Sunday’s late winter scene at Baer Bros. Maple Camp was one that has been a tradition here for nearly a century.
Children were on a hill above the camp tapping trees for maple sap.
And smoke rose from the camp’s sugar house below, where friends and neighbors were busily adding wood to keep a large fire hot enough to boil down a sugary mix into sweet maple syrup.
The difference this year: The sights, sounds and aromas filling the air at the Baer Bros. camp – and nine others across Somerset County – were on display for visitors to see for themselves during the initial Taste & Tour weekend.
“We have the annual Meyersdale Maple Festival, but it’s in early April after we’re done harvesting,” said Michael Lynch, whose family has continued the maple syrup-making tradition that the Baer family started on Sugar Cake Road in 1919. “We wanted to show people what a sugar camp is like – see the sap coming from the trees and smell the syrup cooking.”
In Somerset County, where dozens of maple producers remain, it’s more than just tradition. It’s a key reason why Pennsylvania still remains one of the nation’s top maple producing states. And it is a large part of the area’s history, with evidence that local settlers were making syrup back in the 1760s, said Rich Sturtz, a volunteer with the Somerset Historical Center, which partnered with maple producers for the event.
Today, modern technology and rubber tube piping systems have replaced many of the handmade tools the Historical Center had on display Sunday, such as hand-carved taps and maple collection buckets, called “keelers.”
Today’s tools make the process more effective and efficient. But it still often takes 50 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of syrup, Lynch said.
On a good year, Baer Bros. produces 1,500 gallons of the syrup, he said.
But Sunday’s event was more than just syrup-making 101.
Sugar camps offered samples of their homemade goods like maple taffy, fruit dip and syrup.
“I just had a maple ice cream sundae at Friedline’s (Walnutdale Maple Farms near Boswell), and my word, it was wonderful,” said Diane Holsopple of Hollsopple.
Holsopple also had serious praise for tour organizers.
“A lot of farms are dying right and left,” she said. “It’s great to see something like this here. It’s raising awareness. And it lets people know a little bit about what is happening at these camps.”
David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at www. twitter.com/tddavidhurst.