History of the Property
When Blythe and two of his buddies rented rooms at Federal Grove in the late 1980s, it appeared the heyday of the 1785 homestead of Gen. Jonathan Clark had long since passed. The once-stately structure was deteriorating and in need of much repair-a far cry from the days when it served as a respite for travelers between Louisville and Nashville. But when Terry came to clean for her son and his friends, she saw the beauty beneath the aged exterior. Having dreamed of owning and restoring an old home, she longed to purchase the house and revive it.
`Mom had always wanted to get her hands on an old home. Federal Grove was right under our noses the whole time,` says Blythe, who had grown up just miles from the mansion in Logan County.
And his mother`s wish came true.
In 1991, the house came up for auction. Terry and her husband, Wayne, purchased the historical home and an adjacent 13 acres, and then promptly rolled up their sleeves and got to work restoring the structure. Within a year, it was operating as a bed and breakfast and offering guests a wonderful sampling of Kentucky hospitality, complete with morning meals that consisted of steaming hot biscuits, country ham and an assortment of Southern delicacies. By 1997, word of Terry`s fine cooking and Federal Grove`s comfortable atmosphere had reached the point that the establishment started offering planned dining, which led to its becoming a full-service restaurant in 2008.
Yet Blythe longed for the business to have a signature product, an item by which customers and locals could identify Federal Grove. Blueberries seemed good, but possibly too labor intensive. Strawberries seemed like a nice fit, but area farmers already were producing a plentiful supply.
That`s when Blythe, who had worked in landscaping and horticulture, looked out the door and saw a maple tree in a new light.
His father-in-law in Lawrenceburg had successfully made maple syrup. `I thought, â€˜If he can do it in Anderson County, we`re only a little farther south. Why not give it a try?` ` he says.
The season was late winter with its cold nights and above-freezing days-ideal conditions for sap gathering. Blythe tapped his first tree. Within eight hours the mighty maple gave a gallon of sap, and he knew he was on to something.
That spring, the Kentucky Farms are Fun program held an event in Bowling Green with keynote speaker Burr Morse, owner of Morse Maple Farm in Vermont. Not only did Blythe attend the meeting, but he also gave Morse a sample of his Kentucky-made maple syrup.
`He told me it was as good as anything from Vermont,` he says with a laugh.
From that point, he was on a mission to learn as much as possible about the making, bottling and marketing of maple syrup. So he headed north to Vermont, where he toured different farms and talked with the experts. `I basically begged and
borrowed info,` Blythe says. When he returned, he was ready in earnest for the next season.
Maple Syrup Making
The art of making maple syrup is more labor-intensive than complicated. It`s believed that American Indians had been making some form of the sweet treat for centuries prior to settlers arriving from Europe. Their process involved making a gash in a tree, collecting sap in a bucket, and throwing in hot stones to evaporate the water and concentrate the natural sugar.
The process at Federal Grove is markedly more modern, with 500 taps and more than 1,000 plastic buckets to sit alongside some of the trees. Other trees drip sap into plastic tubing, which connects to a main line, where gravity pulls the sap into a livestock watering tank. The setup looks something like a plastic web in the woods, but when the temperature is between 30 and 40 degrees, the sap streams freely. When the tub fills, Blythe empties the raw sap into the 300-gallon tank that rests on the bed of his truck, and that`s when the hard labor begins.
`The collection is relatively easy,` he says. `It`s the evaporation process that is the real work.`
Because of the sheer amount of sap and steam that will result, no indoor kitchen will do. It takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, so most syrup makers have a sugarhouse where they perform their magic and turn simple sap into the sweet elixir. For Blythe, the problem of finding a sugarhouse was easily solved. The Federal Grove property was home to an old smokehouse, where hams were cured decades earlier. Today, it contains a massive, wood-fired evaporator, where up to 70 gallons of sap at a time can be boiled down to syrup.
Evaporation is a lengthy process, taking about 4Â½ hours for one 70-gallon batch. And with a 300-gallon holding tank waiting outside and trees still giving sap, the operation can seem never-ending. With only a six-week window allowed by Mother Nature, Blythe is forced to put in some grueling hours. It`s a job that can get a bit monotonous. `We`ve pretty much found that we need 10 pieces of wood every 15 minutes to keep the temperature up,` he says. `You start counting those things when you`re stuck inside for hours at a time.`
But the payoff is grand. After heating and evaporation, the syrup is ready. Some of the syrup is bottled inside the restaurant kitchen and ready for sale to the public, but the rest is set aside to use in the Federal Grove restaurant for a host of recipes, including Terry`s memorable maple-glazed pork chops