Saturday, March 24, 2018

Maple Syrup Time

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

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In April, 2010, on Day One of a 13-day photography trip to North Carolina, one of our first stops was Deep River County Park near Hobart, Indiana. Our main reason for visiting this park was to see and capture a few images of the historic John Wood's Grist Mill. While exploring the park, we discovered the Deep River Sugar Shack, where park staff host Maple Syrup Time, an annual demonstration of how sap is collected and turned into maple syrup.

For probably ten years prior to that discovery, Ruth and I had been discussing that we should try to get out in late winter to photograph the maple sugaring process. We knew we could go to an annual event like the one held at Deep River, but our preference is to capture scenes away from the crowds and in the natural habitat. What we really wanted to find were the old-fashioned metal sap buckets, rather than the newer tubing that has replaced the buckets, but we didn’t really know where to look on the backroads to find this.

In October of that same year, we went looking for fall color on the backroads of Monroe County, Wisconsin. Early in the morning, as the sun began to warm the day, we stumbled on what looked like a dilapidated sugar house near the driveway of an Amish farm. We could see some family members in the yard, so we pulled in and asked them if it was a sugar house. They confirmed that it was and kindly allowed us to take some photos of it.

Again, this generated a discussion about how we should remember to go in search of tapped maple trees towards the end of the upcoming winter. But time, even in the long, seemingly endless winters of Wisconsin, has a way of slipping by for us and soon we realize that we’ve once again missed the rather short maple sugaring season.

Another five years passed before we discovered two more sugar shacks in Wisconsin, in the autumn of 2015. Well, actually, there were three. In early October, we were in an Amish area of Vernon County and noticed a new sugar shack built in front of an old sugar shack. Later that month, we decided to visit the Richfield Historical Park in Washington County. This park is home to many historic buildings which have been restored and are maintained by the Richfield Historical Society.

We hadn’t visited this park since February of 2008, and the snow-covered roads within the park weren’t plowed at that time, so we only took photos of the 1871 Messer/Mayer Grist Mill. In October of 2015, we thoroughly explored the park and were pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful red sugar shack, which was built in 2005 by a Boy Scout as a project to earn his Eagle Scout status. Again, here we were at a sugar house, but in the off-season. But I did peer through the window and saw what I think was probably a maple syrup grading kit on the table.

On March 9 of this year, after getting a little snow cover during a winter of low snowfall, we decided to do some photography in the Amish area in Columbia County. The day was full of many blessings. Early in the day, as the Amish children were arriving at school, some walking, some driving their own buggies, we discovered several very large maple trees that had been tapped for maple sap collection. Hanging below the taps were large plastic pails. They weren’t the old-fashioned buckets we were hoping to some day find, but it was still better than tubing.

As we headed home that day, Ruth had an idea. “Why don’t we stop at the MacKenzie Center and see if they have any trees tapped.” This is an education center about a half hour north of Madison that has an annual Maple Syrup Festival on the first Saturday of April. We didn’t know if we’d find any trees tapped that day, but it wasn’t out of our way to check it out. We pulled into the first parking lot we found and, to our sheer delight, we spotted some old-fashioned metal sap buckets hanging from taps throughout the sugarbush.

A short distance from this parking lot, we found the Wallen Sugar House, where they boil maple sap and prepare it for the finishing process. I had often heard that it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. A large sign by the sugar house said, “When sap is first collected from the tree, it is 95-99% water and only about 1-5% sugar. In order to make syrup, we concentrate the sugar by evaporating much of the water. When the sugar concentration reaches 66%, we have maple syrup. The amount of evaporation needed depends on the initial sugar content of the sap. If the sap contains 2% sugar, we must collect and boil 42 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. With sap that is 5% sugar, we need only 17 gallons of sap. The trees at the MacKenzie Center produce sap that averages 3% sugar.”

The sign also said, “Historically, pioneers used iron kettles to boil syrup over an open fire. The Native Americans might have taught early European settlers to make maple syrup. However, Native Americans did not actually make syrup, since they would have had no way to store or transport it. Instead, they made maple sugar by putting very hot rocks into a hollowed log filled with sap. They boiled sap beyond the point of being syrup, until it eventually crystallized. They stored the sugar in a birch bark container, called a 'makuk' by the Ojibway. If kept dry, the maple sugar kept for a very long time.”

A couple months ago, we had read that Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup (yes, I spelled that right) on Old Route 66 by Shirley, Illinois still used metal buckets for some of their sap collection. We had been wondering if we needed to travel over 3 hours to get a few “old-fashioned” photos of the sap collecting process. But the Universe delivered it to us close to home. If you get a chance, take your family to one of the maple syrup events. Some have pancake breakfasts and most have free maple-flavored treats.

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Happy Spring and Happy Shunpiking!


  1. Thanks for the interesting story! I had no idea that it takes so much sap to make Maple Syrup. No wonder it is somewhat expensive to buy!

  2. Thanks for the tasty "vision" reminder! :)