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.
Grades of amber.
Into the tank.
Stoking the fire.
The sugar shack.
Buckets and beyond.
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.
I had often heard about the sugar shack. A group of guys I knew, mostly from our church, had formed an informal co-op. The goal was to make and offer maple syrup, with the donated proceeds going to a scholarship program for students in rural Honduras.
My journalistic nosiness finally got the best of me, and I ventured out one chilly day when the sap was running strong. My intent was to write a story for a local weekly newspaper. What I discovered went far beyond what any feature story could represent. Here were a few good men who through sheer determination made this sweet enterprise work. They worked cooperatively out of a common desire to succeed, not out of individual or corporate profit. Indeed, there were no profits. The money collected through donations went to the scholarship program.
This endeavor was borne of commitment, desire, effort, camaraderie, purpose, joy, ingenuity, and sacrifice, all with rewarding results. And to think that it all started with the landowner, Gary Miller, standing in the rain dreaming of making maple syrup. Miller never envisioned how far his idea would go.
“Three 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.” Miller lives on a small farm west of Millersburg, Ohio.
Miller shared his idea with his friends, and the sugar shack quickly became a reality. The structure 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. Since then, its design and size has been tweaked and expanded.
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 like it is now, so does this voluntary collection of Miller’s friends and family who assist with the project. They placed 400 taps in sugar, red and black maple trees.
“We are careful about how many taps we place in a tree,” Miller said. “We don’t want to stress them.”
Like most farming efforts, preparing for the sap harvest takes a lot of preparation, and can be an ongoing project. Recently a shed was built to store the chords of firewood needed to heat the boiling process. Of course the friends also helped split and stack the wood that fuels the fire that boils the sap on a homemade evaporator. True to form, the gregarious crew also put that together. Much of that ingenious system consists of recycled metal and other repurposed 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 pick up 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 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 pre-heated sap really begins 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 this set up, 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. When the sap runs, so does this gang of close friends and family members. When the sap is running, his shack and the surrounding woods are very busy places indeed.
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. In keeping with the pattern, 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.
Roy Miller, a retired Holmes County family physician, serves as the unofficial coordinator of activities. He even travels to Honduras several times a year and meets with the students, their parents and the local church leaders who oversee the scholarship program there.
With all that said, Gary Miller revealed the secret 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.
In that initial visit, I was impressed with the care given to producing a quality product, and with the interpersonal interaction that makes this particular micro business the all around success that it is.
It was clear to me that two pure products are produced at the sugar shack. High quality maple syrup created for a great cause is the tasty finished product. Genuine, committed friendship that knows no bounds and has no earthly measure is the dividend.
Persons interested in obtaining some of the Smoke Pit Maple Syrup should contact Gary Miller at 330-763-0364.