Editor’s note: Victoria Rodriguez, a tenth grader, is the Student Life Editor for her homeschool co-op’s newsletter, The Explorer.
The sky was big and blue above a town full of high spirits. The air, fresh and crisp with the scent of fall, mingled with the smells of wood-burning fires and food cooking. The morning sun slowly rose above the treetops, filtering its light through the autumn leaves. Excitement and anticipation filled the smiling people of the town as they welcomed the thousands who traveled from neighboring cities and distant states that Saturday. The sun continued to shine bright, the air stayed enjoyably cool, and the wonderful atmosphere seemed to never die. The entire crowd who gathered that day in 2019 once again agreed that Henderson, Texas, had put on another successful Syrup Festival, with great weather on their side.
“Really, the main factor of the whole day is the weather,” says Vickie Armstrong, Director of the Depot Museum of Rusk County since 2009.
With 2019 gone and 2020 just beginning, it was easy to look forward to the 32nd Annual Heritage Syrup Festival. But then something more than bad weather led to the cancellation of this year’s festival. Many other festivals have also been canceled due to concerns over COVID-19.
Suzanne Cross, Henderson’s Tourism Coordinator since 1995, who is in charge of the Syrup Festival’s downtown area, declares, “It’s just a sad thing.” And it truly is for those who love and depend on it.
“[The Depot Museum] was where the Syrup Festival was born,” states Armstrong.
She began working part-time at the Depot Museum in 1998, before eventually becoming the director. She now has 75-80 people volunteering, with the syrup team as her main volunteers.
“The festival grew out of a demonstration that was held on the museum grounds back in 1987,” said Armstrong.
A mule-powered sugar cane mill had been donated by the Leopard family from Chapel Hill and Joe W. Lowe Jr. donated a copper-cooking pan from the Lowe plantation in Glenfawn. That syrup making demonstration drew almost 1,000 onlookers and spurred on the idea of a full out syrup festival.
After tossing many ideas around, the Director of the Depot Museum at the time, Susan Weaver, and several others came up with a plan. The festival would include the Depot Museum’s many different historic buildings and structures on it, such as the syrup mill. The next year, the founders of the festival called some vendors to see if they would want to participate with them. So, following much hard work and thought, with a plan in place, the newly established Heritage Syrup Festival was formed. But there was one thing missing; a permanent syrup team to use the museum’s mill. Syrup makers were desperately needed. Then came the Folk Life Resources grant. It was used to start a training course that taught how to make syrup. The grant enabled the art of syrup making to be passed down to the next generation. Before long, the very first team of soon to be experienced syrup makers included Mike Weaver, Gene Gage, George Garrison, Mark Wheat, Milton Christian, Darrell Cummins, and his son, Logan. The Syrup Festival has been growing ever since.
The original purpose of the Syrup Festival was, in short, to keep history alive and to preserve the past.
“The Syrup Festival’s purpose was to educate people by the old ways,” says Charlie Gambrell, a former history teacher.
Gambrell is a volunteer team member with his wife Christie. They take up the money at the Depot Museum gate and stamp hands, allowing visitors to tour the main area and see the syrup being made. They have participated for many years at the Syrup Festival, knowing that it is a way that they can give back to the community.
“Lots have never seen syrup being made or lumber being cut, and when they put the cotton gin in, they’d never seen a cotton gin. It’s really just some of the older attractions that help remember how history was in Henderson,” said Gambrell.
Of course, the main attraction is the syrup mill. Don Reynolds assists with the Syrup Festival, is a member of the Tractor Club which runs the sawmill, and is the owner of a syrup mill at his home.
He explains the syrup-making process; “You first run your cane through your syrup press and press the juice out of your cane. It goes into a barrel and from the barrel into the pan. You fire your pan . . . with pine because you can control the fire better than with oak or something like that. Once you put [the juice] in your pan then you let it boil, and when it starts boiling all the impurities in the juice will float up to the top. You skim that off. It’s kind of like foam. The more you skim off the better taste your syrup will have when it’s finished. Then [the syrup] will start turning a golden brown when it’s done.”
The finished product has a sweet medium flavor intensity, unlike the heavy flavor of molasses. It was once a staple in the South. At one time, many farms in Rusk County raised sugar cane and had a syrup mill.
“It was a main deal,” remarks Reynolds.
During the Great Depression, if you could not buy sugar then you would use homemade syrup as a sweetener. Tourism Coordinator Cross notes, “Many people come to the Syrup Festival because they, as children, would go out and have family outings in the country in the fall, and they would make syrup, every year. It was tradition.” They come to the festival to relive those cherished childhood memories surrounding the making of syrup.
Some believe that aspects of the Syrup Festival have evolved to mainly a moneymaking opportunity, instead of focusing on history; that entertainers and booths have taken over. Others have a contrasting view, expressing that without the hundreds of vendor spaces, artists would not be able to sell their handicrafts. Yet placing all of that aside, both groups have to agree that the festival brings awareness to our city, by word of mouth, TV interviews, magazine articles and promotional brochures, and that the revenue is good for our town. After polling a group of locals, the end results showed that over 1/2 of those polled concurred that the Syrup Festival’s greatest benefit was an economic benefit and that 1/4 thought it to be a historical benefit.
A recent survey concerning Syrup Festival attendance revealed that, out of the group of families and individuals, 75 percent attend the festival annually, while 25 percent do not make the festival an annual event. Almost all admit to having a love for the food when they attend, as well as enjoying the crafters at the Depot Museum exhibiting their folk art.
Other historic crafts are displayed around the syrup mill every year, such as broom making, rope making, and woodcarving. Additional demonstrations include the blacksmith forge and the sawmill. Antique tractors are arranged beside the cotton gin, which is open to the public. Vendors advertise funnel cakes, turkey legs, corn dogs, and ice cream throughout the day. The 4-H clubs provide hayrides between the Depot Museum and historic downtown; a cacophony of sights and smells and sounds. Booths line the streets; some promoting their organizations, some selling their art, and still others selling retail items. A wide variety of food is offered, and many activities are available for children as well. Live music and dancing are also displayed for entertainment, while the car show on North Main Street is especially popular. The “Sweetest Festival in Texas” will be missed by many this year.
However, as Alfred Lord Tennyson stated, “ Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier’...”
Cross says in closing, “I love the Syrup Festival! It’s unfortunate, but hopefully this time next year we’ll just be excited that everything’s open.”