Saturday, April 4, 2015

On the Road to BS Corner

This week I did a "flash" trip north to visit my aunt in Algoma and my brother and sister-in-law near Baileys Harbor.  The weather was good, and I wanted to break winter routine and get out of the house for a few days.  I also wanted to drop off a couple miniature paintings with my aunt's neighbor, who will deliver them to the gallery owner who wants them for an upcoming show.  And, we are out of smoked fish, and I needed to visit Bearcats to restock.

This early in the season very few tourist places like galleries and custard stands are open yet, especially midweek, so when I made it to Door county, there weren't many distractions.  Sandy and I drove to Sister Bay to see if the Door County Creamery was open, but no luck there.  Then I remembered that her husband had talked enthusiastically about a nearby family who has a maple syrup operation. Could we visit?


This was the first time I ever saw a real sugar shack outside of a magazine article or in a book.  Louis and Betty Sohns have a farm with a shed dedicated to processing maple sap.  According to Louis, he has been involved in making maple syrup since he was a child, tapping trees and hauling the sap by cart to his neighbor, Bertha Reinhard.  He'd haul the sap, and then later take back home the finished syrup.  Later on he worked with them, learning the craft of making syrup, and now the WW II vet has a sophisticated operation, tapping over 800 maple trees each spring.  His father made syrup for just the family, but Louis learned commercial production from the Reinhards.  He and his son and daughter sell maple syrup to a list of dedicated customers, including my brother and sister-in-law.  Sohns told us it takes 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.

No photograph or written description can do justice to the experience of being in Sohns' sugar shack.  There is the scent of the wood burning in the sap evaporator.  Then there is the maple scented sauna steam that rises in the air, condenses on the ceiling beams and drips back down.  I have never smelled anything like it. And I was not expecting to be offered maple tea.  Louis dipped into the boiling sap in the evaporator, a liquid half way between clear watery sap and thick brown syrup, ladled it into a cup, and popped in a tea bag.  Heaven.  He offered to add rum, but I declined, though I did sample some from Ed's cup.  I was stupid to turn it down.

The operation uses a combination of old style equipment and new technology.  Each tree has old style taps and 12 quart buckets, just like Berta Reinhard used to use.  But Louis also uses a four wheel drive vehicle with a vacuum device to collect the sap.  In one field he also has a system of plastic tubing to collect sap, all of which empties into waiting collection tanks.  My impression was that Sohns invented many of the labor saving techniques himself.

Sohns seems genuinely pleased to meet new people and tell them his stories.  He hefted up this cross section of a windfall maple that he chopped and split to fuel the fire  in the evaporator.  He explained that each of the marks was a scar from a tap, a permanent mark for each spring season in the tree's long life.

OK, so what about bullsh*$% corners?  I've know for years that a nearby crossroads in the township had that earthy name, but Louis told us why.  Today the corner has a building that houses a weaver's retail establishment, but once the property was the location of the area creamery.  Local farmers would haul their milk there to be processed into cheese or butter, and would settle in with their neighbors to wait and shoot the breeze until it was ready.  Makes perfect sense.

So - an unexpected pleasure early in the season before the out of town tourists roll in.  It'll be a while before I forget the pleasure of drinking maple tea and soaking up stories.

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