It’s no secret that Frederick is full of interesting history and unique traditions. Winter is here and that means one of the oldest and most popular annual events, the Maple Syrup Festival in Thurmont, is about to begin. Celebrating 50 years in 2020, the festival is held on the second and third weekends of March at the Houck Lake Area of Cunningham Falls State Park.
Making maple syrup is a fascinating process that dates back in some form to the indigenous peoples in North America. It includes tapping trees to harvest maple tree sap, collecting gallons of sap in buckets, and boiling off the water to get sap that has been concentrated into maple syrup. All maple syrup has the same amount of maple sugar, but the maple flavor can differ and syrup can vary in color and taste throughout the sugaring season, as it is called.
Over 80% of the maple syrup you buy at the grocery store is made in Canada (most coming from Quebec), so this is a somewhat rare opportunity to enjoy some of the locally made sweet stuff. Maple syrup is almost entirely produced in the Northeast, so it is certainly a specialty that comes out of the area. It takes over forty gallons of maple sap to make a gallon of maple syrup. Sap is boiled down in the process and most of the liquid is evaporated.In some countries like South Korea, people prefer to use maple sap unprocessed and straight from the tree. It is believed that the sap could help to prevent disease and osteoporosis.
The festival itself also has quite an interesting story. Originally started by the Catoctin Mountain Tourist Council and its small group of 25-35 members, the event started in nearby Catoctin Mountain Park. When the lake at Cunningham Falls State Park was completed and opened to the public, the event was moved to its current location. It is estimated that less than 50 people were in attendance at the very first Maple Syrup Festival, which was just a simple demonstration. No trees were tapped, no products were sold.
There was interest in continuing to grow the event both to bring visitors to the area and to kickoff the spring season. “People are itching to get outside by that time of year,” said Mike Irons whose family was involved in the creation of the event. According to Mike, his family and other festival volunteers used to actually make the syrup that was sold at the event. “We weren’t allowed to sell syrup that was made outside of Maryland, the park wouldn’t let us. So we travelled to Oakland to help make the syrup ourselves and bring it back to sell. Eventually we couldn’t keep up with the amount of people wanting to buy it.”
Today the products sold at the event come from S&S Maple Camp in Corriganville, Maryland. Leo Shinholt, the company's owner, is a third generation sugar producer. S&S has been in business just as long as the festival. They tap over 5,000 trees for just one season of syrup production. Leo has learned from experience that the first run is always the sweetest.
Each day of the Maple Syrup Festival visitors can enjoy live maple syrup demonstrations. The demonstrations begin every hour and continue throughout the day. Live music can be enjoyed on both Saturdays and Sundays. A sign language interpreter will be available on both Sundays. Hot food is available including pancakes, sausage, sausage sandwiches, and hot dogs. Maple syrup products such as maple syrup, maple cream, and maple candy can also be purchased. Be sure to buy your souvenirs early, these are popular items and they might sell out!
In addition to watching the demonstrations, kids will love the crafts, games, and activities that are part of the festival. A large heated tent will keep everyone warm, but if nature is calling there is always an opportunity to get outside and enjoy the crisp air. If the weather is nice, start with a hike and reward yourself with some tasty pancakes.
A donation of $3 per person is requested to attend the Maple Syrup Festival, in lieu of the usual park entry fee. Youth group members are $2 and children in car seats are free of charge. All proceeds benefit Cunningham Falls State Park and Gambrill State Park through their Friends group which has been in existence since 1996. The group has helped contribute things like Polaris vehicles, a skid loader, rescue boat, and a handicapped beach wheelchair to the park. The festival is a cash only event, so be sure to stop by the atm on your way. Pets are welcome in the outside areas of the festival, but not in the tent.
If you still have questions about the festival, call the park office at 301-271-7574. Park rangers and volunteers will be easy to find during the event and will have all the information you might need.