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.
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.
Jamie Martin, daughter of Scott and Lori Martin of Rolla, samples
syrup from a spoon.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
advertise it or anything,” John says. “People
just hear about it. We sell all we can make.”
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
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.
says that every year,” says Stanton, John’s youngest
son, dismissing his father’s annual threat.
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.”
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.”