I should know better than to take a trip into the mountains of Virginia. Every time I do, I come back to Richmond ready to pack my bags and head for the hills. Although, I had been wanting to visit Monterey, Virginia ever since I first heard about their annual Highland Maple Festival over a decade ago, I had never been until this past November. Now, I can’t stop thinking about how much I love this little town, located in Highland County. U.S. routes 250 and 220 intersect in the heart of town, which sits about 10 miles from the West Virginia border.
“It just feels like home,” says Dorothy Stephenson, executive director for the Highland County Chamber of Commerce. Now, Dorothy has lived in the county for most of her 33 years. So, there’s a good reason that it feels like home to her. What’s my excuse? I can’t exactly figure it out, but Monterey and Highland County feel like home to me, too. I can’t wait to go back. I love the quiet, slow pace and the friendliness of the town, which offers a handful of restaurants, a really cool cidery, a smattering of gift shops, a Dollar General and a few quaint places to spend the night (more about that later).
The annual maple festival, which celebrates its 60th year on March 10 to 11 and 17 to 18, is, indeed, the big draw. During the two weekends, more than 50,000 people will flock to Highland County, which has a population of just a little over 2,000. So, you can imagine how the festival must impact the community, especially the folks who make the maple syrup.
I had the pleasure of meeting a few of those hardy and hard-working folks during my visit. I spent one morning with Tim Duff, who, along with wife, Terry, runs Duff’s Sugar House. Tim, one of the most interesting people you’d ever chance to meet, grew up helping his parents produce maple syrup about 600 miles north of Highland County, in the Adirondacks. “I hated it,” he says of those early days. After retiring from the military, he and his wife ended up in the hills of Virginia. Now, he tells me, he loves his small syrup-producing business. Pretty much every ounce of syrup that he produces — about 38 gallons a year — he sells during those two weekends in March.
The day of my visit, Tim is busy stirring seven bushels of apples to produce apple butter, which he sells in the cozy, little Sugar House. He makes apple butter in much the same manner as he makes his syrup — “the old fashioned way.”
I arrive at the sugar house about 9 a.m. Tim has already been stirring his apples by hand since five that morning, and he’ll continue to do so until about five in the evening. I ask him if he has to stir continuously. “I can stop for about 30 seconds at a time,” he tells me. Anything more than that and the apples will burn. They’re beginning to bubble and spit as we talk. During the last hour of the process, he’ll be adding in his sugars and secret spice recipe. Dorothy, who is serving as my tour guide for the day, takes over the stirrer while Tim gets me a taste of his apple butter. Absolutely delicious!
Between September and December, the Duffs will make about 90 pints of this tasty concoction, all of which they sell in their Sugar House. You can’t buy it online or find it in the grocery stores. “You have to come here and enjoy the experience,” Tim says.
As with his maple syrup production, he wants visitors to come and see the way folks in this neck of the woods have been doing it for well over 200 years.
“Do you let visitors stir?” I ask.
“Oh my gosh, yes,” he laughs. I guess that was a dumb question to ask a man who has been stirring apples for five hours straight.
In addition to making syrup and apple butter, Tim also carves duck decoys and builds old-fashioned flintlock rifles. In fact, he tells me that he’s building a re-creation of an 18th-century gunsmith shop out behind the Sugar House. By the time you read this, the shop should be open, which is another reason I want to go back to Highland County.
While Tim prides himself on doing things in the primitive way, Ronnie Moyers, his wife Sandy and daughter Missy Moyers-Jarrell, are very much into applying the modern technology that has changed the way that many maple syrup producers are doing business in the 21st century. The family’s Laurel Fork Sapsuckers Sugar Camp (10677 Mountain Turnpike, Clay Hise Lane, Hightown), allows them to produce about 200 gallons of syrup a year. As a forester and logger, Ronnie is constantly experimenting with ways to increase the sugar water production in his maple trees. One way that he does this is by thinning the non-maple trees, which block the sunlight in his sugar bush, or the “stand” of maple trees that he taps each year.
Instead of using buckets to capture the syrup, as does Tim Huff, the Moyers use tubing to collect the sap, which then runs down the hill to the holding tank outside of the sugar camp. Once the sap (sugar water) starts running, it has to be cooked almost immediately.
“We treat it like raw milk,” Missy tells me. “The sugar water is not shelf-stable. It will spoil in one to two days.”
Now, comes the hard work. For the next 36 hours or so, the sugar water will be cooked down. Someone has to be watching the pans continuously to prevent both the product and the pans from burning. If you ever tend to question the price of maple syrup, consider this: It takes anywhere from 35 to 50 gallons of the sugar water to produce one gallon of pure maple syrup. The Moyers sell their syrup along with baked goods, sandwiches and other food items in a little wooden hut at the top of the hill a few hundred yards up from the camp. Calling it a “hill” is somewhat an understatement. At over 4,000 feet, their sugar camp is the highest in the state.
There are a handful of additional sugar camps in the county. Some, Ronnie tells me, have modern equipment (“All the bells and whistles”) and can produce over 100 gallons of finished product a day. “The biggest day we ever had,” he says, “was about 15 gallons.”
There’s no time of year that’s not a perfect time to visit. Each season in this picturesque region, which has been dubbed “the Switzerland of Virginia, has its own beauty and pleasures. The trees put on a show each autumn that’s not to be missed. Visit Hightown, about five miles from Monterrey and see Dividing Waters Farm. They say that the rainwater that rolls off one side of the barn roof forms the headwaters to the Potomac River. The water on the other side eventually becomes the James River. Meander through the county on the barn quilt trail. Discover the wildflower and artisan trails, as well. Many bikers and bicyclists love the winding highways with gorgeous scenery at every turn in the road.
