I knew I had arrived even before I got there.
When I opened the door, the "ding-ding" of a bell announced to the clerk another person had entered the shop. But it was not the bell sound which told me I, indeed, was in the right place. It was a sweet smell of maple syrup which hung in the shop so much I could almost taste it. Yep. This was the place. I breathed in the perfume of Chardon, Ohio.
The building where Richards Maple Products has shelves filled with products made from the sap of maple trees has an old-time general store feel. In fact, it has been in Chardon for many decades. However, much of the hard work of bringing in the sap which drips from the trees for boiling into syrup takes place behind the store. There is a wooden shack the workers call the sugarhouse. Surrounding it are about five acres of maple trees.
The Sweetness of Maple Syrup
It is the trees which begin the work of producing the sap, turning it into syrup. The sap begins its rise in the trunks of the trees in the Winter, just as Spring attempts its early entry. In the waning days of Winter in Northeast Ohio, the sap starts its slow flow which lasts into early Spring. Weather is the flowing of sap.
Northeast Ohio is a key area for maple sap collection, which needs nights of freezing temperatures followed by days of thaw.
"That that in the afternoon, when it gets up to 40 or 50 degrees, is when the tree heats up and there is so much pressure, it forces that sap up to the trunk of the tree," said Dave Rennie, who married into the Richards family and has been working the sap into syrup and maple candy for 43 years. He is in the third generation of family workers.
Richards Maple Products is in its fourth generation of family workers. Matt Barham and Jen Freeman grew up in the business which was started by their great-grandparents, Will and Rena Richards, in 1910.
"I was born during the maple festival," said Freeman. "I fought them all growing up so I could work here," she added. Freeman does not remember her first day working in the store or working the sap. She began as a child.
So, too, did her brother, Matt Barham. The brother and sister both work the long plastic lines which are tapped into the stand maple trees in the back of the property. The tubes bring the sap to a central collection point.
"Once the taps are in the trees, we turn on our vacuum pump in this house and it sucks all the sap in," said Barham.
The sap is then boiled in the sugarhouse. Large plumes of steam rise from the boiling sap, sending a fragrance aloft, but not before it holds tightly in the little building. It takes 43 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. The syrup, sweet and pure, is then poured into bottles and sold in the family store. Some of the syrup is then made into pieces of candy, also sold from the store.
The process of taking sap from maple trees and turning it into syrup is ancient. There is a legend that thousands of years ago, a Native American brave tossed his tomahawk into a tree and sap began to run from the cut. Once he tasted it, he noticed its sweetness. The legend continues that the sap was poured into a log which had been scooped off some of its wood to that a bowl was created. In went the sap along with rocks which had been heated on an open fire. The sap boiled, most of its water was evaporated, and syrup was left.
The process has not changed much over the years. But it has kept Richards Maple Products in business for more than a century with customers walking through its doors while getting hit with the sweet aroma of maple. It is hard to imagine pancakes or waffles without maple syrup.
Barham found that out when he was a U.S. Army soldier stationed in Iraq. When the family sent him packages from the store, the men in his unit pushed aside the syrup the Army brought in for its kitchens. They grabbed the bottles of maple syrup from Chardon, Ohio. Barham said he became one of the most popular men in the unit.
For Barham, a long way from home, the maple syrup was very satisfying. Soldiers kept passing the bottle, especially when pancakes or waffles were on the menu of the sergeant in charge of the cooking.
The syrup provides its own testimony for the Richards Maple Products process. It also provides a testimony for what nature gives when the sap is flowing in the maple trees of Chardon.
Richards Maple Products is at 545 Water St., in Chardon.
If you can't find it easily, follow your nose. The sweetness of maple syrup will guide you.