Originally published March 23, 2013
Sleet and snow could not stop the 23rd annual Hebron Maple Festival this year. On Saturday, March 16 and Sunday, March 17, 2013, the town was filled with syrup, treats and old-fashioned colonial demonstrations.
Sponsors of the festival were found throughout the town during the weekend including three sugarhouses where maple syrup is made and sold by local vendors.
The Wenzel Sugar House, owned and run by Ron and Joyce Wenzel, has been a part of the festival for over 20 years. The couple considers themselves “hobbyists,” noting that they only profit enough each year to order supplies for the following year. The festival is free for visitors and the Wenzels charge between $10-$35 for their syrup.
“This is just a hobby,” she said. “All it does is pay for next year’s jugs.”
But Ron has been trying to outdo himself each year. In 2008, the Wenzel Sugar House produced its all time high of 90 gallons of syrup. This year, Ron hopes to reach 100 before the end of the season.
“I had to take the buckets down because I ran out of wood,” he said. “The summer of 2008, I made another woodshed. I have not had to use that woodshed yet, but this might be the year. Conditions are just perfect.”
The festival sheds light on colonial traditions of New England as well. “Chili Bob” Whatley of Norwich, sets up his display of hand-dipped candles at the festival each year. He embraces the 19th century lifestyle at each event by dressing in old-fashioned clothing and telling stories of old courting traditions.
One candleholder, called the “courting candle,” is shaped in a spiral with a piece of cork at the bottom. Whatley said that if a father did not like the boy courting his daughter, he would raise the cork on the holder and only allow the boy to stay until the candle melted to the holder. The higher the cork, the less time a boy had to impress the father.
All candles are made from beeswax as per tradition. However, Chili Bob was having trouble dipping candles at the festival because of the cold temperatures, which measured about 37 degrees that day. He said the ideal weather is about 50 degrees so that the wax has time to solidify before dripping off the candlestick.
Whately displayed his candles alongside Paul Maulucci of P M Carpentry in Coventry. For the festival, Maulucci carved wooden bowls and plates. As a full-time carpenter, Maulucci mostly works on barns and houses in the Coventry area, but in his spare time, he enjoys creating the bowls and other more intricate pieces.
The Country Carpenters’ displays held the attention of crowds briefly, but for most of the guests, the real focus was on the maple syrup.
In order to make maple syrup, trees in the surrounding area have to be tapped and drained of their sap. Once the sap is transferred into the sugar houses, it is boiled until it reaches its proper sugar content, usually between 66-67 percent.
According to a flyer from the Wenzels, pure maple syrup is defined as “produced exclusively by the concentration of maple sap or by the solution or dilution of a maple product other than maple sap in potable water.” These are the guidelines they follow when producing syrup.
In addition to learning how the syrup is made, Ron also teaches visitors about the different color classes of syrup: golden, amber, dark and very dark. According to Ron, there’s no way to determine the color and consistency of the syrup until after it’s boiled.
“Whatever’s coming out of the tree is what we make,” he said. “It comes out clear, but there may be a nutrient that the tree is looking for and it gets pulled up. So until we boil it, we have no clue.”
The darker the color, stronger the taste. When asked, Joyce recommends lighter batches to customers who are looking for the perfect pancake pairing.
For children like Emma Hazel, 12, of Hebron, and her friends, the best part about the Maple Festival was the variety of treats. Hazel’s favorite is the sugar on snow.
“It’s snow, but you put maple syrup on it,” she said. The maple syrup is boiled before it’s poured, which creates a taffy-like candy.
For American Legion member Thomas Brancato, the festival has grown to bring the community together.
“It’s truly a New England event,” he said, “because it’s part of the small town program…and people are now coming from all over.”