By Amy Chapman
Although much of the maple syrup produced in New England today is made in commercial facilities that use modern methods to collect and boil the sap, maple sugaring time still evokes images of buckets hung on trees, horse-drawn sleighs, steam rolling from wood-fired evaporators, and friends and neighbors gathering for “sugaring-off” parties.
A new local initiative called “Tap of the Town” aims to bring the community together to experience making maple syrup the old-fashioned way.
The brainchild of local food enthusiasts Tracey Wilkerson and Gabe Perkins, the project will start small this year, with plans to tap about 75 trees and boil down the sap at the Bethel Historical Society.
“For years I would talk about a community maple concept with anyone who would listen,” said Perkins, who spent several years traveling throughout the Northeast with the Northern Forest Center’s mobile forest heritage museum, Ways of the Woods. “Then, out of nowhere, I found an article on North Country Public Radio about the town of Tupper Lake, New York, and plans there to implement a community-based maple syrup project with the Wild Center, a terrific Adirondack natural history museum. I always wondered if someone took my wild idea to heart.”
It turns out that the old adage, “great minds think alike,” holds true. Last spring, Perkins was discussing maple syrup with Wilkerson, the director of Gould Academy’s Farm and Forest program, at a Local Food Connection event, when she told him about her idea of starting a community maple project in Bethel called Tap of the Town.
Word spread, and a small group began meeting in December to make plans for spring. With support from the Bethel Historical Society and Gould Academy, Perkins said, “we are so close to launching this exciting, educational, and traditional project in the village.”
On Monday, five Gould Academy sophomores helped Wilkerson and Tap of the Town volunteer Jean Bass move maple syrup equipment belonging to Gould to a space between the Historical Society’s Moses Mason and Robinson Houses, where the evaporator will be set up and the sap boiled down.
“This has been a cooperative effort from the beginning,” said Wilkerson. “The Historical Society offers a good, central location where people can stop by and see what we’re doing. Scott Sumner and the Bethel road crew cleared a space for us to set up the equipment.” Bruce Pierce, who boils sap from about 150 taps at his Newry farm each year, is providing technical help.
Bonnie Pooley, who has been involved with the project since the idea was hatched last year, said the group’s mission statement sums up its goals and philosophy: “Tap of the Town is a community-building project to tap Bethel’s maple trees, collect and boil the sap in the traditional way, and to bring local volunteers together to share the process, the fun, and the maple syrup.”
Group members are in the process of identifying which trees to tap, determining which of Bethel’s village trees are sugar maples, and which are other species of maple. (All maples produce sap, but the sap from sugar maples is sweeter, requiring less boiling to make syrup.) Wilkerson said longtime local arborist and tree surgeon Fred Burk of Newry has also provided valuable assistance.
“Fred is amazing,” she said. “I can call him up and ask him about any tree in town, and he knows what species it is from memory.”
The sap will be collected and brought to the boiling site on a wagon hauled by Wilkerson’s two Percheron draft horses, Tasha and Ryah, who live at the Gould Academy barn during the school year.
Doug Jones of Cross Excavation and Doug Wilson of D.A. Wilson & Co. have both agreed to donate firewood for the evaporator, and members of the volunteer group footed the bill for 100 new, small-diameter spiles that are made to minimize damage to the trees.
Wilkerson said the project will start small in its first year, but they hope the enthusiasm will spread to include more participants, more trees, and more sweet syrup to share in future years.
As for what to do with the maple syrup they will produce in their inaugural season, the group is considering a community pancake breakfast, which would serve as a fundraiser for a yet-to-be-determined local non-profit.
Anyone who would like to join the fun is welcome. Cold weather has so far delayed the start of the sap run, but, said Pierce, “When the nights are cold, and the days warm to above freezing, keep an eye out for activity at the Historical Society.”
For more information on Tap of the Town, call Wilkerson at 418-7559 or Pierce at 557-2518.