story & photo
by Crystal Harpstreit
Even though, Oweneco Farms Sugar Shack, Lebanon, opened in 1991, Dawn Drum and her family have been making maple syrup since sugar rationing during World War II. The farm is more than 300-years old.
Dawn says that in the 1940s, “We made it [maple syrup] for ourselves.” When people found out that the family was making their own maple syrup, in the 1970s, they asked if they could have some too. Interest grew until Dawn decided to go into business with her husband, John, her brother Frank Spafford Grabber and his wife, Evelyn. Although Frank passed away in 2008, his family continues making maple syrup to honor him.
Making maple syrup is hard work and the family’s dedication to the process is what keeps the sugar shack going. John says, “It’s a lot of work, but a lot of fun.”
In February, with cold nights and sunny days, the weather is ideal for maple syrup making. Dawn says, “We need the temperature to go down to the 20s at night and to be in the 40s during the day.” During the winter, the sap stays in the roots of the trees and the warmer temperature during the day causes it to run.
In January, the family puts up about 100 taps. Thin blue pipes run from tree to tree in the sugar bush. These are beginning to replace the buckets that everyone is used to seeing. “We use pipe lines because they’re cleaner and easier for us,” says Dawn.
“No more than three taps are put on one tree at a time,” says John and if a tree isn’t healthy looking, it will not be tapped. Once the sap flows out of the trees, it all ends up in a single tank. From there, it goes to the sugar shack to be boiled down. Sometimes extra tanks are used if there is an especially high volume of sap flowing.
At Oweneco Farms, Dawn and her family always use pine slabs to make their fires because pine burns hot and fast. The high temperature is important because, most of the water in the sap needs to be boiled off and, as Dawn says, “Sap is 98% water and 2% sugar.”
After the sap is boiled down, the syrup is filtered. In the beginning, Dawn’s family used paper and wool filtering cones. Now, they use a filtering press with paper filters because less syrup is lost. The filtration process gets rid of any particles left in the maple syrup, but is mostly for looks since nothing in the syrup is harmful.
At the beginning of the season, the sap that is collected creates light, golden colored syrup, known as Grade A Light or Fancy. As the season goes on, the syrup becomes darker and is called Grade B. Grade B syrup can be bitter, but the strong flavor is good for cooking. It’s often used to make food such as maple flavored ice cream.
Once in a while, Dawn and her family make maple sugar candy. To do this, the finished maple syrup needs to be heated again, this time to 238 degrees Fahrenheit and stirred. When it’s the right consistency, it is poured into molds and left to set. The family usually saves candymaking for kids that come to visit with school and Girl Scout and Boy Scout trips. Though, anytime visitors come to the farm they can get a tour, John says, “If we’re here and you’re here, we give a tour.”
Oweneco Farms is named after Oweneco, the son of Uncas, the first Mohegan sachem. Dawn’s ancestor, Thomas Spafford purchased the land from Oweneco in 1701. The name means black drake and this is represented through the farm’s logo which is an Indian with black ducks flying by.