Published: March 24, 2011
In the kitchen at the old Mount Rogers School, the calendar remains on June 2010.
That's when classes wrapped up at the landmark along U.S. Highway 58 in southwestern Grayson County, finishing with just three graduates for the year: Devin Reece Blevins, Kayla Dawn Hayes and Brandon Daton Roop.
Here, from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, classes remained in session at Mount Rogers School. The one-level school was also once the home of a unique string band, teaching students how to play bluegrass and old-time mountain music.
But school consolidation ultimately meant moving students elsewhere when the 2010-2011 academic year began. And, this year, that school stands empty.
The once homey setting of the K-12 school, still, feels cozy – well, at least as much as any schoolhouse could be.
Never mind a few dangling wires and empty bookshelves. With a little TLC, that brick-and-stone structure is slated for use again during the Whitetop Mountain Maple Festival on March 26-27, said organizer Buryl Greer.
Come Saturday, you'll find pancakes sizzling – then drizzling with syrup in the old school kitchen. Look for crafters packing the former classrooms plus storytelling and a nature slide show at the nearby Faith Lutheran Church.
Just down the road, bluegrass and old-time musicians will crank up tunes at the Mount Rogers Fire Hall.
And more fun can be found at the maple tree-tapping area of Elk Garden along the Smyth-Grayson county border.
Expect more than a good time.
This festival is also a fundraiser for the Mount Rogers Volunteer Fire Department & Rescue Squad, which serves parts of Smyth, Grayson and Washington counties as well as neighboring North Carolina and Tennessee.
Musician or not, consider Buryl Greer a character on The Crooked Road: Virginia's Heritage Music Trail.
This mastermind of maple trees unites a tight band of volunteers at Whitetop.
He's also bound to have sticky fingers: For more than a decade, Greer, 69, has been instrumental in guiding February's tree-tapping ritual on Whitetop Mountain. There, he collects the sugar water that is ultimately boiled and made into syrup at the community's Sugar House.
It's not easy.
Especially when it snows, like it has so much during the past couple of winters, Greer said.
"We couldn't get to the trees until about the 15th of February. It was pretty bad but not as bad as last year when we couldn't get in the woods. The snow was so deep."
Getting to the lines to collect the sugar water has been one challenge. Another problem: waiting for the sugar water to actually flow.
A back-and-forth bounce between hot and cold is required: It takes just the right temperature combination of freezing at night then above-freezing temperatures during the day for the sugar water to gush from the maple trees, Greer said.
Then it takes long hours of boiling that sugar water to make syrup – the chief ingredient for the Whitetop Mountain Maple Festival, a tradition for decades.
"It's like a rite of spring," said festival volunteer Dean Richardson, 77. "The snow is leaving, and the leaves are going to start coming out, and we start tapping maple trees."
This year, the workload has been reduced – thanks to a $10,000 reverse osmosis machine, which leaves behind water with a higher sugar concentration, Greer said.
And what that boils down to, literally, is a reduced amount of time needed to work in the community's Sugar House: A shift can now span just two-and-a-half hours, instead of 10, allowing for more flexibility among the volunteer crew.
Shorter cooking time also saves burning oil that costs $3.63 a gallon, said volunteer Ken Kilby.
Gallon by gallon, Greer hopes to reclaim Whitetop's maple syrup heritage. This year, for one, Greer wants his band of maple men to produce at least 150 gallons of syrup – an increase of 25 gallons from last year.
Long gone, he said, are the days of importing extra sticky stuff from Vermont to pour across pancakes. Supplemental syrup, still, comes from Virginia's Highland County. But, Greer promised, that's now far less than half of what you'll find for sale at the festival. And, one day, he even hopes to do away with that.
Greer wants everything homegrown. Every ounce.
That's why he withstands winters at Whitetop – times of bone-numbing cold – to tap sugar maples and run their waters into a collection vat.
It's called sugaring.
Yet, it is not quite the old-fashioned chore it once was.
Today, you can still drift along the narrow lanes of the Whitetop community and see lines on trees leading to buckets – the time-honored way to collect sugar water – near the eastern terminus of the Virginia Creeper Trail. But back at Elk Garden, along the Appalachian Trail, Greer demonstrates his modern-day tools, including a gasoline-powered engine. It helps suck sugar water from tapped trees, like a vacuum, through gravity-fed lines.
Far from a four-lane highway, Whitetop lies near the center of The Crooked Road, a 253-mile-long marketing initiative launched in 2004 and designed to unite the towns and musicians of Southwestern Virginia – from Rocky Mount to Breaks Interstate Park.
Historically, Whitetop has been a musical place – even before the old Mount Rogers School was built on the eastern edge of the community in the late 1930s.
The long-gone White Top Folk Festival of the 1930s once attracted thousands to the grassy plain of the mile-high peak called Whitetop Mountain, rising above the village at the tri-county corner of Washington, Smyth and Grayson counties. Famously, too, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt paid a visit to the White Top Folk Festival on Aug. 12, 1933, and as many as 20,000 people came out to see her.
Kilby, for one, simply hopes the Whitetop Mountain Maple Festival exceeds last year's attendance of about 5,000 people.
And the music?
Oh, yes, he said, there will be music.
"We've got the bands that participate in this," said Kilby, 74. "But we've had them even before The Crooked Road."
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