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Spring brings sweet chances to explore maple events

| Monday, March 21, 2011

March is a great time to sugar coat your special someone with a getaway to maple syrup country.

It's sap-tapping season in Western Pennsylvania, and a flood of "magic water" recently poured from the sugar maple trees at woodland camps across Somerset County.

Weather reportedly affects annual maple syrup quality, and 2011 promises a fine product, because of plentiful warmish days and frigid nights in February, along with the abundant precipitation in recent months.

"Everyone is having a tremendous season," says Everett Sechler of Lower Turkeyfoot Township, president of the approximately 75-member Somerset County Maple Producers Association. "Last year was one of the worst. This year is one of the best."

Sechler's family --- maple syrup makers since the Civil War -- recently bottled about 1,500 gallons of maple syrup, compared to approximately 400 gallons last year. Folks can buy the syrup, along with maple cream, maple crumb sugar, maple candy and maple peanuts, through the online Sechler Sugar Shack .

People can stock up on such goodies at the Pennsylvania Maple Festival (Saturday through April 3) in Meyersdale, an annual event that offers car, craft and quilt shows, all-day pancake breakfasts and entertainment, plus, the "Sugar Shack" where people can see the steps involved in making maple syrup and purchase products made with maple syrup.

The sweet eats include "spotza," a sort of clear taffy made with hot maple syrup and crushed ice, priced at 50 cents per Dixie-cup serving. "Spotza is what the Indians used to call 'syrup on the snow,' " says Meyersdale grandmother Susie Decker, one of hundreds of volunteers who help organize the not-for-profit Pennsylvania Maple Festival.

The townwide festival offers French and Indian War and Civil War re-enactors, a model railroad display, antique tractor show, horse pulling contest and tours of historic Maple Manor Homestead, a landmark dating back to the 1700s. Former President Ulysses S. Grant once spent a night in the manor house.

"There's a lot for everyone to learn and to see," says Matt Caton, president of the festival's board of the directors.

Did you know that it takes 40 to 50 gallons of colorless tree sap or "sugar water" to make a single gallon of amber-colored maple syrup• Expect to pay about $40 for a gallon jug of Somerset County maple syrup at the festival.

Ages ago, Shawnee Indians reportedly heated river rocks with fire then transferred the rocks -- using deer antlers -- into hollowed tree trunks full of sugar maple tree sap to make maple syrup.

Today, an estimated 100 Pennsylvania Maple Festival volunteers, from infants to folks in their 80s, depict the history of Somerset County syrup making -- and Meyersdale -- in "The Legend of the Magic Water," a narrated, song-and-dance pageant at Meyersdale Area High School, Summit Township.

The pageant also revisits the first Pennsylvania Maple Festival staged in 1948, after singer Kate Smith described Somerset County maple syrup as "the sweetest she had ever tasted" on a 1947 national radio broadcast.

Each year, an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 folks from Washington, D.C., Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania visit the annual Pennsylvania Maple Festival.

"We have a lot of nice bed and breakfasts in town," Caton says. "There's a lot to see in this area."

Sights within driving distance include the Flight 93 National Memorial in Stonycreek Township; the Quecreek Mine Rescue Site in Lincoln Township; and Mt. Davis in Forbes State Forest, Elk Lick Township -- the highest point in Pennsylvania.

What attracts many people, however, to the festival is the Meyersdale Lions Club's all-you-can-eat pancake and sausage breakfasts served in the community center on Main Street.

Last year, the local Lions used 165 gallons of Somerset County maple syrup, 1,400 pounds of Aunt Jemima buttermilk pancake mix, 98 dozen eggs, 240 gallons of milk, 4,500 pounds of whole-hog sausage links, 7,000 orange drinks, 40 pounds of coffee, and untold pats of butter to serve approximately 7,000 people.

"We have our own secret recipe to make our pancakes better," says retired Ford dealer Dean O'Neil of Summit Township, past president of the Meyersdale Lions Club.

The Pennsylvania Maple Festival is based in Maple Festival Park, 120 Meyers Ave., Meyersdale, Somerset County. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and April 2 and 3; and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 30 and 31 and April 1. Admission to Maple Festival Park is $5; $1 for ages 6-12; free for younger children. "The Legend of the Magic Water," a narrated, song-and-dance pageant , is set for 2 p.m. Saturday , and 10:30 a.m. March 30 and April 1 and 2 at Meyersdale Area High School, 1349 Shaw Mines Road, Summit Township. Admission: $5; $4 for senior citizens and $2.50 for age 17 and younger. Hours for the Meyersdale Lions Club's pancakes-and-sausage breakfasts are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and April 2 and 3; and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 30 and 31 and April 1 at Meyersdale Community Center, 215 Main St. Cost is $7. Details: 814-634-0213 or here .

Maple Madness

If Somerset County seems too far away, the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania sponsors Maple Madness, another annual festival, at Beechwood Farms in Fox Chapel.

Maple Madness offers visitors a pancake breakfast, followed by a trek into the woods to learn about methods historically used to make maple syrup. Re-enactors stationed along the trail will discuss how American Indians, pioneers and Depression-era folks made maple syrup. A craft project for all ages wraps up the day's program: participants will make maple lip balm.

How was maple syrup discovered, and who first made maple syrup• People always ask those questions at Maple Madness, says Jim Bonner, executive director of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. But the answers remains a mystery. "I don't think anyone will ever know for sure," Bonner says.

Maple Madness is set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve, 614 Dorseyville Road, Fox Chapel. Reservations are recommended for breakfast seatings every 30 minutes. Cost is $10; free for age 2 and younger. 412-963-6100, or here .

Learn more

Jennings Environmental Education Center -- part of the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks -- invites folks to explore maple syrup making at 2 p.m. Sunday. An indoor talk on how trees function precedes a guided hike and look at a working evaporator used to boil down sugar maple tree sap. Participants will get a taste of real maple syrup. Admission is free, and no advance registration is required.

Jennings Environmental Education Center is at 2951 Prospect Road, Slippery Rock, Butler County. Details: 724-794-6011.

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