Did you know that the very first Festival of the Maples was held in Perth, Ontario back in the 1970s?
The story that follows is dedicated to the Lanark County families who played such a significant role, back in the early days, leading up to this annual festival in Perth: Andrew and George Korry, Bowes family of Glen Tay, Ernie and Evelyn Miller family of Glen Tay, Robert McEwen of Prestonvale, Ken VanAlstine of Maberly, Leonard and Tom Adam of McDonald’s Corners, Brien and Marion Paul west of Hopetown, Lanark, James ‘Carman’ and Edna Gibson of Dalhousie Township, Don and Marion Dodds of Clayton, George Coutts of Rideau Ferry, Wheeler family of McDonald’s Corners, and Fulton family of Pakenham to name a few.
Taffy on the Tay
Years ago, many of the local farmers produced maple syrup. Some made just enough for their families, and for others it was a supplement to their farm income, at a time of year that was less busy, than during the summer months. There were also a few dealers in the area that sold sugar bush supplies – Max Miller of Snow Road, Percy Drysdale of McDonald’s Corners, and W.J. Ballantyne in Lanark. James Brothers Hardware and the Co-Op in the town of Perth also sold supplies for maple production. Labels for the bottles were often printed by ‘The Perth Courier’.
The Korry family farm was located across the road from our farm. They owned a medium sized sugar bush, and produced enough syrup to sell locally. Andrew Korry’s son-in-law John Chaplin sold it through his business – Chaplin’s Dairy, door to door, to their customers on the milk routes. Andrew and his son George were very busy for several weeks each spring making syrup, and my brother Tim Stafford worked with them in the bush one season. Extra help was always welcome. They used a team of horses, with a tank mounted on the sleigh, to draw the sap back to the evaporator, at the sugar shack; typical of many other producers at that time.
The Bowes and the Miller families of Glen Tay also produced their own syrup. I recall that Art Bowes used to tap quite a number of trees in the mid-sixties. Their land was known as Tayview farm, and it straddled the Tay River -a beautiful setting. At that time they had about 300 acres including hay fields, pastures, and of course maple bushes. Art’s son Doug traveled along with us on our school bus each day in the 1960s, and he often spoke about helping his Dad back in the bush each spring.
The Miller family’s farm, known as Tayside was owned by Ernest ‘Ernie’ Miller and his wife Evelyn (Mather). The Miller family arrived from Scotland in 1809, and their farm was purchased by Ernie’s great grandfather Dodds in 1858. Their kids were Diane, Nancy, John and Ruth. Evelyn was a lovely, soft-spoken lady, and she was my first 4H club leader. I also recall that Ernie was tapping about 1,500 trees back in the sixties, and had about 30 acres of maple woods. Ernie was a forward thinker, and one of his ideas at that time was that sap should be gathered by trucks from each farm, and taken to a large central evaporator – similar to the way that milk was trucked to cheese factories. It seemed through the years that Ernie was into everything. When he wasn’t farming he wrote history books, he researched genealogy, he worked with young people, and it was no surprise to me when he was inducted into the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2003.
Ernest Miller – Photo by Malak for Cover of Family Herald in support of War Bonds. Photo courtesy of Diane (Miller) Duncan.
The McEwen clan in Ferguson Falls was another family who made their mark in the maple syrup business back in the 60s. In 1966 Robert McEwen of Prestonvale opened up the first pancake house in the area. Originally, Robert made his syrup the old fashioned way, out in the bush, and boiled a cauldron of sap over the fire. Later, in the 1970s I remember that he was one of the first to use plastic pipelines to bring the sap from the trees to one main location. Our Dad knew the McEwen family well, having grown up in that area, and said that Robert often spoke of the difficulties involved in syrup production. It was difficult to find reliable labour, and also challenging was finding the capital to purchase new equipment. Robert was very active in the local industry, and at one time was the President of the Lanark and District Maple Syrup Association.
When the former McEwen Sugar Shack went up for sale, Charles Temple and his wife Susan Snyder bought the property – the very first day it was on the market. The property known now as Temple’s Sugar Bush consists of 70 acres of maple bush where 5,000 trees are tapped annually.
