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Maple-sugar families savor the sweet taste of tradition

You can feel it in the cast-iron kettle Eric Randall’s great-grandfather used to finish maple syrup at least a century ago.

You see it in the painted, weather-worn wooden sign hanging inside a Route 77 barn at George’s Maple Products.

Then you taste it in the golden sugary shots poured by 100-year-old Florence Merle in her family’s Attica sugar shack.

Maple sugaring is steeped in tradition throughout Western New York.

For the 20th straight year, residents this weekend and next weekend can captivate their senses at annual Maple Weekend events here and across New York State.

“It’s nice to build that tradition with your family,” said Dena Hoskins of Cheektowaga.

Hoskins, with children Megan and Joshua Underhill, were eyeing up sugary delicacies on sale Saturday afternoon inside a warm and sweet-smelling shack at Merle Maple Farm on Route 98 while sleet pelted down outside.

“I always said, ‘I hate the weather, but I love the day,’ ” said Megan, 18, who has been at Maple Weekend every year since she was 4. “I love going on the hayride.”

Hayrides through the rolling hills were among the attractions at the Merle Maple Farm.

Others included a guided tour and upfront view of the maple sap-processing areas at the 15,000-tap operation.

As clear sap poured into a receiving area through underground vacuum lines, fourth-generation owner Lyle Merle and a few of his 30 or so family members pitched in to show off the shack’s state-of-the-art system. The system removes water from the sap and heats it to the required 218.1 degrees, creating the perfect maple syrup.

Merle, after making sure the measurements were just right, bottled up some of the warm, sweet liquid and passed it over to the star of the show in the shack: his mom.

Florence Merle married into the maple sugaring family in 1940 and has been a fixture at the farm ever since.

Mrs. Merle recalled how the family once collected sap by the pailful from each tree and, with horses, hauled it down to an earlier shack – one that was constructed on a hillside from the timbers of an even older house across the road.

Although 10 gallons of maple back then could be had for a dollar, it was a coveted product, she said.

“It was wartime. We used maple as sweetener because sugar was rationed,” Mrs. Merle said.

Not far away, in the nearby town of Bennington, Phil George showed off the wood-fired evaporator to visitors at his family’s sugar shanty. The evaporator helps the 2,700-tap George’s Maple Products turn out about 1,000 gallons of maple syrup every year. George, who started sugaring with his grandparents at the farm, handed out samples of syrup and maple cream. He offered some interesting perspectives on maple production in New York.

In 1916, the state produced 3.5 million gallons of maple syrup. Each gallon was worth about 90 cents. By 2012, production fell to 360,000 gallons, and the value of each gallon was $40.

“There are way less farms today,” George said. “There were just a lot more farmers back then that made syrup.”

Eric Randall’s ancestors included some of those farmers – and others well before the dawn of the 20th century. Randall’s Maple Products in Alexander traces its roots at least 167 years. Before its current location, Randall’s forefathers – the Graves family – collected maple sap in Java.

“We have recovered records back to 1848,” Randall said. “We’re pretty sure they made it before that.”

Randall, a professor emeritus at SUNY Buffalo State and a retired dean of science at Edinboro University, performed early work on reverse osmosis systems that innovated maple syrup production. That streamlined the process of removing water from the sap, reducing both the labor and fuel necessary on the production side.

Randall’s son Jesse, an assistant professor specializing in forestry at Iowa State, has brought maple sugar studies into America’s heartland.

That’s tradition.

“It’s truly one of the first American cottage industries,” Randall said.