Friday, April 18, 2014

Central Illinois Maple Syrup

I realize Vermont is better known for its maple syrup, and Quebec supplies much of what the world consumes, but that doesn't stop our neighbors here in Central Illinois from doing their part to meet mankind's demand for real maple syrup.  Last year we watched in admiration as our farmer neighbors tapped dozens of trees around our neighborhood, and spent the time and money necessary to gather hundreds of gallons of sap to boil down to dozens of gallons of syrup.

This year, when they offered to tap the trees in our front yard, I quickly encouraged them to do so, and within a few hours, our trees were contributing to the harvest!

Here's Thad and Philip drilling the holes and setting the taps.  The number of taps was determined by the size of the tree.  Two of our trees could accommodate three taps, while one tree was best left with only two.

The arrangement in our yard had at most two taps running into one five-gallon jug, meaning we had five jugs total receiving sap.  The sap is very watery, unlike pine sap, so the taps, lines, and jugs don't clog easily.

The critical operation of boiling to sap down to syrup was begun on this fine example of Steiner ingenuity and manufacturing.  The half-barrel stove box on the bottom was reinforced and improved this year based on lessons learned last year.  The blower and ductwork in the foreground force air into the combustion chamber to insure that the fire has adequate oxygen to burn vigorously, while the door on the stove above the ductwork allows access to add wood as needed.  The vertical boards just downstream of the blower serve as a damper to better control the air flow.  Hot exhaust gases exit through a vertical chimney at the far end.

The main pan on the stove is a custom-built, stainless-steel unit about seven inches deep that holds about five gallons per inch of depth.  It's fed by a smaller pan in the background that preheats the cold sap before it's added to the main pan.  That ensures the main pan maintains a constant boil throughout the many hours it takes to boil a batch of sap.

How big is a batch of sap?  This year, the Steiners commonly boiled 200 gallons of sap at a time, that would yield as much as eight gallons of syrup.  That 25:1 ratio is very low for maple syrup, and can be as high as 40:1.  In this photo, about 150 gallons of sap waits to be boiled, although not all of it was included in this batch.  (The washing machine in the background was not used in preparation of the syrup).

Syrup is judged complete when the temperature reaches the proper value.  In this photo you can see the syrup was a lovely brown color while the temperature was well above 216°F.  Several more gallons of sap were due to be added to this batch and boiled down before the near-syrup was transferred to the house kitchen stove for finishing.

The total harvest for our neighbors was about forty gallons of syrup this year, which exceeded last year's total.  Our trees contributed about 40 to 50 gallons of sap in the three weeks that they were tapped.  The whole process is very labor-intensive, so it's easy to understand why real maple syrup is so expensive, but when waffles or pancakes are on the menu, nothing compares to real maple syrup, especially when it comes from your front yard!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Has this been a normal winter?

Most of us here in Central Illinois have noticed that the temperatures have been running a bit colder than average over the last few weeks, such that some of us have wondered, "Is this winter colder than normal, or are we just spoiled by the last two winters that were milder than average?"  For the sake of this investigation, "normal" temperatures are the simple average of the historical average high and low temperatures for each day.  For instance, the historical average high for February 13 is 36°F and the low is 19°F in Peoria, Illinois, so the "normal" mean temperature for today is 27°F.  Naturally, it's unusual to experience both the average high and low on any given day, so comparing the mean is helpful in determining whether the weather has been warmer or colder than average.

Figure 1 below shows the daily temperature deviation from average since the beginning of winter on December 21.  The blue bars represent the degrees F above or below the daily average, while the red curve is the cumulative deviation from the average over the same period.  Of the 54 days recorded so far, only 17 have been warmer than the historic average, and of the 35 colder days, 25 are 10 or more degrees colder than their average.  January 6 deserves special recognition for recording a mean temperature 31 degrees colder than the historical average!  The mean that day was -9°F, and the high for the day reached -5°F, but alas, that was not the coldest January 6 on record.

Figure 1: December 21 through February 12

The cumulative deviation from average briefly wandered into positive territory twice in December, but has been solidly colder than the average ever since.  Currently, our winter is a cumulative 339 degrees colder than average, which means the daily mean temperature has averaged over 6 degrees colder than average. Since the beginning of 2014, we've averaged over 7 degrees colder than average, and the month of February is averaging over 16 degrees colder than average per day even though February 1 was warmer than the historical average!

