GREENVILLE — In the deep winter darkness on a cold Friday morning, smoke filled the sky from the Sugar Shack, located at Darke County Park District’s Shawnee Prairie Preserve and Nature Center.
Volunteers Paul Schlueter, of five years; Neal Schmidt, of six years; and Randy Minnich, of three days, were hard at work boiling sap to make maple syrup. The shack was full of sugary steam and warmth from the big hand-built 1960s boiler, donated by two local families. Schmidt grew up with some kids in those families. Schlueter is the comedian in the group.
“This is the man who taught me everything I know, but the only problem is he didn’t teach me everything he knows,” Schlueter said of Schmidt. It does seem true that Schmidt knows quite a bit about making maple syrup.
“Welcome to the Darke County Sugar Shack,” he said.
It all starts with the trees. According to Schmidt, about 160 trees at least 10 inch in diameter, are tapped to collect sap. During the evening hours, the temperature needs to be below 32 degrees, and above 32 during the day. This makes the tree sap run, as the roots are feeding the limbs to make leaves and to grow extra limbs.
Any type of maple tree can be tapped, but the one with the sweetest yield is the sugar maple, Schmidt said. The sap usually comes out at 98 percent water and two percent sugar. This year, the sugar content is a little higher at around 2-1/2 percent.
“We are getting good sap,” Schmidt said.
“When I go to the doctor, he wants my sugar content low,” Schlueter said.
Mother Nature has a lot do do with the amount of sap collected, according to Park Maintenance Supervisor Wayne Nichols. A daily gathering of between one and three gallons of sap are collected. Last year the sapping lasted about 10 days, making 71 pint-jars of syrup. The syrup is sold at the “Maple Sugarin’ at the Prairie” event on Saturday, March 4.
“We would much rather see 200 pints,” Nichols said.
Before the sap is poured into a 300-gallon tank, it is strained through a felt filter lined with cheese cloth. The goal is to boil down the sap until it is about 34 percent water and 66 percent sugar, which creates lots of steam, Schmidt said.
The steam goes out of a cupola, a small dome, in the roof. As the sap boils, foam is continuously scraped off of the top gathering impurities that come from the tree roots. Another reason for skimming the foam, is to prevent it from completely foaming over, which kills the steam boil that is evaporating. If that happens, it takes longer to make the maple syrup.
“Come back here and look at this boil,” Schlueter said. “It’s the kind of boil we need.”
According to Schmidt, when the syrup is close to getting done, there are two ways to check it: one, is by a hydrometer and the second is the old-fashioned way.
“You put a drop on your finger and it just sits there and you let it cool,” Schmidt said. “If you turn your finger like that, it will start to slowly run down your finger and it will drip. When it strings, then it is ready.”
The boiling process takes about 10-12 hours to get the syrup ready, depending on the heat. The entire process takes as many volunteers as the Darke County Park District can find. Schmidt, who has a farm near Ansonia, was a federal grain inspector. When he retired, he started volunteering to keep busy.
“There is a core group of volunteer retirees out here,” he said. Everyone – from lawyers to assembly-line workers – just kind of clicked. We all have a different expertise and work really well together.”
For more information, visit darkecountyparks.org.
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