By Bruce Stambaugh
When Gary Miller of rural Millersburg, Ohio got the idea to make his own maple syrup a couple of years ago, he never envisioned where that thought would take him.
“Two years ago,” Miller said, “I was standing in the rain under an umbrella boiling sap in an assortment of old used pans on my grill.”
This year, thanks to the ingenuity and dedication of some close friends and family members, Miller has his very own sugar shack. And when the sap is running, his shack and the surrounding woods are very busy places indeed.
The shack itself was donated to Miller. A friend, Paul Conrad, had an old shed he told Miller he could have, and Miller’s sons moved it in seven different sections for him. Once on site, the building was reassembled, reusing the old lumber.
That process set the tone for what was to come. Much of the equipment used by Miller and his friends has been refurbished as some part and purpose of the maple syrup operation.
Indeed, when the sap is moving, so are a half dozen or so of Miller’s friends who help with the project. They placed 400 taps in sugar, red and black maple trees, according to Miller.
“We are careful about how many taps we place in a tree,” Miller said. “We don’t want to stress them.”
They also helped split the wood that fuels the fire that boils the sap on a homemade evaporator. Of course, the gregarious crew also put that together. Much of that ingenious system consists of recycled metal and other materials.
The wood stove that holds the fire that boils the sap belonged to Scott Sponsler, another friend. The stove was extended with metal from old toolboxes from a pickup truck that Miller owned.
Miller had a fan rebuilt and some ductwork manufactured locally. Together they help distribute the heat generated by the wood stove. The heat evaporates the sap into syrup.
The sap enters the sugar shack from another recycled item, an old bulk tank rescued from an unused milking parlor. It is held up by a repurposed metal stand so the sap flows by gravity into a smaller, reconstructed holding tank inside the old wooden shed.
From there, the sap runs into a customized sheet metal maze that allows the sap to be evaporated as it circulates up and down the four parallel troughs. After entering a second connected metal maze, the sap begins to change color. It is closer to the firebox and the preheated sap really starts to boil. Its darker color indicates that the moisture is being bubbled away.
Miller said that the sap isn’t officially maple syrup until its consistency is at least 66.9 degrees Brix, as measured by a hydrometer. Miller said with his setup, it takes 51 gallons of sap to produce a gallon of syrup.
Miller and his friends make the syrup when the sap is running. He said warmer days and cooler nights are the best conditions to make the sap run.
Before it is pumped into the elevated holding tank, the sap is gathered into 15-gallon containers from each tap bucket. The containers are carried on the back of a small tractor. Of course, the tractor was loaned, too.
All the free equipment and labor is only appropriate. Miller said the maple syrup that is produced is not for sale, although it does have a name, Smoke Pit Maple Syrup.
“This is not a commercial operation,” Miller emphasized.
Instead customers get to donate whatever they feel the syrup is worth. The money is used for an educational scholarship program in Honduras. Miller’s Sunday school class at Millersburg Mennonite Church is financially sponsoring the schooling of several children there.
With all that said, Miller shared another important ingredient in the maple syrup production as far as he is concerned.
“It’s not about the syrup,” Miller said. “It’s about the fellowship.”
Indeed, laughter and kibitzing among the friends intermingle with the steam from the cooking sap in the cold, small shack. The steam and merriment waft together out into the cold air through the open doorways. The good-natured ribbing helps make the labor-intensive sugaring efforts all the sweeter.
Persons interested in obtaining some of the Smoke Pit Maple Syrup should contact Miller at 330-763-0364.