Figure 2: September 21 through February 12

In some respects, the entire heating season since last September looks warmer than just the winter data, primarily due to the warm weather from the end of September to the middle of October.  The cumulative deviation is even greater over this period than over the winter period, however, which means our fall season was actually colder than average despite the warm start.  Our 362 degree cumulative deviation works out to about two and a half degrees colder than average per day for the 145 days of fall and winter so far.

So, back to the question in the title, has this been a normal winter?  Yes, it has been normal in the sense that we've had some days warmer than average, and some days colder than average.  But no, it has not been normal in the sense that the temperatures have averaged much colder than the historical average so far. Winter isn't finished, however, as we have 36 more days until spring and a warming trend in the forecast. In order to finish the winter even with the historical average, each of the remaining 36 days would have to average over 9 degrees warmer than average. Plenty of people around here would welcome a trend like that!

(Editor's note: a variation of the word "average" appears 38 times in this post)

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Enbridge Flanagan South Pipeline Project, Part 1

Last fall I noticed some unusual behavior just before harvest time.  The first field to be harvested in our area had a portion, but not all, of the corn removed.  Since farmers will sometimes harvest a few rows to check the moisture content before they harvest the entire field, I didn't suspect anything unusual until I noticed that the swath of corn removed cut diagonally across the field.  I'd never seen a farmer harvest that way before.  A few days later, a bulldozer arrived and pushed the topsoil into a giant berm on one side of the swath.  Clearly something other than farming was planned for that property.  It wasn't long after the topsoil was moved that other equipment appeared, and ultimately, large sections of pipe were delivered.  A little research identified the project as the Enbridge Flanagan South Pipeline that will traverse almost six hundred miles between Pontiac, Illinois and Cushing, Oklahoma.

This 36-inch diameter pipe will carry 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day from oil fields in the Upper Midwest to facilities in Oklahoma which will then transfer it to refineries near the Gulf of Mexico.  The section above is nearest to our house and illustrates some of the pipe preparation before it's laid in the ground.  The pipe is supported on makeshift wooden platforms at a uniform height above grade until all the sections are welded together.  The lack of workers or active equipment in these photos is a result of visiting these sites on a Sunday afternoon.

Although Illinois is relatively flat, the elevation changes along this pipeline route are significant enough to require special strategies.  In the image above a small creek is temporarily bridged and silt fences protect it from excessive soil runoff.  A long section of pipe welded and bent to follow the terrain was not welded in place like the others you see in this image, but was resting next to me on the flat ground on top of this small rise.  It appears that steeper slopes like that in the foreground require the pipe to be welded remotely to its resting place.  I don't know if they used pipelayers to move that section into place or if some other equipment was used.

A few miles from our home, some rolling hills forced another pipeline to span this dip as an elevated structure instead of following the terrain.  I'm not sure, but I believe that pipeline is Enbridge's Spearhead crude oil pipeline that follows the same route as Flanagan South, but is only 22-24" diameter.  Enbridge purchased the Spearhead line about ten years ago, which originally carried oil from the oil fields of Oklahoma and Texas to refineries near Chicago.  By 2006, Enbridge had reversed the flow to allow more Canadian oil to reach refining facilities in Oklahoma, and optionally, the Gulf Coast.

Here's a view of a couple "hillside" sections welded together and waiting to be moved into place.  I'm not sure, but I assume the straight section on the left is close to where it will be buried, while the other two sections to the right will require more manipulation before they come to rest.

A little further east I found this interesting view that illustrates the winding and not-quite-flat route the pipeline traverses.  Next time I'll have more photos and videos of the process of laying the pipe in the trench that will naturally include more people and activity.  Even at this stage, the amount of progress made in just a few weeks is impressive.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Colonial Williamsburg in October -- Day 3

Our last full day in the Historic District for this trip was our warmest yet, and even found the locals complaining about the heat.  As you can see below, we found plenty to keep us busy.

We started the day in the gardens of the Governor's Palace where we found Governor Dunmore in a perturbed mood.  Although he was popular among Virginians early in his service, his loyalty to the British crown later put him at odds with a fair number of the colonists he governed.

There won't be any grand photos of the Governor's Palace on this trip as the central cupola was undergoing maintenance and covered by scaffolding for the duration of our visit.

We met this young lady at an English Country Dance on our first evening in town, and were pleased to learn she works as a costumed interpreter in Colonial Williamsburg.  Dara works mainly in retail establishments in the Historic District, and we found her working in the Post Office this day ever ready to meet our shopping or conversational needs.  We'll keep our eyes peeled for her smiling face on future visits.

