West Virginia has long been known for its coal-mining and timber industries, but thanks to the citizens of Pickens (pop. 100), the state also is making strides with a sweeter natural resource: maple syrup.
American Indians were the first to make syrup here, catching sap in wooden troughs into which they tossed heated stones to evaporate the water from the sugar. Settlers came along in the late 1800s and took up the habit, using the dark liquid to sweeten their meals—and also to supplement their income by selling it to other townspeople.
When the coal mines began closing in Pickens in the early 1980s, it became especially important for locals to find additional means of support. More than half the population was forced to leave the area to make a living, but Alvin Burky, who had recently graduated from college, wanted to stay.
“I’m kind of a homey person and I like this area real well, so I decided to do what I could in order to get by,” he says.
For several years, that meant waiting tables and working as a chef in nearby towns, in addition to raising cattle, sheep, and chickens on his farm. Eventually, he was offered a job as an attendant at the Kumbrabrow State Forest. But because the forest closes in the winter, he still needed additional work.
In 1994, he found a seasonal position helping neighbor Mike Richter make maple syrup. The sap flows for several weeks in late winter, stimulated by freeze-and-thaw cycles.
Burky enjoyed the process so much, he began tapping his own trees and selling the sap to Richter, the only full-time sugar maker in an area sprinkled with part-timers. “There’s a big expense in the beginning,” Burky says, regarding buying the bulky holding and hauling equipment. “But you’re only working at the most two months. So for such a short period of time, there’s a big profit in it.”
Richter, who has six part-time employees, encourages all his neighbors to take advantage of the cash crop growing in their back yards. He buys sap from two other landowners and has mentored others considering the business. He started his own enterprise 20 years ago when he realized that West Virginia has as many maple trees as some New England states, but at the time did not have a single commercial sugar-making operation.
“There is a great demand for maple syrup, which could sustain more than me,” he explains. Still, few others have attempted it commercially.
“It’s very labor intensive, and I believe that discourages people,” says Richter, who produces about 1,000 gallons of maple syrup every year, depending on the weather. A wet spring and sunny summer maximize the harvest.
Richter has made the process easier by investing in the latest equipment, including a tubing system that allows sap to flow directly into holding tanks and a reverse osmosis machine that quickly separates water from sugar. He taps 4,000 trees and produces syrup in four grades, from light to dark. He also makes maple candy, a maple spread, and pancake mixes.
Visitors are always welcome to tour his facility, known as a maple syrup “camp.” He also sells items at the two-day West Virginia Maple Syrup Festival, which he helped found 18 years ago. Each March, as many as 5,000 people come to enjoy all-day pancake feeds, sugar-making demonstrations, native handicrafts, square dancing, and live country music.
Up to 200 of those visitors were once Pickens residents.
“It’s a great homecoming for the people who’ve moved away,” says Kim Chandler, member of the Pickens Improvement and Historical Society. All event proceeds are used to buy and restore old buildings. The first project was the local railroad depot, which now includes a town museum. The group currently is working on an 1800s opera house, where they plan to host monthly concerts.
Compared to such places as Canada and Vermont, sugar making is still a small industry in West Virginia. But it’s given Pickens a positive identity, and for some, it’s a great way to make a living, or just a little extra money.
“It still amazes me that I’m gathering sap out of a tree and making food,” Richter says. “I never get tired of eating it.”