By Bruce Stambaugh
I left a voicemail message for Elmer, a former elementary student of mine. I told him that I would arrive at his sugar shack between 9 and 10 on Saturday morning.
No longer the fourth grader I fondly remembered, Elmer was now a husband, father, grandfather and entrepreneur. I considered it a privilege to be invited into this unpretentious but productive workplace.
The process of making maple syrup has to be done in a timely fashion. When the sap’s running, it’s time to get busy.
Above the sugar shack, a billowy blend of steam and smoke filtered through barren branches and into the morning’s overcast, and signaled that Elmer and his crew were already hard at work. The smoke meant the wood-fired boiler was stoked. The steam said the sap was boiling.
Strands of thin blue tubing zigzagged downhill from maple tree to maple tree, converging at the weathered wood building. Lid-covered buckets marked the taps on the trees and served as junctions for the plastic tubing.
A lazy, little stream split the handsome, steep hillside farm fields on either side of the hollow. Even after all of the moisture we had had, the creek just trickled softly as if it didn’t want to disturb the bucolic setting. Near the entrance a small sign welcomed one and all to the Yoder’s sugar camp.
The annual effort clearly was a family affair, too. With my arrival, the close quarters of Elmer’s operation soon filled with curious family members. Some were there to work and visit, others, mainly to scope me out.
When he’s not making maple syrup, Elmer has his fingers in several other operations. He makes wooden slats for the interiors of utility trucks as well as nylon pockets for tools and electronic parts.
In addition, Elmer makes wood clocks in the shape of Ohio with each of the state’s 88 counties a different wood. Elmer has developed his own variety of sweet, tart apple. I can attest that they are delicious. Elmer is a multi-talented man.
As Elmer showed me the various aspects of his sugaring operation, I marveled at his ingenuity, and his acute knowledge. He talked while he worked, once using the hydrometer to check the percentage of brix in the bubbling solution.
Outside large stainless steel tanks captured the sweet liquid until it was pumped into the reverse osmosis system that made his sugaring operation so efficient and kept the finished product consistent.
All the while young sons and pretty daughters scurried about their tasks, too. They stoked the fire frequently to maintain the proper temperature to keep the boiling sap boiling.
Elmer demonstrated how syrup is graded by both flavor and color. Apparently, lovers of maple syrup have their preferences.
Soon more family members entered, including two that I should have recognized but did not. Sister Fannie, and younger brother, Harry, arrived just minutes apart. Like Elmer, I had taught them, too. I had no idea they were coming.
That’s when the stories really started to flow faster than the maple sap. They reminded me of events and interactions I had long forgotten. Their smiles told me they had waited a long time for this opportunity.
Teachers live for moments like this. To have former students chatter on and on in heart-felt contentment overwhelmed me with abundant joy.
The apples and syrup each had their own special sweetness. No instrument, however, has yet been made to gauge the sweetness of the hospitality shown to me.
© Bruce Stambaugh 2014