The Hueston Woods State Nature Preserve comprises 200 acres of beech and maple trees that have never been cut down. Since Matthew Hueston bought the land in 1797 and fell in love with the area and with the production of maple syrup, it has been preserved and protected, and it now represents the largest mature beech maple forest in Ohio.
Which only makes it fitting that for the past half a century, the area has also played host to the Hueston Woods Maple Syrup Festival, an annual celebration of maple syrup production in Ohio.
"Maple syrup production is really the reason we have a park, so we try to do this every year," said the park naturalist, Shawn Conner, as the 51st annual festival kicked off this past weekend.
Spanning two weekends, the festival offers visitors the ability to learn about the history and craft of making maple syrup. Hayrides leaving from Pioneer Farm on Brown Road transport syrup-lovers into the heart of the Nature Preserve, where they can enjoy a short guided hike among the towering beeches and maples. The guides make periodic stops along the way to demonstrate how the trees are tapped before concluding at the sugar house, a cozy, smoky hut where the sap is boiled down into the pure finished product.
And of course, there is plenty of opportunity to try said product. Concession stands display an assortment of vessels containing the sugary concoction, from massive gallon jugs to artistic glass vials. A wide array of treats such as maple popcorn and maple candy are also available, while a grill by the sugarhouse offers maple hot dogs, maple burgers and funnel cake drizzled with maple syrup. And each morning, the Hueston Woods Lodge hosts a pancake breakfast, complete with sausage and coffee.
Perry Gordon, a recent retiree from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, has been conducting the sugarhouse presentation since 2011. Gordon sees the festival as a great opportunity to show people how much work truly goes into the production of maple syrup.
"A lot of people, they have no idea where that bottle of syrup comes from," he said. "It gives people a sense of how much work goes into this, that it's not just turn on the taps and there it is. There's a lot of work involved."
On average, it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of pure maple syrup, a figure that becomes even more staggering when one witnesses the lethargic drip of sap exiting the tap and falling into the metal pail hanging from each maple tree. According to Conner, on a good day, a tree might yield two to three gallons of sap, which is 97 percent water. The boiling process can then take up to several hours.
Blake Kaiser, who began working as a naturalist at Hueston Woods this year, was drawn to the old-fashioned nature of this process and even plans on trying it himself next spring.
"This is almost a lost art, I guess," he said. "When you think of farming, you don't think of things like this, of maple syrup production."
Kaiser believes that the festival offers a great opportunity for families to come to the park, enjoy the outdoors and learn about this production process.
"It's important, I think, to get a lot of the kids out from the video games and in front of the TV screens and all of that kind of stuff and come out and see how all this stuff's made they're pulling off shelves at the grocery stores," he said.
The festival continues this Saturday and Sunday. The pancake breakfast is served from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Hueston Woods Lodge, while the tours run from noon to 4, starting at Pioneer Farm.