Mill Creek Sugar House
Paul Hagman showcases the new sugar house being built for Mill Creek MetroPark's maple syrup initiative.
There are few sureties in life.
Death, taxes and another bad season for my Buffalo Bills.
Another is that if you bring a dozen doughnuts to work, and one is maple flavored, it will be the last doughnut in the box.
It’s so true, I’ve even resorted to ordering this way: “A dozen assorted ... but none of them maples.”
A website that polls the Top 10s of everything such as cellphones, bikes, video games and other elements of cool ranked 183 ice cream flavors.
No. 183 was maple walnut. Maple was outranked by ginger and something called Stracciatella.
I think maple was a great flavor — when Ben Franklin hosted the French in Philly.
What popular use for maple that existed after that was ultimately erased by guys such as Hershey, Wrigley, Ben and Jerry.
So I’m not a fan of maple.
That didn’t sIt too well with Paul Hagman.
He loves maple, and more so, loves what the process of maple is doing for Mill Creek MetroParks and the folks in his Rocky Ridge neighborhood of Youngstown. And I can’t agree more.
These days, including today, you will find Paul and neighborhood friends at their maple-syrup operation that straddles McCollum Road, just off the back side of the par 3 golf course and the Judge Morley Performing Arts Pavilion.
What started as a fluke has quickly become almost an iconic neighborhood spectacle.
“We already had a person stop by, and said they saw the blue bags and knew it was syrup season,” said Hagman, an architect by day, and somewhat a minister of Youngstown renaissance at all other times, along with pal John Slanina.
I believe there’s a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon kind of thing that exists for the neat, new things happening in Youngstown. Often and quickly, when you trace the start of such neat things, you will find Paul and John in the mix at some point, or their good friends in the mix.
And they were there again when this syrup thing started from nothing and became a $6,500 fundraiser last year. It’s now a larger operation with a $40,000 sugar house and processor (donations and grants), and, hopefully, more syrup this year if Mother Nature cooperates.
And as I said, it was a fluke.
“A park historian was talking to a group of us and mentioned that these sugar maples were planted in the 1950s with intent to tap, and they have never been,” said Hagman, trudging through mud this week with season two of tapping well underway.
The woods are called Mr. Robinson’s Maples, named for Charles Robinson. He was a Youngstown Sheet & Tube executive whose home is the mansion that is now the park’s Ford Nature Center. He was a great friend of Volney Rogers, who founded Mill Creek Park. Robinson was named to the park board in 1920, filling the seat of Rogers, who had just died.
In 1951, some six years after Robinson’s death, the board planted the maples in his honor with the intent to tap them.
“Northeast Ohio had a fair maple-syrup industry,” said Hagman. “One report I found showed Geauga County made more maple in the 1800s than Vermont does today.”
It would be 62 years until Robinson’s maples were tapped. But it was worth the wait.
“The neighborhood group wanted to create a product that’s novel,” said Hagman, “but that also speaks to the importance of nature and Mill Creek Park.”
Park Executive Director Dennis Miller said it was an easy project to approve.
“It’s just a great opportunity to involve the public and our neighbors with the nature and beauty of the metroparks,” said Miller.
Great opportunity, but not easy.
Up to 150 taps are in the 100 or so maple trees. Extracting the syrup starts from the natural process of a sugary sap water running from the ground through the tree. It happens every spring to start the process of growing leaves.
Some of that fluid seeps into the taps. Attached to each tap is a blue bladder bag that collects the sap.
“We need below-freezing nights and above-freezing days,” said Hagman. “There’s no telling how long the season will last. You always watch the forecast and the temperatures. It might last a few weeks; it might last six weeks.”
The daily flows are influenced by the temperature fluctuations. And south-facing bags fill more quickly due to the sun.
All of this, and just 2 percent of all of that liquid is what makes the syrup. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.
“Thirty-nine gallons of it is water. So we send out a lot of the material,” Hagman said. “That’s the steam in syrup-making process. It’s water that we don’t need.”
The group of 12 or so volunteers got a nice trial start last year. They took a few Ohio State Extension classes, the metroparks’ Keith Kaiser helped them stake out the trees, and a modest result was achieved. The first Mill Creek Maple Syrup sold out in 24 hours and raised $6,500 that helped buy playground equipment, fund a youth baseball team and other local projects.
With that, the group set out for grant funds to build the sugar house. Various foundations kicked in dollars. Businesses provided some in-kind help. The 20-foot-by-15-foot house is almost done.
One funder was city councilman Mike Ray, who also has two bottles of last year’s syrup. He feels guilty that both are opened in his fridge.
“I should have used one and given the other away,” he said.
He designated some of his city council discretionary funds toward the project, using it as an example of the kind of neighborhood engagement with a nearby institution that is key to revitalization.
So if you drive down McCollum Road and see blue sacks, you’re at the spot, and visitors and volunteers are welcome.
“If you see steam, we’re here,” said Hagman.
He expects syrup will be ready in mid- to late April. But don’t expect it to last long.
How much they generate is up to the magic of Mother Nature, and it’s part of the allure of Volney Rogers’ vision that is now 2,600 acres large.
That vision was supported by his believers, such as Charles Robinson.
Men like him honed the vision and were honored in ways such as a stand of sugar maples that was planted with a purpose.
And 62 years later, that purpose is unearthed by a new energy seeping through the city like spring sap in a tree.
For that, I can like maple again.
But I’ll still leave the maple doughnut for someone else.
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs, too, on vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.