Reflections From “The Granddaddy of the Maple Festival” – Part 1

“They do call me ‘The Granddaddy of the Maple Festival.’ I’m the only one left!”

90-year-old Austin Shepherd has seen every single Highland County Maple Festival. He was there from the very beginning. A retired Highland County Extension Agent, Mr. Shepherd was gracious enough to recently drive himself to the WVLS Studios in Monterey to thoughtfully recall his experience and wisdom, all with a good dose of humor. In this three-part interview, he begins by explaining just how the Maple Festival came to be.

Mr. Shepherd says, “The way the Maple Festival actually started is a gentleman that sold medical supplies to Dr. Billingsley, and he was President of the Chamber of Commerce, so this fella, he observed Maple Festivals in Pennsylvania, and he says, ‘Y’all having maple syrup produced, why don’t you try a, a Maple Festival?’ So that’s what we actually did to get it going. Of course, I was the Executive Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, so that’s the reason I was involved and also being County Agent, I saw it as a reason for us to make some money for the people in the county, so we formed a committee. Of course, Dr. Billingsley was President. Dick Eagle, George Bird, Gene and Joe Sullenberger, Joe Pritchard, and members of the civic organizations, we pulled them in because we wanted them to feed the people when they came in because the only place they could eat was at High’s Restaurant, so we kept working on it, and eventually, we had thousands of people coming in to the places that people made the syrup, and everyone seemed to enjoy that, and I must be the only surviving member of the committee now. It may be one somewhere out there, but, uh, the only one I know of.”

The first Maple Festival, held in February of 1958, had only one sugar camp open to the public. Mr. Shepherd continues, “The Hevener Camp was the only one that was operating when the Maple Festival started, I mean, you know, that was attracting people, and, of course, we put them on the committee so that they would know when to open the camp, and it was just west going just out of Monterey on the right. They had an excellent camp out there, but they’ve gone out of business.”

Mr. Shepherd wrote the first brochure for the Maple Festival, and that type of advertising to give directions to visitors continues today. He says, “And as I said, we have now attracted thousands of people that come in to the county, and they can also see what a beautiful county we have, because, really, we don’t have more than about 2,000 people, and people are not used to having that few people around ‘em when they’re visiting. Of course, the civic organizations are really glad to see it happening with all the food that they serve, and there’s buckwheat pancakes and, of course, maple syrup, so people enjoy eating here, and they can eat all they want. If they want one buckwheat cake or a dozen, they can have all they want.”

Coming up in part 2, Austin Shepherd talks about impacts and changes since the festival’s inception.

Story By

Chris Swecker

is the Assistant Station Coordinator and a News Reporter for WVLS. He has roots in Highland County going back several generations, and he grew up in Monterey. Since graduating from James Madison University with a bachelor’s degree in Media Arts and Design, he has pursued his career at a news station and advertising agency in Virginia, on Microsoft’s campus in the state of Washington, and in both states as sole owner and employee of a video production company. He enjoys exploring life with his wife, Jessa Fowler, traveling, hiking, hunting, gardening, and trying new foods, all while discovering more about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. He feels blessed to be a small part of this talented AMR team to help give back to the community that has provided him with so much.

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