Story and Photography by Holly Leitner
It’s a lukewarm, early March afternoon, beautiful for this time of year in Wisconsin – a balmy, nearly 40°F day sprinkled with sunshine. Spring fever spreads quickly; but the nights are still cool, below freezing, and this sets up a narrow window of opportunity. As the crust of winter slowly cracks open, a sweet sap begins to trickle from the trees.
Near Williams Bay, Jon Adams gathers with extended family in the backyard of his sister’s country home for their annual spring initiation: the maple harvest. Adams is one of seven siblings; four of them are here today, along with spouses and kids, to relax next to the fire while slowly transforming maple sap into the sweet syrup the family will enjoy all year long.
“It’s our family tradition,” says Adams. He grew up in Sharon in a house with a yard dotted with maple trees. From the time they were young, the Adams kids spent early spring days “maple sugaring” in their front yard.
“We had a very makeshift production,” remembers Adams, “pretty much the simplest way to start.”
The siblings would hang coffee cans from the trees and then carry the sloshing buckets back to the kitchen. Their mother would cook down the sweet, sticky sap into syrup, the beautiful sweet potpourri lingering throughout the house while the sap was boiling. The “makeshift production” required long hours and created a sticky, sappy mess, but it was a treasured family memory.
As Adams and his siblings grew up and began to have families of their own, they grew nostalgic for these warm, sweet memories from their childhood home. A few years ago, craving that springtime tradition, they decided to start “maple-sugaring” again, this time with a more elaborate, improved backyard production at the home of Nicole (Adams) Zorn and her husband, Aaron.
For the Adamses, maple syrup is a treasured annual event. Now Jon Adams watches his own kids make the same dash from tree to tree that he once made, collecting the sap. Sometimes the sap goes straight to the bucket; other times, a child can be found with his or her mouth to the spout sipping up the sweetness. Maple season takes place over a short few weeks of late winter when the days are above freezing, but the nights hover just below freezing. These temperatures trigger the conversion of starch to sugar, and cause maple trees to expand and contract, forcing the sap out of the tree. A single tree can produce up to 20 gallons of sap in one season. When boiled and evaporated, that translates to one gallon of syrup per 40 gallons of harvested sap, explaining why true maple syrup demands a premium price.
Once the sap is collected, the Adams’ friends and family gather around the fire to whittle those gallons of sap down into pancake-ready syrup. It’s a process of evaporation; the kids slowly scrape any residue from the steaming sap and wait for it to boil down to pure maple syrup. They constantly check the temperature; once the sap reaches 219 degrees Fahrenheit, it becomes syrup. With the Adams’ backyard setup, this takes about an hour for every 15 gallons of sap. But there’s no place they’d rather be, and friends and family come and go all day long, often stopping a while to sit by the fire.
“This is what it’s all about,” says Adams, inhaling the maple-scented steam. “We just love being outside, standing by the fire as winter turns into spring.”
In the next few days, Adams and the kids will do the final “boil-down” in their home kitchen, completing the cycle and preserving spring’s sweet bounty for the year.
“For us, it’s as much about the process,” Adams says. “We love the process as much as we love the gallons of maple syrup at the end.”
THE MAPLE SAP HARVEST THROUGH THE YEARS
The history of maple syrup is older than European settlement on the North American continent. Today, Vermont is the leading producer of maple syrup in the United States, and according to the histories at the University of Vermont, written observations chronicling Native Americans engaged in maple sugaring date back as far as 1557. Several Native American legends address the tradition: One famous legend says that a Native American man threw a tomahawk at a tree, and then plucked the tomahawk from the bark the next morning before leaving on a hunt. His wife later went outside, discovered the oozing tree and realized that it was sweet. Being an inventive cook, she decided to boil that night’s venison dinner in the sweet juice – and like that, maple “syrup” was discovered.
Though there’s no way to know exactly how the process was discovered, historians do know that farmers have been producing maple syrup since the 1600s. According to the University of Vermont, farmers would slash holes in the bark, place a v-shaped chip of wood in the bark below the gash and collect the sap with birch buckets. They then cooked down the sap using a hollowed-out basswood log, throwing hot stones in the sap to evaporate the water.
Locally, early pioneers to Walworth County in the 1830s discovered that the Potawatomi Indians had established an elaborate sugaring camp in the woods between modern-day Spring Prairie and Lafayette Township. One of the earliest white settlers to the area, SA Dwinnell, discovered wigwams, sap troughs and boiling kettles left, as he described it, “evidently for future use… a pleasure which [the Potawatomi] were never again to enjoy.” Sugar Creek is named for this discovery. Archeologists estimate that in the spring of 1836, the tribe produced 1,000 gallons of syrup in that camp.
More recently, maple syrup has inspired Covenant Harbor Bible Camp’s popular Maple Fest event. Anyone who has driven along Highway 50 between Lake Geneva and Williams Bay in March has probably seen the large “Maple Fest” sign (or occasionally a large dancing sausage) in front of the camp. Covenant Harbor’s 52-acre site is home to a stand of maple trees, which are used as part of a large-scale maple sugar production each spring. During the festival, the camp welcomes the public for educational guided tours and a fresh, maple syrup breakfast.