This year’s maple syrup season is very rapidly drawing to a close – and perhaps has ended already (it’s hard to know these rural matters when one is in downtown Montreal), though the sudden return to winter that Ontario and Quebec experienced over the last couple of days may have kept the sap running and good for syrup a little while longer. Anyway, I didn’t want to let another syrup season pass without paying tribute to one of the very fondest memories I have of my childhood at the Manse in Queensborough: my father, The Rev. Wendell Sedgwick, making syrup there.
Dad, as longtime readers (and those who knew him) will know, grew up a farmer in Haliburton County (country of great beauty and poor farmland, but that’s another story). His father used to make maple syrup in the spring, tapping the maple trees in a lovely, healthy sugarbush that stands on one part of the large family farm (much of which is woodland). So it was something Dad was thoroughly familiar with but had to leave off during his years in Toronto at university and divinity school and then during his first years serving his first pastoral charge, which was in Queensborough and area.
But one early-spring day not all that far into our family’s 11 years in Queensborough, a man knocked on the door. “I understand you know how to make syrup,” he said to my dad.
The man was Cyril Shaw, a well-known syrup producer in the Eldorado area; Eldorado is about eight miles from Queensborough, and its United Church would later become part of the same pastoral charge, but it wasn’t at the time. Cyril explained that (for whatever reason; the details are long lost to my memory) he was without an assistant, and at sap-boiling time when you have an operation on the scale he did, you need an assistant because you are boiling pretty much around the clock. So Cyril himself had been working around the clock for several days, and he was well beyond the exhaustion point. He wondered if Dad would by any chance be able to help out.
Well, that was probably the best thing Dad had heard in a long time. He enjoyed making syrup, and he loved to work. Work – hard physical work – defined his life; it was what he was, as I wrote in a Lives Lived piece for the Globe and Mail after he died in 2004. So Dad spent much of that syrup season gladly helping at Cyril’s operation, and I think perhaps in at least one subsequent year.
Last weekend, Raymond and I had the great pleasure of a visit with Cyril and his wife Isabella (who was born and raised in Queensborough; her grandparents were our across-the-street neighbours), at Cyril’s longtime boiling operation. They sold the business to friend and neighbour Don McEwen just last year, but Cyril is still helping out, and I was eager to go back and see the Shaws and the operation, a place of fond childhood memory. Our family and the Shaws spent lots of time together in those days; my brother John played with the Shaws’ son Scott on the Eldorado Expos softball team that Cyril coached (and Isabella effectively co-coached), and their kids and us Sedgwick kids always had fun when we would get together at one family’s house or the other. It was terrific to see Cyril and Isabella again and reminisce (they pointed out one corner of the boiling house where, they laughed, Dad had climbed up to repair the roof in full ministerial gear, clerical collar and all), and we made plans for another visit soon. (For one thing, I want to get copies – signed by the author, of course – of the two books Isabella has written, one about the history of agriculture in the area, and the other about the 19th-century discovery of gold and subsequent [brief] gold rush in Eldorado – which of course gave the place its name.)
Anyway, not very long after Dad got back into maple-syrup making thanks to Cyril Shaw’s unexpected appearance at the front door of the Manse, he began tapping trees and making syrup on his own. He started out by – with the landowners’ permission, of course – tapping the long row of maples that at that time lined both sides of Queensborough Road along a stretch of half or three-quarters of a mile between Queensborough and Hazzard’s Corners. (Tragically, some years ago the decision was made to cut down the maples along one side of that beautiful stretch, so that the leaves no longer formed, as they once had, a beautiful canopy above you as you drive along it.) And he boiled the sap down on the wood stove in the Manse kitchen, which meant that our kitchen became a maple-syrup operation: pots of the sweet-smelling sap-turning-into-syrup on top of the stove; big containers of sap waiting for boiling just out the door in the back porch; other containers (old milk cans) with big felt strainers clothespinned to their tops in the middle of the floor, where the syrup would be poured for straining when done. This was not the sparkling, spotless suburban kitchen that perhaps comes to mind when one thinks of what a minister’s home might have looked like in the mid-1960s. (My mother, who came from a sparkling home in a central suburb of Toronto, probably felt like she’d been kidnapped and hied away to Mars.)