These two gentlemen are working on the tent project mentioned earlier.  The tailors were commissioned to reproduce George Washington's marquee, or camp tent, as the extant article can only be displayed in very controlled conditions.  Mark Hutter hired seven "tent stitchers" to assist with the hand sewing, and although the replica was not ready for display when we visited, it has been displayed since and will be available for visits at the Museum of the American Revolution when that facility is built.

This 1/6 scale model of the tent illustrates the separate compartments that comprise the entire structure.  The inner tent was likely Washington's private field office and measured about 8' by 10'.  The curtain hanging from the valance of the larger tent was attached all the way around the periphery and formed semi-circular areas at each end.  It's postulated that General Washington slept on one end and his baggage and servants were settled at the other end.  You can learn more and see more details on CW's First Oval Office page.

We've enjoyed chatting with Max Hamrick, Jr. during many of our visits over the years, as he's developed our appreciation for the weaving craft displayed in the Historic District.  I believe Mr. Hamrick has been the weaving and dyeing expert here since 1988, and he informed us on this visit that he intends to retire soon and leave the weaver's shop in the capable hands of Karen Clancy and her apprentices.  We suspected at the time, and have confirmed since, that this would be the last time we would visit with Mr. Hamrick in this manner.  May your retirement years be many and fruitful, Mr. Hamrick!

This room is part of the oldest academic structure in America, the Sir Christopher Wren Building on the campus of the College of William and Mary.  The college is located just west of the Historic District, and since it's important in the history of colonial Williamsburg, a visit here is a natural extension of a visit to CW.  This main hall was part of the original structure, but since the building has been modified after each of its three fires, this room may not have had this appearance when first constructed in 1695.  Even so, I wonder if the windows were inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien in the 20th century...

On our way back east on Duke of Gloucester Street we encountered the Fife and Drum Corps marching west.  Thomas Baker assumed the role of lead fifer, and I even sighted Mark and Cookie Baker walking along with the Corps.  Unfortunately, there wasn't time for a visit since we were already late for our dinner reservations.  It was a sad moment waving to the Bakers from across the street, unable to attract their attention.

Good things were waiting down the street, however.  Dinner at Shield's Tavern was a special treat and an appropriate prelude to our evening's entertainment...

... a Capitol Concert featuring 18th century (or earlier) music performed by The Governor's Musick.  My seat was on the far end next to Karen, nearly rubbing elbows with Wayne Moss, the viola da gamba player (on the far left).  Just in front of my seat is the chair occupied by Herb Watson, the flutist.  None of the seats are bad in the Capitol, but we were honored to truly be in the "spit zone."  More than an hour of lovely classical music was the perfect way to end this visit.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Colonial Williamsburg in October -- Day 2

Our second full day in the Historic District found us visiting some familiar sites and experiencing something new: our first social call to the private home of a CW interpreter!

We started our day with a lively conversation with the printers in the Printing Office.  Since we were the only visitors to the shop for about 15 minutes, we had their undivided attention.

Here's the copy of the Virginia Gazette that was being printed that day, complete with ink blob imperfections (see the "g" in "accordingly" in the last line of the first paragraph in the middle column).  The printer showed us how he brushes dirt or debris from the type before the next page is printed.

The highlight of the morning was tea (and coffee) at the Walker residence next door to the Peyton Randolph House.  As you might recall from a previous post, we met Brett Walker on Duke of Gloucester Street not far from his shoemaker shop last April, and later met some of his children on Market Square.  They graciously extended the invitation to come visit on this trip, and we all enjoyed the chance to chat and get to know each other a little better.  That's Mr. Walker leaning against the door frame behind Karen, and Levi between the door and window on the other wall.  More evidence of how small the world is: some of the Agnew children had attended Mrs. Walker's mother's Sunday School class when the Agnews lived in Michigan years ago.

This quaint garden on Duke of Gloucester Street near the Nursery was exhibiting nice color even in October!

We were happy to introduce the Agnews to Bassett Hall (the Williamsburg home of the Rockefellers) as the home represents quite a few eras and has some attractive features.  Pictured here is the formal living room.  The colors may not be our first choices, but the home still feels very comfortable.

The gardens at Bassett Hall include this bench that appears to be perfect for photographing five lovely ladies at the same time.

Our afternoon also included a review of the troops conducted by the Marquis de Lafayette.  The intense look in his eyes is typical of Mark Schneider's interpretation of the major general, but we have always found him to be very kind and courteous when encountered on the streets of the town.

