Story and photos by Jim Hughes
Marathon, maple and merrymaking fit comfortably into the same sentence, and why shouldn’t they? Every year since 1971, thousands of folks have found their way to the Cortland County village in early spring to celebrate the oozing of sap from maple trees, its conversion into delicious syrup, and all that goes with it. The Maple Festival is gearing up for its 46th year on April 2 and 3, 2016.
The Village of Marathon stands today on what was once wilderness with a natural abundance of maples. Tapping of the trees goes far back in the Iroquois culture and in the 1700s, property owner William Brink sent workers from his home, some 30 miles away, to tap and boil the sap. It was then sent down the river to market.
In 1797, Japeth Hunt (a Revolutionary War surgeon said to have treated General George Washington) became Marathon’s first settler, followed in 1799 by Brink’s son Abraham and his family. When the railroad arrived in the 1850s, Marathon became a “boom town” boasting nine hotels and a lively business center. With refinements in technology and production over the years, syrup processing has remained a mainstay of local life.
Dr. Hunt and the Brink family would no doubt be surprised and delighted by Marathon’s yearly Maple Festival celebrations. Of course, there are pancakes drenched with maple syrup and maple sugar candy for sale, but it doesn’t stop there. Visitors can sample maple syrup in any number of things – milkshakes, pulled pork sandwiches, sweet buns, sundaes, cotton candy, and even lollipops. You can watch maple syrup being made, take a pony or wagon ride, chat with a wood carver, see numerous craft displays, visit a trapper’s cabin, or view the area in a helicopter. Crowds enjoy live entertainment and the crowning of a festival queen. The list goes on and on.
As with other towns and villages, Marathon enjoys festivities for Christmas, the 4th of July and such. The gazebo in the middle of town hosts summer concerts. But the 1890 Union Fair in September is unique; it celebrates “the American family and the things they do together … life in a small town and what America is all about.” Time-honored traditions abound in a vintage “country fair” atmosphere: home-canned goods from jellies to pickles, antique fashions, an old-fashioned horse pull, and quilts made with “American hands,” each with a story.
A Union Fair highlight is the annual parade, a “one-of-a-kind” event. Local service and school groups march proudly with colorful banners. Horses draw decorative wagons while others with costumed riders prance and strut, often stopping to perform a trick or skill for the appreciative crowd. Even a prize bull or two may stride along as everyone is encouraged to “walk, ride, push, pull or roll” down Marathon’s Main Street. “No engines or motors are ever allowed in this parade,” says lifetime resident and historian Connie White, with a smile. “After all, it is 1890!”
Small Town Togetherness
Marathon enjoys easy access via Interstate 81 to Binghamton on the south, Cortland and Syracuse to the north. Yet nestled in its valley along the Tioughnioga River, trips to the east or west lead directly into rural and rustic hills, countryside virtually unchanged over generations. Small town values prevail. There’s local pride in everything from school activities (including nine state titles in field hockey) to the manufacture of Grumman canoes (a respected industry standard).
Abraham Brink’s log cabin stood at the village “four corners” in the early 1800s as a tavern and Marathon’s first post office. Today the rambling Three Bear Inn occupies nearly the same site as it has for almost a century. With its traditional dining room and cozy tavern, the inn takes visitors back to times gone by with photographs and antique decor.
“The Maple Festival, 1890 Union Fair, and other activities are only possible because of strong community support and participation,” Connie affirms. “It’s been that way my whole life.” She continues to write a weekly column for the Cortland Standard about “local happenings” and the “comings and goings” of Marathon residents, ending each column with a simple declaration … “Be a good neighbor, and check on your neighbor.”
Ongoing capital campaigns have sought to improve historic local structures including the 1895 Peck Memorial Library building with its opera house auditorium and stained glass windows. A picturesque old railroad station stands near the village center awaiting the creativity of village planners.
The Tioughnioga River winds its way through the valley splitting the village – rushing in the spring, slowing in the summer, often ice-covered in the winter. Centuries ago, Native Americans plied its waters and fished from its banks. Today, fishing is still a popular pastime and the Tioughnioga is a sought out recreational spot with canoeists and kayakers paddling up and down its length.
A Gentleman’s Closing Thought
It’s fitting that someone who helped get the first Maple Festival off the ground would leave a permanent mark on the village. As a Jewish child, Walter Grunfeld experienced the dread of Nazi Germany before his flight to America and eventual settlement in Marathon. From 1955 until 1987 he owned and edited the Marathon Independent, once described by an admirer as “a weekly paper bonded to its readership by fondness and familiarity.” Its pages represented the pulse of the village, reporting everything from town meetings to school sports schedules.
Grunfeld remained in Marathon, a place where he felt “comfortable” among “forthright” friends, until his death in 2000. “All people belong in a small town,” he believed. “They’re only guests in a big city.”