All Virgil Hawthorne wanted to do was cook up some Floyds Fork maple syrup. He’d never done it before – and as it turned out he would never do it again – but he had as good an explanation as any for trying.
“I was always doing stuff like that,” he said. “I know my trees pretty good…my Dad taught me that.”
Hawthorne had the maple syrup material. Looming overhead – way up on top of Broad Run Hill and just across nearby Floyds Fork from his house – was a big grove of sugar maple trees, really big sugar maple trees.
“There was at least 50 of them,” he said. “Some you could barely reach half-way around and bust your arms….”
There also was a little history that led to the enterprise. His sell-sufficient family has lived on Stout Road where it dead ends into Floyds Fork since the late 1940s. Hawthorne’s mother, Katie Lee, had grown up in the area. She met his dad, Marvin Ray Hawthorne, soon after he came home from fighting in the Philippines in World War II. He bought the 52 acres where Hawthorne now lives for $3,000.
“He made up his mind to save every penny he made while he was over there – if he lived through it,” Hawthorne said. “And the house and the barn, a chicken house and a smoke house came with it…You don’t know any places for sale like that, do you?”
At first Marvin Hawthorne plowed the land with two horses, Matt and Dick – with Virgil riding the back of the more gentle mare. His dad planted field corn behind the horses – the family picking and shelling the ears by hand. Marvin Hawthorne also raised an acre of tobacco, milked cows, put up hay and heated his four bedroom house with a wood-burning stove.
If they went to a grocery store they’d spend maybe $5. The family – Virgil, his sister and their parents – ate from their big garden and canned its bounty. Virgil would canoe on Floyds Fork, hunted rabbits and squirrels, picked the local blackberries and occasionally added catfish, suckers and carp to the dinner table after he and his buddies speared fish in the river with pitchfork-like, five-pronged “gigs.”
The teenagers would fish at night in the spring when the water was high. Carrying hand-held carbide lights – their brilliant white glow spreading over the dark water – they would gig any fish that came to investigate. “I even took a bath in the Fork,” said Hawthorne. “It’s a good place.”
Nor was Stout Road quite a dead end then either. Hawthorne said there was an old road up behind the family home that led to Buttermilk Trail and Dawson Hill Road and a failed golf course development. In dry weather, he said, you could also drive down into the Floyds Fork stream bed, head up river and find a little gravel road that would take you up and over the hill to Seatonville Road.
“It was this little old cow path, whatever you want to call it,” Hawthorne said, “a road that kind of went alongside the woods down through there…It was pretty steep going in there.”
Virgil and Vicki Hawthorne were married in 1972, built their Stout Road house in 1977. They raised two children there; Wesley and Heather. Virgil worked at Worthington Steel for 30 years cutting big coils of steel into precise lengths. He hurt his back, had a rod inserted in it to give him support – but doesn’t always relieve the pain.
Over the years he raised 14 hives of bees, a garden and became the neighborhood “fix-it” man for small engines gone bad. In recent times occasional “seizures” have temporarily robbed him of his memory. A few years ago, using an old bulldozer, he dug a quarter acre pond behind their home for his wife – who loves to fish in her time away from being a school secretary – and created a little park for her back there.
”I’ve had to take a lot of pain pills in order to stay on it (the dozer) but I was determined to make it for my wife because, I don’t know, I want to keep her happy as long as I can,” he said.
He also took his one and only shot at making Floyds Fork maple syrup.
The idea – a mix country circumstance and pure serendipity – came about 20 years ago when he saw something on television about making maple syrup. Not long after that he was in a White Castle, where old five-gallon pickle buckets – green with white lids – were being sold for 50 cents apiece. He bought 20 of them.
That find dove-tailed with a previous find; a 300-gallon stainless steel tank once used to hold milk that had been dumped into a nearby creek as garbage. Early one morning Virgil and his father went to the creek and rolled the big tank up the bank and onto his truck.
“I liked to never got it out of there,” he said.
He took home the tank, cleaned and shined it and put a new valve on the bottom. He dug a fire pit near the barn, placed the tank over it and then constructed a tall chimney – with damper – made of stovepipe; his maple syrup distiller was complete.
The following February – using two weeks vacation time – Hawthorne drilled holes in the top of his White Castle pickle buckets. He pushed short sections of garden hose through the holes and headed across Floyds Fork and up Broad Run Hill toward the big grove of sugar maple trees – six pickle buckets and a hand augur in tow. It was so cold ice had formed at the edges of the water.
“I put on my tennis shoes and just waded across the creek,” he said. “The water was up to my waist…I was a little bit tougher back then.”
He pushed up the steep hill about 200 yards to the trees where he augured holes about three-quarters of an inch deep through the bark and shoved the open end of the pickle-bucket hose into the tree.
“You could hear that sap starting to trickle in and I stood there a minute watching it,” Hawthorne said, “All at once the hose popped out of the tree…the pressure popped it out.
“And I had to take and drill little bitty holes in the top of the hose to relieve the pressure.”
Hawthorne made two or three late-February trips wading across frigid Floyds Fork and up the bluff to the sugar maple trees, eventually securing buckets to about 12 to 15 trees.
“It was so steep you could hardly stand up,” he said.
After the buckets were full of sap he’d have to reverse the trip, carrying six almost-full buckets at a time back down the slope and across Floyds Fork to truck – and eventually his home-made distiller.
“I had six of the buckets because I could slide down the bluff and hold the handles together, three on a side,” he said. “When I got to the creek the buckets weren’t completely full and the creek would help support them.”
It takes about 40 to 50 gallons of maple sap to distill one gallon of syrup. Hawthorne hauled enough sap to almost fill the 300-gallon tank, lit his wood fire and cooked the sap for two days.
When it looked like he was about down to five gallons of syrup he poured it into his wife’s pressure cooker and cooked it another two hours.
“I was watching it,” he said, ‘and all at once it fizzed up and all over and starting coming right out…I turned the stove off and it was maple syrup.”
He estimated his take after two weeks of carrying and cooking was almost five gallons of maple syrup. Used at home – and passed on to friends, family and co-workers – it was all gone in about a month.
“It was the best tasting maple syrup I ever had in my life,” he said. “My wife said it was, too. And if she said it was, it had to be good.”
Both also agreed he would never try it again.
– Bob Hill