Dad later expanded the operation considerably, tapping still more trees in a sugarbush down the road south of the Manse, and setting up a bare-bones but workable outdoor evaporator/boiling arrangement on a cement pad in the back yard. He was of course a small-scale syrup producer – nothing like Cyril and Isabella’s operation – but he sold a fair bit of syrup to people in the community; I can remember as a little kid delivering an order of a big gallon tin to a home down the road from us, and how the handle on the heavy container dug into my little hand. And of course it meant that we always had maple syrup of our own, though the best stuff – the early syrup, which is always the lightest – was reserved for customers, and we ended up with the dark, heavy (but still delicious) syrup that you get at the end of the season.
The main thing I remember from all of this – aside from the wonderful round-the-clock smell of sweet maple sap boiling and turning into syrup in our kitchen, a smell that came back to me with a delightful thwack when Raymond and I visited the Shaw-McEwen boiling house last weekend – is going out to collect sap in early-spring evenings. Dad would load two huge metal containers into the back of his old green truck, and we kids (and the dog, Finnigan) would accompany him for sap-collecting. And not just we four (Melanie, John, Ken and me); many other kids from the neighbourhood often joined us, the Baumhours and the Parkses and the Lalondes and so on. The lucky ones would get to ride in the back of the truck (with Finnigan), and when we got to the maple stand we were all expected to take big plastic pails and collect the sap by emptying into them the contents of the metal sap buckets that were hung below the taps on the trees.
(That, by the way, is the old-fashioned way. Nowadays syrup operations of any size at all use pipeline running between the taps on the trees, with pumps here and there to make sure the running sap moves in the right direction – toward the collector bins and/or boiling house. Cyril told me last weekend that he was the first producer in Hastings County to use pipeline, in 1970. I was interested to see, as we drove to Eldorado last weekend, that there were still some trees by the side of Rimington Road with old-fashioned [though clearly quite new; they were almost shiny] buckets on them. It was just like my dad’s low-tech operation back in the day.)
When we’d arrive back at the Manse in the falling darkness, the sap all collected and ready to be boiled, Dad would often reward the gang of kids by making taffy on snow. Have you ever had that? It’s made by pouring boiling-down sap that is just at the point of becoming syrup – and is hot hot hot – onto cold packed snow. The almost-syrup hardens instantly and forms delicious, sweet taffy. In my mind’s eye I can still picture the Manse kitchen full of Sedgwick and Baumhour and Lalonde and Parks kids enjoying the taffy created as a hot stream of golden, sweet-smelling liquid was poured onto the snow packed into our plastic turquoise (!) dishpan.
(That Manse kitchen is one memory-filled place. Next weekend Raymond and I will be back in Queensborough, and now that I’ve written all this about the maple-syrup days and taken myself right back in time, I think I need to just spend a few minutes in that kitchen with my eyes closed, conjuring up those happy memories of what used to go on there every year at this time of year oh so long ago – and also that wonderful warm maple smell. Perhaps, if I am lucky, my time-travel exercise will be followed by a breakfast of Raymond’s Famous Pancakes and Hastings County maple syrup.)
I wish I had some photos of those sap-gathering and maple-syrup-making days at the Manse back in the 1960s and early 1970s, but I don’t think anybody ever had time to take any, unfortunately. It’s for that reason that I am so grateful that George Farrell, a filmmaker who lives in the tiny hamlet of Gelert near the Sedgwick farm in Haliburton County, made the video called Drawn From Wood that appears at the top of this post. When Dad had retired from the ministry and he and my mum were back living on the farm, Dad went back to making syrup in the old sugar bush, and George took it upon himself to make a film and interview Dad about it. It is wonderful to be able to see my dad in action (you also catch glimpses of my sister, Melanie, and my Aunt Marion, Dad’s sister), doing things the really old-fashioned way, horse-drawn sleigh and all.
I hope you enjoy it. As you can imagine, it brings back a lot of good maple-syrup memories.