader Special" was installed in 2005 to boil the sap. Hurry Hill Farm burns dry hardwoods in the firebox to heat the evaporator. Heat is drawn through and under the back flue pan and into the chimney. While the finishing pan is flat, the flue pan is not. It has 20 flues, 8 inches deep, .5 inch wide and 10 feet long. Since these flues are filled with boiling sap, most of the evaporation takes place in this pan. The holding tanks hold filtered sap from the gathering wagon. The sap enters the evaporator through a preheater pipe and preheater float box and the boiling begins. The sap travels through the flue pan mazes and then into the syrup finishing pan over the firebox, or arch.
Hurry Hill Farm does not use reverse osmosis in its production.
Woods has captured the romance and history of early sugaring, and to the delight of visitors, the 3,000-square-foot museum preserves the charm.
The museum's antiques and educational displays illustrate its theme, "Journey from Tree to Table." A pyramid of 40 buckets illustrates how much sap is required to produce a gallon of maple syrup. Other antique equipment indicates how maple sugar making has changed over several centuries.
There's an activity area for kids that entertains and teaches youngsters about maple sugaring.
Using a gas-powered drill, Janet Woods carefully taps one of her maple trees.
Handouts help visitors identify pests such as the Asian longhorned beetle. Another leaflets offers instructions on how to construct a bluebird house, since the gypsy moth is a preferred food for bluebirds. A poster documents the damage inflicted by deer. The spile collection follows early primitive tools to recent innovations. A section complete with relics shows how Indians used heated rocks in wood-hewn containers to boil maple sap. The collection of old maple syrup containers suggests how early marketing developed. Guides to production information assist those interested in backyard maple syrup production, and numerous past visitors have returned with samples of their efforts.
This collection of old maple syrup containers from various maple-producing states graces a section of Hurry Hill Farm's museum.
The Miracles on Maple Hill room, "Where the Seasons Take on a New Meaning," contains original artifacts from the "Miracles on Maple Hill" book authored by Newbery Medal winner Virginia Sorenson. The collection includes the Newbery Medal itself, which is one of the most prestigious prizes for children's literature.
The farmstand section of the museum offers the farm's maple syrup and products, which includes everything from maple cream and candy to mustard, barbecue sauce and peanuts. The products carry the Pennsylvania Preferred label. Hobby sugar maker tubing with health spiles, T-shirts, travel mugs, books and other items entice shoppers. Products are available year-round at the farm or can be ordered by phone, (814-572-1358) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). A product list and prices can be found on the website: www.hurryhillfarm.org.
This circa 1850 sap gathering trough was used by Indians and later by Pioneers. Hewn from split logs, Indians also cooked in these before settlers brought iron pots. The two spile collectors are carved from sumac.
Hurry Hill Farm is one of 16 maple producer participants in the Northwest Pennsylvania Maple Association's annual maple taste and tour Maple Syrup Weekend, which will be held March 24 and 25, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. More information can be found at www.pamaple.org
The museum displays this "tree cookie," a cross section of a 200-year-old maple, to show the tapped areas and the healed sapwood.
Woods also contributes to the events of Asbury Woods Nature Center's Spring Maple Festival in Erie, Pa. For details about the festivities on April 14 and 15, check www.asburywoods.org.
The author is a writer-researcher specializing in agriculture. She currently resides in central Pennsylvania.