Temple’s Sugar Bush on the site of the former McEwen’s Sugar Shack, Ferguson Falls
Ken VanAlstine in Maberly tapped over 2,000 trees when I was a kid, and he was among the first to use pipelines. He experimented at first, and tapped just 200 trees using the pipeline system, but the rest was collected in buckets, the traditional way, and transported to the evaporator by horse and sleigh.
Ken, like other producers in the area, found the cost of hiring labour prohibitive, and found that distributors wanted too much money per gallon. Ken was well known in the area for his excellent quality maple syrup, and said on his best day at that time he gathered 3,300 gallons of sap.
The Ennis family also has a long history of maple production. Their ancestor Arthur Ennis came from County Cavan, Ireland to Lanark County in 1840, and the family has been producing maple syrup for almost a century. Their sugar bush is located on the eastern shores of Bennett Lake, at the end of Ennis Road, Balderson, in Lanark County. Five generations of the Ennis family have been tapping trees on this property.
George and Karen Ennis – photo – Ennis Maple Products
Another local family of long-time maple producers is the Adam family of McDonald’s Corners. Leonard Adam and his brother Tom tapped an average of 2,250 trees, and owned about 500 acres of land between them. They were hard workers, and spent many days sawing, chopping, and stacking the 20 cords of wood required for their evaporator. The Adam family were one of the first to use a brand new style of evaporator which was 4 by 14 feet. They produced enough to sell locally, and the remainder was shipped out West.
Adam family of McDonald’s Corners – ‘The Perth Courier’ – Nov. 28, 1963
Brien and Marion (McLaren) Paul of R.R #3 Lanark owned a 575 acre farm, about three miles west of Hopetown, and began maple production in 1953. Marion was raised on a farm near the village of Lanark, was known locally as the ‘First Lady of Maple’, and served proudly as a Maple Judge at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto. Their kids Kathy, Wayne and Darrell were also very involved in maple production, and provided additional labour for the family business. In 1972 Kathy was crowned Maple Queen in the local competition.
Back in the 1960s the Paul family used two sleighs, one pulled by a tractor, and the other by a team of horses. Brien’s father Raymond Paul often tended the evaporator, keeping a watchful eye as the sweet, fragrant, steam boiled off into the air. Russell Foster and Raymond Watt often assisted the Paul family with their production. They tapped an average of 4,000 trees at that time, produced about 700 gallons of syrup, and used approximately 30 cords of wood during the season.
‘The Perth Courier’ – March 21, 1971
The Paul’s were pioneers in the maple industry, and were very modern in their approach. They were one of the first to install plastic tubing, and an oil fired evaporator. The plastic pipes were attached to the tree spiles, and the sap flowed through the pipes, and emptied into a storage reservoir located behind the evaporator. Brien and Marion were inducted into the International Maple Hall of Fame, and were proud members of the Ontario Maple Producers and the Lanark and District Maple Producers Association.
Gibson was a name known for their excellent syrup. James ‘Carman’ Gibson, and his wife Edna (Rodger) had a maple business in Dalhousie Twp at R.R. # 4, Lanark. The nearby areas of Hoods and Poland were well known for their fine quality maple syrup. The Gibson family began tapping trees in 1821 with the arrival of James Gibson from Lanark, Scotland. He was the first pioneer settler in the area, and named their new home Lammermoor after the Lammermoor Hills in Scotland. Their five children Verna, Beatrice, Norma, Carol and Earl helped with the operation. The Gibson family also raised beef, dairy on their busy farm, and hauled milk to the Middleville cheese factory.
When locals think of a long running maple operation, the name Dodds comes to mind. They had a substantial sugar bush at R.R. 2 Clayton, in the Lanark Highlands. The Dodds family has owned Springdale Farm for generations, producing maple syrup since 1917, and Don and Marion Dodds, and their sons Bryan and Stephen helped with production through the years. The family has won many awards for being long term maple producers, and Stephen Dodds won the Grand Champion Trophy at Perth Festival of the Maples in 2011. Their long, long, list of awards include trophies for World Champion Maple Syrup, Sugar Maker of the Year, and a memorable meeting with HRH Prince Charles at the Royal Winter Fair.
