Maple syrup cooking Tradition: A vanishing tradition, the production of Maryland maple syrup continues today on the Steyer farm in Western Maryland.

March 31, 1998|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

GORMAN -- In a scene that recalls images from a Li'l Abner cartoon, a cloud of steam -- rich with the fragrance of maple water -- drifts from the aged shack with the weathered board siding and sheet-metal roof perched on the side of a hill.

It's maple syrup production time, and a new generation of the Steyer family is busy keeping up a tradition that dates back more than 100 years.

"My daddy used to say he could go up on the top of this hill and see the steam rising from 19 or 20 sugar maple camps and a like number of moonshine operations," Michael Steyer said as he stirred a boiling tank of "maple water," or sap, slowly being transformed into syrup.

Nobody is saying how many corn liquor operations are still around, but the production of maple syrup is a part of Maryland's history that is rapidly disappearing.

According to the Maryland Department of Health, which licenses and inspects syrup producers, there are only five commercial maple syrup camps still in existence in the state.

"There were hundreds of them in part of Garrett County in the past," said Randall Steyer, 38, who remembers when just about every one of his neighbors supplemented their farm income during the winter by boiling the maple water down into syrup.

Evelyn Steyer, Randall's 69-year-old mother, said that back in the 1920s, farmers would make the maple water into 1-pound blocks of sugar to use as barter. They would trade with storekeepers for eggs, bacon or a part of the rigging used on horses that plowed the fields.

"In the '30s and '40s they would take trainloads of maple sugar out of this part of the county," said Michael Steyer, Randall's cousin. "It would go to Baltimore, Washington and other East Coast cities. This was before cane sugar became so popular."

As late at the early 1960s, he said, there was a thriving market with the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. "They would buy it in 30-gallon drums and use it as a sweetener in chewing tobacco."

Those markets have vanished, but the Steyers have managed to stay in business by catering to tourists and to all their neighbors who over the years have quit making syrup and sold their trees to local lumberyards.

The season coming to an end was a good one for the Steyer camp.

"El Nino was the greatest thing that ever happened," said Randall Steyer as he sat on a pile of 4-foot cherry wood slabs used to fuel the fire in the evaporator that slowly transforms the maple water into a golden syrup.

"You need nights below freezing and days when the temperature goes above freezing," he said.

In a good year, the winter eases slowly into spring. The season usually begins about the second week of February and runs until the end of March.

"If we're lucky," Michael Steyer said, "it will run into the first week of April."

The Steyer family will produce between 1,000 and 1,200 gallons of syrup this year with sales totaling about $20,000.

The bulk of the syrup produced at the shed housing the evaporator is brought down from the camp in milk cans to the "Steyer Sugar Shack," a canning building behind Randall's home. There, the syrup is heated to 180 degrees and poured into tins or plastic containers ranging in size from 3.4 ounces to 1 gallon.

It is sold at restaurants, convenience stores and souvenir shops in the Deep Creek Lake area and shipped to customers all across the country.

"It's a good sideline business," said Evelyn Steyer. "It's the time of the year when you can't plow the fields or do any planting, the ground is too wet and too messy. It's a lot of work, a lot of hard work, but it's a nice addition to our income."

On a warm day last week, when the temperatures were melting the last of the winter's snow in this part of the state, a tour bus load of 20 students from Oakland's prekindergarten class visited the Steyer maple syrup camp.

The children got a glimpse of a sector of Maryland agriculture that Evelyn Steyer wondered if would still be around by the time the students could lift a 3-gallon wooden bucket of sap and carry it to the house.

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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