Maple syrup operation taps sappy memories of childhood

George Brown
By George Brown

I stopped by Clermont County Park District’s annual Pancakes in the Park breakfast at Pattison Park last Saturday morning and enjoyed some real maple syrup with blueberries on my pancakes. Even sweeter was reminiscing with a few old timers who happen to know a thing or two about tapping maple trees and other long forgotten treasures of Americana. Before leaving I went out to the cooking shed for a few minutes where a crew was stoking the fire and boiling a batch of maple sap down to a syrup consistency. I even picked up a “spile” tap to try my luck on one of our sugar maples at home before the sap quits running for the season.

Times sure have changed. It hasn’t been all that long ago since most rural families tapped a few trees each spring to make their own syrup and boil a batch down enough to make some maple sugar candy. I remember well my folks tapping trees when I was four years old. I don’t know if Dad used a store bought spile or if he fashioned one from a sturdy sumac shoot the way the Indians and pioneers did, but he got the job done.

Instead of a big iron pot hanging over an open fire in the yard, Mom fired up the wood burning cook stove in the kitchen to boil the maple sap in a large kettle on the stove. I’ve heard that the steam generated from boiling maple sap in the kitchen is a good way to steam wallpaper completely off the walls. Apparently we didn’t have any wallpaper because I don’t recall that being a problem, but I do remember the maple syrup candy tasted mighty good.

The old farm house where we lived when I was four (keep in mind my “gypsy” parents moved just about every year) stood along a dirt road near Walhonding, Ohio. Our landlord, Mr. Bell, had grown up in the five room house during the early 1900s. He still raised crops, cattle, and sheep on the farm, but he and his family now lived in a fancy house atop a hill at the end of a long lane down the road from us.

Mr. Bell’s home had indoor plumbing and other amenities commonly found in new homes in the early 1950s. The only modern amenity we had in the tenant farmhouse was electricity. Water was carried from a springhouse that straddled a spring fed creek at one end of the yard. A well-seasoned outhouse straddled a hole at the other end of the yard, and, as was the custom of the day, our “bathroom” was a big wash tub that straddled two chairs in the kitchen on Saturday nights. Dad would pour big buckets of hot water in the tub and Mom would scrub us (my brother Bob, sister Kathy, and me) with a bar of Fels-Naptha soap, and then give us towels to dry off in front of the woodstove.

You rarely see a functioning springhouse today but during the 1800s and up through the 1950s these small stone structures were almost as common as chicken coops. If there was no river close by, a farmer would strategically build his home near a spring or creek and then construct a springhouse over the spring or creek.

Watercress grew in our stream, and minnows, tadpoles, and an occasional lizard could be spotted near the springhouse, but the water that flowed through the shallow open well inside was crystal clear and perfectly safe to drink, which we often did using a tin cup that hung inside the door. We had a refrigerator in the house so Mom didn’t store milk in the springhouse well, but I do remember her placing a watermelon in the well to keep it cool.

Not far down the road past Mr. Bell’s driveway an even smaller dirt road branched off and followed the river for several miles. There were two bridges along this stretch of the river, which were frequented by fishermen, including my parents. One of the bridges was known as the “singing bridge” because its wooden plank floor rattled and hummed when vehicles drove across it. The other we called the “broken bridge”. The entrance was blocked by a guardrail because its wooden planks had all been removed, although the iron skeleton of the bridge still spanned the river.

Going the other direction from our house, the road made its way up a long steep hill toward New Castle. This stretch was known as horse heaven hill because for decades local farmers had been dumping the carcasses of deceased horses off a steep embankment on one side of the road. Unfortunately, the spot had also become a favorite place for dumping garbage, old refrigerators, and even a few old cars.

It was on horse heaven hill one night during the summer of 1950 that I saw a bear for the first time. Dad was driving down the hill when the headlights of his 1942 Ford fell on the form of a rather large black bear. Dad pulled the car to a stop and we kids stood up in the back seat to have a good look. At about the same moment the bear rose up on his hind legs to have a good look at us. After a long moment the bear was satisfied that we meant him no harm so he dropped back to all fours and waddled over the steep side of the road toward horse heaven, no doubt to pick through the garbage.

That same summer Mom and Dad butchered a nanny goat, stringing her up in a tree in the front yard to gut and dress her– a sight I shall never forget. And we lost Shep that summer because he didn’t have good sense to sleep somewhere besides the middle of the road. Fittingly, when Mom tucked us into bed that night she sang Red Foley’s tune, Old Shep, as we kids clung to each other while tears streamed down our cheeks.

Other fond memories of our year-long stay at Bell’s still linger in my mind, memories like playing in the creek and sled riding on the hill where sheep grazed in the summer, but when spring came it was time to move on to a new home and new adventures, and so we did.

George Brown is a freelance writer. He and his wife, Yvonne, live in Jackson Township.