Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Maple Sugar Tour

A nice sunny day is perfect for tramping through the woods in Pennsylvania. The Juniata County Christian Homeschoolers embarked on a field trip to see a maple syrup operation. The place attracted me because I have an ancestral link to the owners, a family of cousins that I remember dearly from my childhood.

Roger Whitesel, one of nine siblings, and Don Bratton, married to Roger’s sister Esther, have inherited Roger’s Dad’s passion for making maple syrup. Five of the nine siblings have built houses on the same farm where they grew up in Hammer Hollow. (named for the sound of a former resident blacksmith’s hammer)

Don, a retired elementary teacher, did the presentation. He started by showing us two jars that looked like water. “Which of these do you think are maple sap?”

A bright, bold homeschool girl immediately pointed to the one and wouldn’t back down when he tried to make her change her mind. Turned out she was right, even though I saw no difference.

After that Don showed us a variety of spigots that could be inserted in manmade holes in maple trees to allow the syrup to come out. A wooden one had been used years ago by his father-in-law, Roy Whitesel. Don also showed us a metal one. They now use a plastic spigot.

Next, he showed us a brace and bit, and told us that this is what they formerly used to make the holes in the trees. Bringing out a battery powered drill, he said, “This is much faster.” One of the older boys received the privilege of drilling a hole in a piece of firewood from Don’s pile.

Don picked up the plastic spigot and forced it over the end of a green plastic hose. Another part of the spigot he pounded into the hole in the firewood to show us how to make a maple tree tap.

Having finished the demonstration, he guided us down through his meadow to his best producing maple tree. Two white plastic buckets stood beside the tree with the green hoses emptying the potential syrup into them. He informed us that he would probably harvest five gallons of sap from this tree by the end of the day.

 We walked back to his house and piled into vehicles for a ride up the Hammer Hollow road. After turning into another driveway that led up through the woods, we parked our vehicles at a large silver tank on wheels. The hike from there to the syrup line was a little taxing between the steepness of the hill and the ice underfoot.

The sight at the end made it all worthwhile. A network of hoses and pipes travel from an even higher height down a ravine to reach the stainless steel tank where we had parked. Amazing!

The teacher in me loved the numbers on the trees. Don explained to us that matching numbered buckets store the hoses till the next year when he and Roger reconnect the same hoses at the same places.

Since this is getting so long, you will have to wait for my next blog to visit the “Sugar Shack” with me where they boil the sap down into syrup. 

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