Variations On A Tradition: Making Maple Syrup In The Northwoods

Apr 3, 2020

Industrial evaporators at Maple Hollow in Merrill allow the company to process sap from 20,000 taps.
Credit Jim Skibo

Each spring the hardwood forests of the Northwoods come alive with activity as the process of collecting maple sap begins. The people doing this work range from large commercial operations to single individuals tapping a few trees. As part of WXPR’s We Live Up Here series, we visited two very different operations before social distancing guidelines went into effect.

The first stop was a visit with Joe Polak, owner of Maple Hollow, nestled in a dense maple forest just northeast of Merrill. As you walk into the evaporator building down a hallway lined with hanging snowshoes you first notice the warmth, on this cool damp day, and the sweet smell of evaporating sap.

The evaporator, about the size of a small pickup truck, transforms sap into maple syrup. One person oversees running the evaporator, and at least two others do various tasks including filling the 50-gallon drums of finished syrup. Polak is now a third-generation maple syrup producer.

Maple Hollow's system involves miles and miles of tubing.
Credit Jim Skibo

“My grandfather started it. He moved here in 1889,” Polak says.

His grandfather was a lumberman, and he moved to this forest grove to start a sawmill. The spring of the year was a slow time of for the sawmill, so his grandfather started tapping trees to make maple syrup for their own use. By the mid-20th century, they started to get more serious about syrup production.

Polak explains that maple syrup “was only a hobby for the family up until 1952 when my dad and his brothers bought a commercial evaporator and expanded the business.”

And did they ever expand. Today they store the sap, gathered from 20,000 taps and miles of tubing, in semi-truck tankers. At their year-round facility, they bottle and then distribute their finished maple syrup over much of the Midwest.

Meanwhile, Dave Cihlar, who lives atop a maple tree covered hill just east of Antigo, has been making maple syrup for just four years. He started doing maple sugaring after he retired. He works alone and taps trees on the east and west sides of his house.

Dave Cihlar stokes his evaporator fire.
Credit Jim Skibo

“I make about six gallons a year. I need 240 gallons of sap,” explains Cihlar.

Instead of a commercial evaporator, Cihlar boils his sap on a small wood fired cooker, which he builds out of blocks each spring next to his wood pile.

“Just went to the block factory in Antigo and bought 8-inch cement blocks and 4-inch solid slabs. I just threw it together like this, so when I’m done, I can just take it apart and pile it inside here,” he says.

He taps just 24 trees and uses a much simpler system than found at Maple Hollow. He bought a pan, taps that go into the trees, and tubing to connect the taps to a reused plastic gallon ice cream bucket that sits at the base of each tree.

When I commented on the 24 ice cream buckets at the base of the trees collecting the sap, Cihlar stated jokingly,  “I like ice cream.” And he prefers his vanilla ice cream with a dab of his maple syrup.  

Unlike the Maple Hollow evaporator, which several people run, Cihlar does it alone. This means that he burns the fire 24 hours a day. He explains the process.

Dave Cihlar collects sap using a much simpler system than that of Maple Hollow.
Credit Jim Skibo

“So I come out here at night,” he says. “Once it gets dark, I go in the house. I leave a pair of boots and an old pair of pants in the garage. I come out here and fire up. Put some more in and go back in the house, fall back asleep for an hour and do it all again.”

The amazing thing is that even though Cihlar has a small and very simple operation, he can make a product similar to Maple Hollow’s, which has a large crew and a more industrial approach.  That is part of the magic of maple syrup making. The basic process has not changed that much since the first Euro-Americans came to the Northwoods and observed the Native people boiling down sap in the spring.

It turns out that Dave Cihlar and Joe Polak have another thing in common besides their ability to make good syrup--how they like to eat maple syrup.

“I prefer it on my ice cream,” Polak says. “And then if you have a few blueberries to throw on there and maybe some walnuts. You just can’t beat it.”