I really goofed last week. I was in Greenville on Saturday but didn’t realize it was syrup making time at the Shawnee Prairie Preserve with demonstrations and a waffle! breakfast. It would have been perfect but, in my ignorance, I dawdled, ate breakfast in Dayton, and only reached town and learned of the event long after breakfast was finished and the whole shebang was pretty much over. I cast about for a way to make up for this missed opportunity and even briefly considered returning to Hinckley with the buzzards for one of the area’s big maple sugaring weekends as I did in 2011. But, in the end, I decided to stay closer to home and yesterday checked out the 47th Maple Syrup Festival at Hueston Woods.
Then I headed over to the Pioneer Village area to stand in line for a “hay ride”. Trucks pulling trailers with seats made of straw bales carried people to the start of a short trail leading to the “sugar shack”. A guide would then lead the way down the trail while providing information about the area and the syrup making process. In chatting with some of the volunteers, I learned that a shortage of guides had resulted in a minor bottleneck. Even though our departure was delayed as long as practical and the ride to the trail was as slow as possible, we still reached the trail several minutes ahead of our guide.
The wait was worth it. I feel extra bad about not learning our guide’s name because he sure was an extra good guide. He spoke, in a most entertaining way, about both the natural and human history of the area and he talked of the social as well as technical aspects of sugaring. He explained that, since the sap contains only a percent or two of sugar when it comes from the tree, it doesn’t taste very much like syrup. At the guide’s invitation, several young tour members personally verified this by licking fingers that had caught a few drops.
There was another line at the sugar shack but it wasn’t a long one. The original Hueston family shack burned in the 1980s but the current one looks much the same and is on the same foundation. Maple syrup must be about two-thirds sugar which means an awful lot of water has to be removed. This is accomplished by the wood fired evaporator The fog makes it hard to see but the warmth is certainly welcome. After hearing an explanation of the evaporation process, there was one more short line for the shuttle back to the car at Pioneer Village. The well run free festival is a great fun and educational, too.
Not far from Hueston Woods, the home of William Holmes McGuffey, the man behind the incredibly successful McGuffey Readers, is now a museum. It’s owned and operated by Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. McGuffey was part of the university faculty when he had the house built in 1833 then took on creating the first reader, published in 1836, as a way to augment his professor’s salary. The house is filled with wonderful period furnishings including several of McGuffey’s own pieces. Among these are the eight-sided rotating table and the tall desk behind it. I was accompanied as much as guided by a fellow named Steve who thoroughly answered every question I had. Like the festival, the McGuffey Museum is free and fun and educational.