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The Heritage Syrup Festival in Henderson is unlike any other of the events we’ve experienced throughout East Texas. While it has the food and crafts of most all the others, this annual event reaches out to those who enjoy looking back a hundred years or so.
It brings the days of your great-great-grandparents alive in a way that allows you to live, for a few moments at least, in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
There were Native American dancers, a buckskin clad trapper, antique and motorized farm equipment, a working sawmill recreated from those seen in the early days of the wild west where men load and cut up timber before an always mobile crowd of onlookers, and there was the star of the show, the cane syrup production facility.
When you watch the saw mill you feel and smell what it was like “back then” and when you visit the syrup mill and stand shoulder-to-shoulder, leaning on the fence with young children and those not so young, they too take you back many years.
They cook the cane syrup just as their Yankee friends in Vermont and New York cook maple sap into syrup each spring. One of the main differences is gathering the liquid that turns into gold.
In maple country in the “old days” they drilled holes in trees and tapped spiles into the trees, hung a bucket under each spile and let the sap drip into the pails. The collected liquid was taken to a “sugar shack” where it was boiled down and when finished, the adults would often take a container of the hot syrup and throw it on the snow outside and it became instant sugar candy for the children.
Sugar cane syrup is gathered by growing the cane and then crushing it to collect the liquid.
In the demonstration at Henderson, a mule walked in a circle, connected to a long metal pole, as the “one horse” engine driving the crusher that turned sugar cane into liquid that was collected and eventually poured into the tray-like pan that was used to boil the syrup over a wood fire until it turned into what will be poured over pancakes or biscuits.
The members of the Rusk County Syrup Team that show off their skills often work as shadowy figures that move almost ghost-like in the rising steam and every hour or so they pour off the finished product much to the delight of the large crowd and then they begin over again throughout the day.
Nearby you could purchase a “steak hook” fashioned by a black smith while you watched, or a walking stick could be cut to what ever length you wished by another vendor.
A line of spinning wheels were being used to create thread and if that wasn’t enough, just 20 or so feet away broom-making was being demonstrated for the curious, with some plunking down a few bucks to buy one.
There was music, food and brilliant wood carving but mostly there were miles of smiles from those who chose to spend part of their weekend in Henderson.