The Madness of the Marathon Maple Festival

By Tina Wright

Festival volunteer Devon Hinds tends the maple syrup evaporator and talks to the public.
Photos by Tina Wright unless otherwise noted.

In many ways, Marathon is a typical small town in farm country, sitting near the Tioughnioga River south of Cortland in central New York. However, a wild strain of spring fever hits this town and the surrounding area just after the maple sap runs every year; they call this madness the Marathon Maple Festival (

What else would you call a weekend in April when basically everyone puts on a show with the theme of maple syrup? The event is made possible by about a thousand local volunteers. The Sugar Shack sells maple products from local producers like crazy, and local nonprofits offer maple milkshakes, maple pulled meats and maple sundaes.

Live music, arts and crafts, a parade, a maple queen competition, helicopter rides, a horse-drawn wagon, a small carnival ride section and more make it the perfect family venue. The event also includes chain saw carving and a mountain men encampment.

Don and Shelley Warnow, seated, currently chair the festival committee. With them are Jim and Debbie Burk, who chaired the committee for seven years.

The festival is something you can do on a budget, which is probably why 10,000 people show up every year. Plus, if you do have a few bucks to spare, you will be supporting a good cause while you enjoy a maple milkshake at the Marathon Maple Leaf Senior Center booth. Anita Doty, who invented the milkshake, works at the senior center and is a local dairy farmer. She said, "We have a dairy here in Marathon. We do crops and everything else as well."

The Marathon area is dairy farming country, so it's no surprise that another dairy and maple connection could be found at the booth of the local 4-H club, the Marathon Maple Sugars. They were selling maple sundaes. Yvonne Moore, 4-H leader, said that the Boice family of Cooper Hill Maple donated the syrup for the sundaes.

It's in their blood

Devon Hinds, a volunteer, answered questions as he worked in the steam of the evaporator. A steady stream of people funneled through the Sugar Shack shop and museum, where you can see syrup being made, buy a plethora of maple products from local producers, and see some neat pieces of sugar making history.

Hinds explained that the village sugarhouse gets going in February and runs through the festival, supplying the pancake breakfast at the church and educating folks about maple syrup production.

Everyone here has maple sap in their blood. Tom Heller worked a maple products counter that was as busy as a roadhouse bar. They were ringing up sales for jugs of maple syrup, creams and candy. Having made maple syrup most of his life until recently, he finds the festival keeps that sugar rush going.

"We're not maple sugaring now," he said. "We live in McGraw, and we used to do 5,500 taps a year. I help here, I come in Friday night and we receive the syrup in. I spend all day Saturday and all day Sunday helping to sell the syrup. And then Sunday night we will take inventory. Everything is brought here under consignment. And then tomorrow night we will count up each producer's syrup. They take back what is left, and then we pay them for what is sold."

Heller has volunteered at the maple festival for at least 15 years. "I just enjoy it, so I keep helping. When we did the first one with the St. Paul's youth group, we made homemade ice cream."

The first Marathon Maple Festival

Don and Shelley Warnow chair the maple fest committee. They chatted with Jim and Debbie Burk, who chaired the committee the previous seven years. Don recalled how the festival got started: "Several community leaders went to a maple festival out in Ohio. They saw what the community was doing and brought it back, and we started in 1971. The whole community gets involved."

In 43 years they have only canceled one day of the festival because of river flooding - not bad, given that the Tioughnioga regularly floods the village and Lovell Field, where a lot of the festival action takes place.

Jim said, "To me, it brings the community together. They all work together. It's phenomenal for the kids, for the schools, a boost for class trips."

The 2013 Maple Queen, Maddison Hickey, seated in the center. Her court, from left: Tayla Caldwell, Ellena Holl, Eryn Griep, Caitlin Serowick and Lauren Mullen.
Photo courtesy of the Marathon Maple Festival.

Another maple and dairy connection

The Marathon Maple Festival has a Maple Queen, which may remind folks in dairy country of the June Dairy Month festivities, which feature dairy queens or princesses promoting milk products. Sponsored by KBC Construction, the 2013 Maple Queen is Maddison Hickey. Her court consists of Lauren Mullen, Tayla Caldwell, Eryn Griep, Caitlin Serowick and Ellena Holl.

Maple producers who sell there

Lewis and Lori Ward are among the die-hard committee people who really commit to a year-round effort for the maple festival, according to Lewis. They will take a few months off to unwind, and then they'll be right back at it. He listed the local maple producers whose products are sold at the Sugar Shack market: Delavan Farms, John and Kathie Button, Steve Dellow, Randy Ensign, Tim Mead, Mill Race Maple, Greg Schmidt, Robert Simpson, John and Chris Smith, Geneganslet Maple, Ward's Maple Products and Calvin Wood.

The next Marathon Maple Festival will be held April 5-6, 2014. Even if you think you live a bit far away, it's worth a day trip to feel the special spring fever these folks get when the maple sap gets steaming. But watch out for the maple cotton candy - it's addictive.

A variety of antique sap pails.

The author is a freelance contributor based near Ithaca, N.Y., specializing in dairy and organics, but dabbling in all things agricultural. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.