Tim Duff had told me during our visit, “Highland County is like Disneyworld for the Little House on the Prairie crowd.” With that analogy in mind, here’s my advice: Pa should grab Half Pint and the rest of the family and head on “home” to Monterey Virginia.
Know before you go: I wish I had the space to tell you more about so many of the wonderful people of Monterey and Highland County who showered me with hospitality during my visit. In this brief directory below, I’ll try to, at least, introduce you to some of them. Learn more at HighlandCounty.org.
59 Spruce St., Monterey | 540-468-2322
I spent a couple of hours talking and tasting ciders one evening during my visit with Kirk Billingsly, owner of this microcidery. Kirk truly is (and I mean this in the nicest possible way) an apple geek. I don’t’ mean the computers. I mean the fruit. As a kid, he loved both apples and sweet apple cider, which his father would make. He loved traveling the county looking for the wide varieties of apple trees. He was fascinated by the antique and heritage apples. While in college (JMU), he says he jumped at the opportunity to learn the science of grafting apples and got hooked on producing hybrid varieties. After he was grown and married, he decided to try his hand at making hard cider, which he did for close to 20 years before doing it commercially. He bought an old restaurant that had a 30-foot neon sign featuring a big trout on the roof. The neon’s gone, but the sign remains. It was the inspiration for the name of the business. He opened his cidery in 2015 and in his first year his flagship cider, Allegheny Gold earned the “Best in Class” award at the Great Lakes International Cider Competition in Grand Rapids Michigan. “No Virginia cider had ever gotten that,” he said.
Other favorite ciders (my assessment) include the Highland Scrumpy, which is made with over 20 local varieties. The wild yeast used in fermentation gives this a real old-fashioned cider taste. I also enjoyed the Monterey Maple, which is fermented with maple syrup.
5840 Potomac River Road, Monterey | 540-468-2280
You’ve never seen so many rainbow trout, which are offered fresh, frozen and smoked. The fish are available year-round for stocking ponds and streams and eating, of course. Many local restaurants serve their fresh trout. Recreational fishing for a fee is offered at the hatchery.
101 W. Main St., Monterey | 540-468-3800
First and foremost, this is a floral shop, offering seasonal arrangements, including poinsettias in the winter, hanging baskets in the spring and mums in the fall. But Susie Newlen and Erica Stephenson, who operate the place, offer much more than flowers. The shop offers such gift ideas as maple syrups from Laurel Forks Sapsucker (Susie is another daughter of the Moyers), as well as wooden boat bowls and wooden vases made from Highland County trees. Erica, who learned the art of stained glass design as a child, says you can also find a variety of stained glass gifts, such as miniature maple leaves and stepping stones, in the store.
U.S. Highway 220, Bluegrass | 540-474-5137
I went in expecting to find cracker barrels on the floor and cured hams hanging from the ceiling. This is not your typical country store. Debora and SKE Ellington, who own and operate this very unique store, also own the nearby 260-acre Ginseng Mountain Farm, where they raise cattle and sheep. Their store offers sheepskins from the farm, which proved to be very popular with some shoppers who happened by during my visit. The store is a true artisans’ delight, featuring braided rugs, handmade pottery, Highland County maple syrup, the Ellington’s grass-fed Angus beef and lamb, and much more.
Accommodations & Dining
68 W. Main St., Monterey | 540-468-2143
The historical Monterey Hotel, built in 1904 in the heart of town, has been beautifully renovated as the Highland Inn. The Inn, now owned and operated by the Highland Center, offers 18 guest rooms. During my visit, I enjoyed a fabulous meal prepared by their young, talented and much acclaimed chef, Dan Evans.
364 W. Main St., Monterey | 540-468-3278
This quaint Victorian Queen Anne-style bed and breakfast served as my home away from home during my visit. And it truly felt like home — had I grown up in a beautiful mansion. The three guest rooms (two with private baths) offer warm, cozy and comfortable accommodations. Each room is named after a Victorian-era author. I enjoyed visiting with the proprietor, Mrs. Betty Cockerham. While her very name sounds like a character out of a Charles Dickens novel (one of the suites is named after the writer), Mrs. Cockerham admits that Dickens is not one of her favorite authors. She is an avid reader and the hallways are filled with a variety of books. If I had more time, I would have curled up with a good one. Maybe next time. Here’s a hint: If you’re planning a ski trip to Snowshoe, it’s less than an hour away from Monterey and the rates at the Arborgast and the Highland Inn are much more reasonable.
The Real Deal Market & Grill
11 E. Main St., Monterey | 540-292-5137
The Real Deal is a great deal. Owned by the Ellingtons (of Ginseng Mountain), the market offers a variety of locally made products. You can even buy the lamb and beef fresh off the farm. The restaurant has recently added a breakfast menu. I enjoyed a delicious homemade biscuit topped with egg and bacon. They smoke their own barbecue, which gets lots of rave reviews as does their beef stew. Their smoked chicken salad is out of this world.
2175 Hanky Mountain Highway, Churchville | 540-337-8004
Jack and Mary Wilson, the owners of this wonderful little restaurant, are an amazing and interesting couple. Even if their food were bland (which it’s not), I’d stop in just to visit with the Wilsons. They love all things Highland County and sell many of the county’s products in their restaurant and bakery. White’s is actually located in Augusta County, about half an hour from Highland County, and serves as the perfect spot to begin or end your Monterey getaway. By the way, they serve the best apple pie in the state.