Retired men have been coming together to make syrup for years
Three handmade stoves with custom pans evaporate the sap over wood fires. Contributed photo
Spring in Belle Plaine can be marked by the appearance of white pails in the woods surrounding town and a small plume of steam rising from the center town. For over a decade a confederation of retired men have tapped maple trees and boiled down the sap to make a coveted maple syrup.
Harold Edberg and Fred Keup are the curators of the maple syruping, but each portion of the production has its cadre of believers.
It takes one group to tap the trees and put out the buckets. Another group sets up the stoves and storage tanks ready to receive the sap when they start flowing. When temps reach 32 degrees and there is enough moisture in the root systems, another group collects the buckets and hauls the sap to the storage tanks. When 200 gallons has been collected the cooks take over.
Twenty men (more or less) use the making of maple syrup as a reason to walk in the snowy and or muddy woodlots. Their pay includes occasional doughnuts and 5 or 6 pints of maple syrup made from their efforts.
Working with three hand made wood fired stoves the cooks spend an 8-hour day reducing the 200 gallons of sap into 5 gallons of syrup.
A group of guys from Belle Plaine come together each year to tap and collect sap, and then make maple syrup. Above, they carry buckets of sap from the woodlands to the processing area. Contributed photo
“We didn’t have enough money to buy new equipment but we did have the talents in our group to build what we needed.” said Edberg when asked about the equipment and the beginnings of the group.
When the days work has been cooled and settled and filtered it is finished to the correct density and bottled while still warm. Using labels designed by a family member the pints and quarts are stored on site. Watching the weather, the sap flow, and storage capacity — the cook continues.
Fans of the local delicacy watch for the telltale steam rising on cooking days and show up to claim their portion of the production. The product is priced to be comparable with other local producers but the goal is not to make a large profit. All proceeds go into improvements of the equipment or the process or to buy the support materials. The run lasts until the trees leaf out. It will include 7 to 10 days of cooking, and about twice that number to collect the sap. One extra day is added for the cleaning and storing of the means of production.
So far, the record production for a season is 75 gallons. The average yearly total is about 50 gallons.
It takes about four cords of wood to support a season’s cook. Men from the group cut, split and stack wood in the summer and fall to prepare for the cook. The wood placed on pallets and moved to the the cook shack. Several separate wood lots provide the oak and elm and ash to keep the stoves hot.
The whole process depends on the hard maples lining the hillsides of the Minnesota River valley at Belle Plaine. These maples were replacements from elms in the 70’s. Forests all go through progressions. Oak and maple were harvested in the pioneer days. Elm grew quickly and replaced the maples as dominant tree. The Dutch Elm epidemic knocked down most of the elm tress and the slower growing hard maples waiting for opportunity have taken over now. Pockets of aspens can be spotted in the fall and oaks have their own place in the new forest.
The hillsides where the sap is collected are too steep to build on so the source of this delicious treat should be safe for this group to pass on down to the next generation of retirees.