Today I'm going to pass along a story Al Bedinger, a former LeConte Lodge crew member from the 1970s, told me about the genesis of syrup making on the mountain. Al tells the story better than I, but I promised I'd tell it earlier this year and here goes.
After the Huffs left the top of the mountain, Herrick Brown ran the show at LeConte Lodge during the period when Al worked on the crew in the 1970s. By any account, and I've spoken with several folks, Herrick was a good man and a fine boss who cast a long shadow across Mt. LeConte.
It's kind of a conundrum, but you have to be a practical kind of unpractical person to run the lodge. If you were a strictly practical person you'd never live at the top of a mountain without electricity or a road. However, you also have to find a way to make things work up on LeConte--a practical unpractical person.
Like all good LeConte managers, Herrick was always looking for a better way to do things at the top of Tennessee. Then, as now, part of a LeConte Lodge breakfast included pancakes--"We've fixed two pancakes per person. Watch the platters because they're awfully hot. We've got a small griddle, but we'll bring out the rest of the food as soon as we can get it cooked."
LeConte's guests wanted syrup on their pancakes, a perfectly reasonable request (if difficult to fulfill). In those pre-llama days, the horses would have to lug the heavy jugs of syrup up the Rainbow Falls Trail. Even though the guest numbers were lower in those days, we still went through enough syrup to wear a horse out.
One day a crew member presented Herrick with a magnificent solution. "Most of the weight in syrup is from water. Herrick, we've got the best water in the state from the (LeConte) spring. Why don't you just order up some sugar, and we'll make our own syrup from LeConte spring water?" That's exactly what happens to this day, though the spring water is tested daily and treated now.
Herrick thought that was a brilliant idea. So, he ordered several hundred pounds of sugar and made plans to haul those bags up to the lodge. However, the folks on LeConte weren't the only ones paying attention to the breakthrough idea.
It seems there were some federal agents awfully interested in a brand-new purchase of several hundred pounds of sugar headed deep into the Tennessee mountains. Now, we get visits from federal employees all the time at LeConte Lodge. I had a nice visit with Mark Pitt, the National Park Service interpretive ranger who works LeConte Thursday through Sunday morning, today. Like Mark, most of the federal agents we see wear the park service's arrowhead patch on their uniform.
However, after Herrick's sugar purchase, LeConte Lodge got a visit from the IRS, whose agents suspected some untaxed corn liquor was being distilled at the top of Tennessee. Evidently, they sampled the LeConte homemade syrup and were happy enough that was the strongest brew cooking on top of the mountain. That story was told to me as true, and I don't know how much embellishment flourished during the last 40 years.
As promised, that's the tale of how the IRS got mixed up in the LeConte syrup business. Thanks for reading. Happy trails.