March 20, 2013

Skowhegan maple syrup producers celebrate 30 years of Maine Maple Sundays

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

SKOWHEGAN — On a chilly night in February 1983, eight Maine maple syrup producers gathered in the living room of Jack and Eva Steeves' home in Skowhegan, looking for ways to promote their product.

click image to enlarge

Jack Steeves with some of the various glass containers filled with maple syrup made at Strawberry Hill Farms in Skowhegan.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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Jeremy Steeves uses a hydrometer to check the sugar density of maple syrup coming out of an evaporator at Strawberry Hill Farm in Skowhegan on March 11. Steeves and his father, Jack, are making syrup for retail and the Sunday's Maine Maple Sunday event.

Staff photo by David Leaming

Additional Photos Below

MAINE MAPLE WEEK CONTINUES IN SKOWHEGAN

Thursday

10-11:30 a.m. and 3-4:30 p.m. — Maple leaf cookie decoration at The Pickup Cafe at the Somerset Grist Mill

Maple specials all day at Redington-Fairview General Hospital cafeteria.

Friday

Restaurants featuring maple foods

• Old Mill Pub — Maple chipotle wings

• The Bankery — Maple mouse domes, maple whoopie pies and apple maple blossoms

• Alice's Restaurant — Maple breakfast special

• Kel-Met Cafe — Maple special

• Redington-Fairview General Hospital cafeteria — Maple specials

Saturday

7-10 a.m. — Pancake Maple Breakfast at Tewksbury Hall

8 p.m. Comedian Bob Marley at the Skowhegan Opera House

Sunday

Maine Maple Sunday. See our What's Happening section for a list of area maple syrup operations open to the public on Maine Maple Sunday.

The eight producers, all directors of the newly formed Maine Maple Producers Association, were about to change the way Maine — and other Northern states — marketed their maple syrup.

They were about to designate one day for maple syrup lovers to visit the state's many sugarhouses, smell the vapor of the evaporators and see how sap is transformed into sweet, golden syrup and maple candy.

The group decided that Maine Maple Sunday, to be celebrated this Sunday, would be the fourth Sunday in March.

"The date was chosen because it was sort of an in-between date for the southern part of the state and for the northern part of the state," Jack Steeves said.

Steeves, now 81, who with his wife, Eva, and son Jeremy own and operate Strawberry Hill Farms on Rowe Road in Skowhegan, said the idea behind Maine Maple Sunday was two-pronged. He said producers wanted to be sure they had the finished product ready for visitors during maple season and thought it was important to get the message out about maple syrup and where to find it.

Thirty years ago, he said, each sugarhouse was doing its own promotion for the public "catch as catch can," without coordinating the date with other producers.

"The public never knew when to come or not, or whether the maple operation would be operating when they got there or if there would be anyone available to talk to them or explain anything to them," he said. "So we felt it would be a good idea to have a special day that we all did it and then publicize it."

The first year, Steeves said, it was just the eight producers in Maine who coordinated Maple Sunday. The second year, several more producers joined the Maple Sunday celebration. Today, he said, there are about 80 maple sugarhouses giving tours and offering free maple treats in Maine.

The practice has stretched into Maine Maple Weekend in places and has expanded to most New England states and as far west as Ohio, according to Steeves.

"They saw that it was a good thing," he said of the Maine model. "They saw that maple Sunday in Maine was a progressive and innovative thing, and so they adopted some of the ideas and pursued it."

The town of Skowhegan even is doing a maple week this year, which continues today with maple-leaf cookie decoration at The Pickup Cafe at the Somerset Grist Mill from 10 to 11:30 a.m. and again from 3 to 4:30 p.m.

Gary Keough, New England Field Office Director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said he has been on the job for only about seven years, but the story goes that Maine had the first organized statewide day of maple celebration, just as Steeves said.

Mary Croft, administrative assistant at the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, said Vermont Maple Open House Weekend, which also is this weekend, has been going on statewide for about 12 years.

One long-running celebration, a commercial, one-location Vermont Maple Festival, in St. Albans, Vt., in April, has been held with carnival rides, antique and craft shows, a parade and maple events for nearly 50 years, Croft said.

The Steeves farm is not only among the first to set aside a single day to celebrate the sap, it is also the largest American-owned maple syrup producer in Maine, Jack Steeves said. It has as many as 40,000 tree taps, producing and selling as much as 12,000 gallons of organic, finished maple syrup a year.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Jeremy Steeves moves a barrel filled with 40 gallons of hot maple syrup as his father, Jack, prepares to fill another barrel inside the sugar camp building at Strawberry Hill Farm in Skowhegan on March 11.

Staff photo by David Leaming

click image to enlarge

Jeremy Steeves reinserts a maple sap spile into a tree in the woods at Strawberry Hill Farm in Skowhegan. Steeves said he has 250,000 feet of sap lines transporting sap to the nearby sugar camp, where an evaporator boils the sap into syrup.

Staff photo by David Leaming

 


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