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Maple Sugar Time March 13 09

I just polished off a plateful of buckwheat pancakes slathered with butter and drenched in maple syrup. Real maple syrup, the kind you pay fifteen bucks a quart for. It’s worth every penny, too. Fresh maple syrup is one of life’s true delights, and now—when the sap flows copiously in sugar bushes throughout the state—is the time of year to enjoy it.

The Algonquin Indians were the first to tap the sugar maple and black maple trees. A couple swift tomahawk blows to the trunk produced a V-shaped notch, into which the Native Americans inserted a reed or sluice of bark which channeled the sap into birch bark buckets. The Indians concentrated the sweet liquid slightly by throwing heated stones into the buckets, or by simply allowing the sap to sit in the cold air overnight and then scraping the ice off the surface the next day.

The pioneers took the process further, collecting large quantities of the sap and boiling it down into a syrup. The approach remained unchanged for three centuries, and even with the time-saving refinements of modern technology, it still consists of the same simple, raw essentials as back in the early 1700s: tap a bunch of maple trees, collect the sap in buckets, and boil it till it’s thick. Just make sure you get lots of sap. It takes thirty-five to forty gallons of maple sap to produce a single gallon of maple syrup.

In Vermontville, Michigan, the crew at Maple Manor begin tapping the trees right after Valentine’s Day. Located smack in the heart of the village, Maple Manor is just one of a number of local sugar shacks that give Vermontville its longstanding reputation as “Home of the Maple Syrup Festival.” Now in its sixty-ninth year, the festival—held in 2009 from April 24–26—is a celebration of all things maple.

Maple Manor is the festival’s headquarters, and it’s a fitting base of operations. Run by Steve Hays, the Manor is a quintessential sugar shack with a cloud of steam chuffing from the chimney outside, and a boiler on the inside plus a gang of friends to sit around it, shooting the breeze while Steve tends the syrup. The conviviality is as tangible as the smell of maple, and that’s as it should be. From its very beginning, maple syrup making has been about family and friends as well as syrup.

I dropped by Maple Manor on impulse a couple weekends ago while out on a drive. I stepped inside with an inquiring mind and left with a quart of fresh syrup, a sampler of maple candy, and a fresh appreciation for a tradition as old as America itself.

In my family there is a painting by an artist and friend of my father’s named William Blackmun. It was my dad’s favorite work by Bill, so much so that Mom bought it for Dad as a birthday gift many years ago. The painting is titled, “Maple Sugar Time.,” and it depicts a sugar bush, complete with a sugar shack in full operation, somewhere in the backwoods outside of Niles, Michigan.

My father has been gone for two decades now, but the painting lives on. I think Steve Hays and the gang at Maple Manor would appreciate it, and I’m certain that Dad would have liked them. They’re doing far more than manufacturing lip-smacking maple syrup. They’re keeping alive a centuries-old craft—rooted in the hardwood forests and steeped in history—that adds color and flavor, lots of flavor, to this remarkable state called Michigan.





Written by Dave.