Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Maple Sugar Tour, Part 2

In my preceding blog, I wrote about a tour of a maple sap line. Today, we will visit the “Sugar Shack,” the name that Roger Whitesel and Don Bratton use for their building that houses their boiling operation.

 About 20 of us crowded into a small building already filled halfway with a wood stove topped with a stainless steel tank. The air swirled with smoke and warmth from bubbling sap. Don cautioned us to be careful because of the hot stove.

First, he showed us a large pan with a funnel shape. On the bottom, he placed a white milk filter explaining, “We strain the sap through here to remove anything that might have fallen in it.”

 As it is strained, the sap runs into the large rectangular tank. A fire is lit below and the sap simmers until the right consistency. In the early spring, 34 gallons of sap make 1 gallon of syrup. Later, 60 gallons is needed to make 1 gallon. 3,500 gallon of sap last year produced 90 gallon of syrup.  By this time last year, they were almost done with their 90 gallons. Our current extremely cold winter has held up the process. On the tour day of March 10, they've only been able to make 9 gallons so far. If the weather continues to be warm, that will be all they get. They need below freezing at night and high 30s up to mid-40s in the daytime to make the sap run.

A view of the boiling sap within the tank.
One of the homeschool fathers present asked a little more about the tank and where it had come from. Don related that he and Roger had bought a used milk tank, removed the insulation to make the large pan that boils their sap. The homeschool father shared that he had been the one that delivered them the tank from his father’s farm!

After Don asked for questions and answered them, we filed outside. There he showed us 24 samples from last year lined up in order from the beginning of the season to the end. Some were darker. He explained that when the sap begins to stop running, the syrup made from it becomes darker. Sometimes it may happen in the middle of the season, but the most dark syrup comes at the end of the season.

Aww, then, the moment of truth. He passed out the spoons. What does their maple syrup taste like? Delicious! We got to taste the light and the dark syrup. The dark tasted to me almost like King syrup molasses.

The tour over, the children played while their parents lined up to buy some of the precious syrup. As I handed my money to Roger, he handed me a glass bottle of syrup.

What a wonderful day!  Education at its finest!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Maple Sugar Tour

A nice sunny day is perfect for tramping through the woods in Pennsylvania. The Juniata County Christian Homeschoolers embarked on a field trip to see a maple syrup operation. The place attracted me because I have an ancestral link to the owners, a family of cousins that I remember dearly from my childhood.

Roger Whitesel, one of nine siblings, and Don Bratton, married to Roger’s sister Esther, have inherited Roger’s Dad’s passion for making maple syrup. Five of the nine siblings have built houses on the same farm where they grew up in Hammer Hollow. (named for the sound of a former resident blacksmith’s hammer)

Don, a retired elementary teacher, did the presentation. He started by showing us two jars that looked like water. “Which of these do you think are maple sap?”

A bright, bold homeschool girl immediately pointed to the one and wouldn’t back down when he tried to make her change her mind. Turned out she was right, even though I saw no difference.

After that Don showed us a variety of spigots that could be inserted in manmade holes in maple trees to allow the syrup to come out. A wooden one had been used years ago by his father-in-law, Roy Whitesel. Don also showed us a metal one. They now use a plastic spigot.

Next, he showed us a brace and bit, and told us that this is what they formerly used to make the holes in the trees. Bringing out a battery powered drill, he said, “This is much faster.” One of the older boys received the privilege of drilling a hole in a piece of firewood from Don’s pile.

Don picked up the plastic spigot and forced it over the end of a green plastic hose. Another part of the spigot he pounded into the hole in the firewood to show us how to make a maple tree tap.

Having finished the demonstration, he guided us down through his meadow to his best producing maple tree. Two white plastic buckets stood beside the tree with the green hoses emptying the potential syrup into them. He informed us that he would probably harvest five gallons of sap from this tree by the end of the day.

 We walked back to his house and piled into vehicles for a ride up the Hammer Hollow road. After turning into another driveway that led up through the woods, we parked our vehicles at a large silver tank on wheels. The hike from there to the syrup line was a little taxing between the steepness of the hill and the ice underfoot.

The sight at the end made it all worthwhile. A network of hoses and pipes travel from an even higher height down a ravine to reach the stainless steel tank where we had parked. Amazing!

The teacher in me loved the numbers on the trees. Don explained to us that matching numbered buckets store the hoses till the next year when he and Roger reconnect the same hoses at the same places.