Finally, a nicely framed portrait of Jaclyn and Katie at one of our favorite garden gates.


Thursday, October 31, 2013

Corn in the backyard 2013, weeks 19, 21, 22, and harvest!

Our final installment of corn watching this year includes this exciting progression of drying leading to a successful harvest.  Farmer Wagenbach waited longer to harvest this year than I expected, but reported the corn measured 16% moisture content coming out of the field, so I think his timing was spot on.

September 29

October 13

October 20

The following close up photos of the ears shows significant drying in the last four weeks, along with some leaf bending, but no apparent ear dropping in these photos.

September 29

October 13

October 20

Harvest was completed in a few hours on October 21, and by the following Sunday our view out the back was changed to what you see below.

October 27

Finally, here's a short video of Farmer Wagenbach making a turn behind our house with a full hopper of corn in the combine that eventually starts being transferred to the wagon beside him toward the end of the video. This harvest was the best he's achieved in this field, and despite the dry weather in the middle of the summer, God blessed him with 230 bushels per acre!  We'll see you again next spring!


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Colonial Williamsburg in October -- Day 1

If you've read our previous posts about Colonial Williamsburg, you already know we like to visit in the spring, and you already know we like to enjoy the sites and people of CW in the company of good friends. Although it isn't spring, we were confident October would still be pleasant, and this time half of the Agnew family agreed to join us for a three-and-a-half-day tour of the town.

This photo of four lovely young ladies is out of order with the chronological progression of our day, but it gives you a good introduction to the younger generation of our group. You might recognize the setting as the garden behind the Wythe House.

We arrived on a Tuesday near lunchtime and after completing a few stops outside of CW, we purchased passes and concert tickets for later in the week, and had time for a stroll on Duke of Gloucester Street in our "modern" attire. Wednesday was our first full day in costume, and we started the day in the Palace gardens followed by a tour of the house. This attractive desk in the receiving area just inside the entrance makes one want to pen a letter. As I enlarged the photo above to examine the document most prominent, I could almost read enough to understand its purpose -- almost. If it's sitting out again the next time I'm in the Palace, I'll have to zoom in as close as possible to get a better shot. A railing prevents one from access to all corners of the room, but I think I can improve on this picture.

This room in the Palace is just outside the ballroom and is the perfect place to address any deficiencies in one's wig before making your appearance for the evening. I'd never paid much attention to this room in the past, but I'll have to watch for changes in the items on display here in the future.

This small building attached to the Robert Carter House by this covered walkway is the McKenzie Apothecary.  The railing design is eye-catching and yet looks fairly easy to duplicate. Combine that with the dormer on the front of the roof, the external chimney, the short staircase rising to the walkway, the multiple rooflines, the brick foundation for the walkway, and several other features you can't see in this view, and you've got a very special little structure.

This basket weaver was hard at work behind the Wythe House gardens producing sturdy and functional white oak baskets of all sizes. The scraps on the ground indicate there is sometimes a good bit of waste in the process of preparing a piece of wood for use in a basket.

Although it was the beginning of October, the weather was warm and dry, and the Wythe House gardens hadn't given up for the winter yet.

Our day included a visit with Michael in the Millinery where he was as happy as always to show us his recent projects. The white riding habit in the foreground with the blue waistcoat was constructed with a familiar tailor's style, while the red and green coat just in front of him is constructed with features more familiar to a mantua maker. I was impressed with the striped velvet under the white coat, and could imagine myself in a suit made from that fabric.

A visit to the silversmith is always interesting, although this apprentice was busy enough with other questions that I didn't have opportunity to ask my own.  Maybe next time.

We were happy to join the Agnew ladies on their inaugural visit to R. Charleton's Coffehouse.  Unfortunately, the cups are always too small and the time allowed too short.  I guess that means one simply needs to come back frequently.

We also stopped to see how construction of George Washington's tent was progressing (more on this project in a future post), and found Mark Hutter, the head tailor, taking a break outside the building.  This was one of the few times we've seen Mr. Hutter attired in something other than 18th century clothing, and he was kind enough to entertain our questions and share stories with us.  The tent project has been consuming most of his time for months, and he expects to have it completed by the middle of November.

Our evening ended with a Williamsburg dessert tradition: "Death by Chocolate" from The Trellis Restaurant. After introducing the Agnew ladies to this delight, they agreed that it was worthy of repeating.