By Sheila Plourde (Wagner)
Pancake batter sizzling on a hot griddle, butter and fresh made maple syrup on the table. Yes, when tapping season is over we all enjoy the taste of real maple syrup but many don’t know about the time and effort it takes to make it. Nowadays most syrup is made for commercial sale; it is big business. However, there are still a few who do it the old-fashioned way. Homesteaders used maple syrup for cooking, baking and making candy, such as snow taffy. It was a part of their way of life.
Henry Wagner has been making maple syrup for 70 years. He started when he was 11 years old helping his mother, Bernice Wagner, on the old homestead. Henry would whittle spiles (the tap that goes into the tree), out of sumac. Trails were made using snowshoes and he would drill holes with a brace & bit. In the late 40’s and into the 50’s Henry used glass gallon jugs to hang on the trees and collect the sap. These were emptied every night so the sap would not freeze and break the jars. Then he would boil the sap down in a galvanized washtub over an open fire. Their syrup would be finished off in the house on a wood stove in enamel pots and bottled in mason jars.
It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. You need to tap many trees to get enough sap. Henry and Bernice tapped 20 to 25 trees just around the house. They would have done more and tried, but the cattle and horses kept dumping the jars to drink the sap. Henry has had this problem with the deer that roam his property too. Sap has a sweet, wild taste and as a kid, there was nothing better than going out and using our mittens to soak up sap from the buckets and then suck the sap out of the mitts. Henry and Deanna, his wife, started tapping together in 1967; they still tap to this day with the help of good friends. Many things have changed over the years, but they still do most of it the old way. Now they watch the T.V. for weather updates to know when to start the tapping. It has to be -4/-5 Celsius at night and reach +4/+5 Celsius during the day to make sap run. Tapping season usually lasts 2 to 3 weeks. Once the sap coming from the tree turns milky, the season is over.
Trails are made now with four-wheelers and sleds rather than snowshoes. Holes are bored with battery-powered drills. Henry now puts out 200 to 300 buckets. Spiles and pails are now metal and plastic. Henry built an outdoor wood stove using an old culvert, with a chimney. He has a metal pan that measures 7’ X 3’, which sits on top of the stove for boiling. I have seen my dad out tending the fires up until midnight, depending on how close the sap is to the proper temperature. Once the sap reaches a certain temperature, they drain it from the pan and finishing boiling in a smaller pot. For sap to become syrup, it has to reach a boiling point of 7 degrees above the boiling point of water. They strain the syrup outside 4 to 5 times, while hot, to remove impurities such as ash from the fire or bits of leaves that blow in. Then Deanna takes over in the house. The syrup is carried to the house and filtered through felt and cotton strainers into a converted 45-gallon metal can. The syrup is poured into litre jars, from a tap Henry has built into the can, and capped. Once bottled, all the pails and filters are washed and made ready for the next batch of syrup.
Henry, now 80 years old, will be doing it again this year and Deanna, 75, will be right there to filter, bottle, and clean. There is nothing better than fresh maple syrup and according to these two, the darker the colour the better the taste. If you wish to see firsthand how they do it and maybe try your hand at it, you are welcome to stop by. You might get lucky and be able to get a jar for your own table.