Since this is getting so long, you will have to wait for my next blog to visit the “Sugar Shack” with me where they boil the sap down into syrup. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Pennsylvania History Class 4

The last day of co-op is over. I will miss those little boys. For the last class we traveled to a local historical site, the Lewistown Narrows Canal Park, for a field trip. The open space matched up well with their natural exuberance as they explored every inch of the grounds.

The Lewistown Narrows Canal Park became a reality when the road going by became a side road instead of the main road from Mifflintown to Lewistown. Cars on what is now the main road zoom by at 65 mph on a four lane highway instead of the limited 55 two lanes that we used to travel along the river.

History buffs decided that the former lock keeper’s house and the still surviving canal lock should be restored and opened to the public. I enjoy taking children there. The place gives them a chance to see a sample of the canals that used to extend all over our state of Pennsylvania.

Canals came into existence because of the need to get people and goods from one place to another. Deep trenches dug by hand formed the base of the transportation system. Water from local springs filled the ditches, and boats began to travel down these long narrow water ways. Where the elevation changed, doors were added to make a box-like place within the canal where water could be used to raise or lower the boat to a new height. A man or woman living at the nearby lock keeper’s house had the responsibility to open or close the lock gates to begin the process.

The indentation where a gate used to be fastened.

The Lock Keeper's House

Mules or horses connected to the boats with ropes pulled the canal boats, and a boy guided the animals along the path beside the canal.

The first canal built at Conewago Falls in York County in 1797 allowed boats to continue past the falls. Pennsylvania formed the Pennsylvania Board of Canal Commissioners in 1825 and public locks opened in Pennsylvania six years later. The Board continued to direct canal building and operation until 1859 when railroads had become so popular and efficient that most canals were no longer profitable. Today the only operating canal system in Pennsylvania is the Monongahela River Navigation which is located on the Ohio River between Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

Model of a canal boat at the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site in the Visitor Center
Remember in my last blog that I told you my class might do a skit about Jimmy Stewart at the closing program? The hesitant boy came through with the courage to perform. Unfortunately, we should have had microphones. My husband and son sitting near the back said they had trouble hearing it. I could hear every word from up front and thought they did a terrific job!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Pennsylvania History Class 3

I wrote a skit about Jimmy Stewart saving his money to go up in an airplane with a barnstormer. My homeschool co-op class read through it this past week. Jimmy’s part read by the tallest, skinniest student sounded perfect as the boy read the part slowly, but very skillfully. His buddy in the skit contrasted ‘Jimmy” with his energetic, enthusiastic voice. “Billy Brock,” based on a real barnstormer, read through words like “extraordinaire” and ‘parachutist’ without hesitation on his first read. (Don’t tell me homeschooling doesn’t work. These three boys prove it!)

Barnstormers were ex-World War I pilots who bought leftover trainer planes after the war. They traveled around the United States putting on air shows and selling rides. First, they flew over a town and found a large field to land on. After asking the farmer’s permission to use the field, the pilots flew back over the town and dropped leaflets advertising their show and rides.

One barnstormer, Billy Brock, traveled with Lillian Boyer who walked on the plane’s wings while it flew. She jumped from the plane and floated down using a parachute. She even had a trick where she rode in car, grabbed a ladder hanging from the plane, and climbed up.

Barnstormers had to cease their money making activity when the government got into the act in 1927. Their strict regulations made it impossible for most barnstormers to continue. 

Jimmy Stewart, went for one of these rides with a barnstormer and later got his own pilot’s license. During World War II, he wanted to do his part for his country and enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps. By that time, he had already become a famous actor, and the government didn’t want him to risk his life in battle. So instead of sending him directly overseas, they put him to work training pilots.

Later, the need for pilots became so great that the U.S. sent Jimmy to England, and he advanced to a squadron leader leading bombing missions over Germany. Fortunately, God’s grace allowed him to come back to the United States. The experience almost ruined Jimmy’s acting career. After his part in the life and death situations of war, Jimmy began to look at acting as unimportant. His friends talked and persuaded until they succeeded in getting him to return to acting. Because of Jimmy’s friends, millions of Americans have been able to enjoy his movies to this day.

My students? Two of them love acting. The other is a little more hesitant. Unless that one backs out, they are going to do the skit for the whole co-op next week. Wish you could all see them do it. They are great kids!

P.S. Here’s a picture of Jimmy Stewart’s statue outside the Jimmy Stewart Museum and one of his boyhood home. I took these two summers ago when we visited Indiana, Pennsylvania.