Making maple syrup the "old-fashioned" way
Phil Gudgeon’s memories of making syrup stretch back to the 1950s when the family only produced syrup for their own needs and some to give away. The dairy farm kept Fred and Alene Gudgeon busy year-round, so Phil’s grandparents, Carson and Gyneth Lawrence would always lend a hand during syrup making season. Grandpa Lawrence operated a Sinclair Service Station in La Farge and would close it early and come to the farm to boil sap.
Phil recalls his family’s creativeness: “We had about 50 galvanized pails and about 50 six-quart oil cans of all brands – Pure Oil, Mobil, Standard, Shure-Lube, Sinclair and others – even some one-gallon Crisco cans and a large two-gallon Red Dot Potato Chip can.” Even a large fish bowl was placed on a rock between two trees to collect the sap that ran from the tapped trees. They used a few galvanized spiles, but most of the taps were handmade from sumac trees by heating a wire in the fire and using it to burn a hole in the soft center of the wood.
The family cooked the sap in a 3’x8’open pan placed over a hole dug into the side of an old road bank at the edge of the lawn. A long stovepipe at the end of the hole, along with strategically sloped dirt, kept the heat close to the pan as Phil’s dad, Fred, used old wooden fence posts, boards and other dry wood to make a hot fire. The draft was controlled with a piece of tin over the open end of the firebox.
The fire also doubled as a cook fire for supper, and as a child Phil’s favorite part of making syrup was cooking hotdogs, “We couldn’t wait to get home from school to see how the trees ran and if we were going to have a cookout. Grandma and Grandpa always brought bottled soda from the service station, and Grandpa was an expert at roasting marshmallows.” The family would cook hotdogs and the like before the evening milking, and Phil says, “It was great fun for my brother and me.”
The 8-inch deep pan held about 80 gallons of sap. As it boiled down, more and more sap was added until about 250 gallons of sap had boiled down to a small volume of syrup. Phil describes watching and waiting until just the right moment when the syrup was ready. “Knowing when it was ready was an art all of its own,” he says. “It was a balancing act between burning it up and taking it off before it was finished. Taking it off too early made canning a slow process and overdoing it was unthinkable.”
When the right moment came, the challenge was to rake the fire from beneath the pan as quickly as possible. Often gloves, hands, face, boots, and even hair would be singed in the rush. As soon as the fire was pulled, the race was on to dip the boiled sap out of the pan and filter it while it was hot. Filtering would become a slow waiting process if it cooled too much
The hot sap filled a milk can with six or seven gallons of rough finished syrup which was then taken to the house for clearing and canning. For clearing, the syrup was cooled before eggs and milk were added, and then the mixture was brought to a boil so the impurities could be skimmed off.
The syrup was further cooked to 218 degrees, and finally filtered through a piece of milk filter cut to fit a canning funnel. It was a slow process, and could take an entire day if the syrup had been removed from the fire too soon. “The person cooking the syrup could be a hero or something else in the eyes of the people canning,” says Phil.
And so the family tradition was carried on in this way, with several modifications to filtering and canning process, until 2002 when Phil greatly expanded production with the purchase of a large evaporator and moved the cooking indoors with the construction of a sugar house.