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Rural Missouri Magazine
Sweet Tradition
For the John Martin family, maple syrup is rooted as deep as the trees on the farm

by Bob McEowen

John Martin checks buckets sat out to collect maple syrup on his farm near Viburnum. His granddaughter, Mikayla, 8, looks on.

Like moths to a flame, visitors to John Martin’s home place near Viburnum seem to gravitate to the steam. As winter begins to yield to spring, John and his sons light a fire under a stainless steel vat and cook watery tree sap down to thick, sweet maple syrup. Invariably, each neighbor, friend or relative who stops by to watch finds themselves leaning over the bubbling tank.

“People will stand there and just put their face in the steam,” says Scott Martin, who helped stoke the fires this year as the family gathered for a semi-annual ritual of maple syrup making. “It’s an interesting sensation. There’s a real sweet smell and the steam is real warm but it doesn’t burn your face.”

It takes nearly 24 hours to cook 300 gallons of tree sap down to a precious six to eight gallons of syrup so there’s plenty of time to enjoy the steam. The Martins — especially the male members of the family: 81-year-old patriarch John and his sons Stephen, Scott and Stanton — occupy the time warming themselves over the steam, sampling syrup, playing chess and telling stories.

Scott Martin scoops maple syrup into a collection bucket while his father, John Martin, works the sweet sap through a strainer. Stanton Martin looks on. Maple syrup making on the Martin family farm near Viburnum dates back to the 19th century.

“This is the closest thing to fishing you can do in February,” Scott says as he warms his feet against the steel door of the family’s concrete fire pit.

While the men gather around the fire, their wives and children tend to stay inside the family’s home until it’s time to pour off the finished syrup, Scott says. “They stick their heads out the door and say, ‘I can’t believe you’re sitting out there watching water boil!’”

The description is not far from the mark. Sap from maple trees runs thin and clear and is only vaguely sweet to the taste. But given enough heat and time the watery sap evaporates, leaving a pure, sweet nectar. The imitation maple-flavored corn syrup concoctions sold in grocery stores pale by comparison.

“The first batch that comes off is the best. It’s an amber color like honey,” Scott says, explaining how the syrup changes throughout the two-week collection and cooking process. “Every batch we take off after that is going to get darker and darker till the last batch will look almost like molasses.

“The last stuff is the best for cooking with. It’s a very strong maple flavor, very dark,” he says as he dips a fingertip into the simmering vat and quickly lifts it to his tongue for a taste.

Three-year-old Jamie Martin, daughter of Scott and Lori Martin of Rolla, samples syrup from a spoon.

Although maple syrup is normally associated with Vermont and other northeastern states, Missouri’s maple trees will yield sap if the weather cooperates. Nighttime temperatures below freezing and daytime highs in the 40s cause the sap to rise in the tree. Gathering the sap simply involves drilling a hole in the side of the tree, pounding in a spigot and placing a bucket to collect the steady drips.

“People ask, ‘What do you put in it to make syrup? What’s your recipe?’ There is no recipe,” Scott says. “It’s just tree sap. That’s all it is.”

The trick comes in getting the right consistency. “You cook it far enough it turns to sugar,” says John as he drips syrup off the end of a spoon, attempting to decide when this batch is done.

John grew up in the valley his grandfather homesteaded in 1886. Their old house is still standing and memories spring forth like the maples that line the creek. John not only remembers syrup making, but the location of trees his father tapped and even which ones yielded the sweetest sap.

“My father made it in kettles years ago. My grandfather made it before my father did,” he says. “They just made enough for their own use for one year. Maybe a half a gallon or a gallon.

Eugene Iosif pours raw maple tree sap into a collection tank, while his father, Doru Iosif, follows behind with another bucket. The Romanian father and son joined the Martins in their family tradition this year. Eugene and his wife, Oana, are employees of Scott Martin’s Bear River Ranch children’s camp near Rolla.

“He tapped trees with a brace and bit,” John recalls. He had five-quart oil cans he got from a service station that he washed out and he hung on the spouts. The spouts were made from alders. He hollowed them out and made a notch for the bucket to hang on.”

The Martin family tradition might have ended with John’s father, who made his last batch in the 1960s. But sometime around 1996 or ’97 a neighbor approached John and asked to tap his maple trees. Coincidently, Scott visited the family farm that winter and the tradition was renewed.

“I came down and saw all the buckets and asked what was going on. I said, ‘We should give that a try,’” Scott says. “We made maybe a gallon of syrup.”

That first year the Martins gathered and cooked syrup the way John remembered his father doing it, down to the brace and bit and iron kettles. The next year, they modernized.

John bought a portable generator and electric drill to tap the trees. Spouts were made from PVC pipe and the sap was collected in 13-gallon plastic buckets. Scott, who studied engineering in college, designed a huge stainless steel vat, 7 feet long and only a few inches deep. The large surface allows the “water” to evaporate more efficiently.

The Martins can pure maple syrup into pint and quart jars.

While this generation of Martins has surpassed their ancestor’s methods, they also out-produce them. They put out nearly 170 buckets and typically gather more than 1,000 gallons of sap, which produces between 30 and 60 gallons of syrup. After the syrup is made, the Martins reheat small batches on the kitchen stove and can it in pint and quart Mason jars.

“We haven’t bought any syrup from the grocery store since we started this,” John says.

“We keep a jar in our refrigerator all the time. Once a week we eat something that requires syrup. We either have waffles or pancakes or French toast.”

Even with all those breakfasts, the Martins produce far more syrup than they’ll ever use. Some they give to friends, the rest is sold. “We don’t advertise it or anything,” John says. “People just hear about it. We sell all we can make.”

While the Martins like maple syrup, that’s not why they devote nearly two weeks during the winter to gathering and cooking tree sap. Instead, the ritual offers a chance for friends and relatives to get together.

“It’s just a constant flow of people,” Scott says. “Neighbors who live up and down the road will come out when we make syrup. It draws the whole family down to see what you’re doing. I’ve seen more of my family when we’re cooking syrup than I see in an entire year.”

This year the Martins were even joined by international guests as a Romanian couple joined the effort.

John Martin tests the consistancy of a batch of syrup by dripping it off a spoon.

All that company — not to mention the work involved in sterilizing the equipment, gathering the sap and cooking the syrup — takes its toll. Some years, the Martins simply decide not to make syrup. And every year John threatens to end the tradition.

“He says that every year,” says Stanton, John’s youngest son, dismissing his father’s annual threat.

“With my father, there’s definitely an excitement I see when we do this. There’s something about him teaching and showing us the things his grandfather used to do and passing it on,” he says. “The day before he left to come down here he was just elated.”

Still John insists he can’t do the work involved in making syrup without help. This year, a farm accident sent him to the hospital and cut the syrup season short. He’s back on his feet but is even more convinced that the Martin family maple syrup tradition may soon come to an end.

“You know, those buckets of water are a lot heavier than they were a few years ago,” he says, referring to the raw syrup the family collects. “As far as I’m concerned this will be the last year.”

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