Dodds family – Don, Marion and Stephen Dodds
One of the maple syrup families that I remember fondly was the Coutts family on the Rideau Ferry Road. I’ll never forget how George Coutts invited local kids to visit his sugar shack. He would take the time during the very busy season to patiently explain how the maple syrup was made. Miss Norma Devlin from the North Elmsley School was invited each year to bring her grade one class to visit the Coutts farm. George along with his son Kenneth showed the children how syrup was made and even provided the kids with some maple taffy at the end of the tour.
In the 1960s the Coutts family tapped about 1,300 trees yearly, and produced more than enough syrup for both the family and for area sales. Maple syrup was produced in the early 1900’s by Archibald Coutts. In 1920, George Coutts purchased an evaporator, and the production of maple syrup has continued ever since.
Coutts Country Flavours – 5th generation maple producers
The ancestors of the Fulton family began to tap their maple trees back in the 1840s when John Fulton and his brothers came to Lanark County from East Kilbride, Scotland. Their large 370 acre farm is located between Almonte and Pakenham, and they have tapped their huge 4,000 tree sugar bush for many, many, generations. Well known for their high quality syrup they have also operated a pancake house for many years, and their sugar camp has been a popular attraction for both area families and visitors.
Fulton’s Pancake House and Sugar Bush –
Shirley Fulton-Deugo 4th generation, and Scott Deugo 5th generation maple producer
With these, and other long-time maple producers in Lanark County, it’s not surprising that back in the 1970s, there were lots of conversations, up and down the concessions, of hosting a maple festival in the town of Perth. It was Victor ‘Vic’ Lemieux, owner of Norvic Lodge, at Christie Lake, who first came up with the idea, and presented it to the Perth Chamber of Commerce. Thankfully, Vic was successful in his campaign to launch the first festival, with the hope that it would bring people out to celebrate the spring season, after a long, cold, winter.
On April 19, 1975 the very first Festival of the Maples was held in Perth and it was quite an event!
When my friends and I arrived at the very first Maple Festival that Saturday so long ago, part of Gore Street and Foster Street had been closed to traffic, and many local maple vendors had set up their displays. At 10 a.m. the Festival was officially opened by the Ontario Minister of Industry – Claude Bennett. The Perth Legion ladies, and the ladies from St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church had displays of delicious home baking for sale, and there were also side-walk sales on Gore Street, and many arts and craft exhibits.
There were a tremendous number of district producers, and many of them offered syrup for sale in different grades, and various sized containers. Pancakes were available for purchase, and free samples of Balderson Cheese were available to anyone who asked, and I recall we went back a couple of times to that booth! One of the most unique displays was a wood-burning evaporator set up on one of the main streets of Perth. I’ve seen a few of those out in the bush, but I never thought I’d see one in town on the main street!
Fiddling and step-dancing competitions were held that day, and I recall Dawson Girdwood saying that some of the best fiddlers from Eastern Ontario were competing in the Open and Junior fiddling classes. The talented Jimmy Heney, one of our neighbours, won the fiddling prize hands down, as he often did, and Karen Grey of Perth was the top step-dancer that night.
The folks in Perth were always enthusiastic supporters of a beauty competition, and so part of the evening program, at the arena that night ,was the crowning of ‘The Sweetest Girl in Lanark County’. Miss Perth 1975 Michelle Hughes crowned the winner – Maple Queen – Susan Thompson, of Perth.
Over the years, we attended the Perth Maple Festival, and each spring it seemed to grow by leaps and bounds. Every year it seemed that there were more vendors selling their maple goods, more artisans displaying their crafts, and an increasing number of booths and displays. We also noticed a steady stream of tourists coming from Ottawa, Kingston, and even as far away as the States to visit our festival.
People in Lanark County, understandably, have always taken their maple syrup very seriously. Because of this, it was devastating to many when January of 1998 brought the most destructive ice storm in Canadian history. From January 4th to 10th Lanark County was severely affected by freezing rain, and ice pellets. Day after day it fell, and accumulated on tree branches, bending their limbs until they snapped off with the weight of the ice. The relentless freezing rain created a thick, heavy coat, damaging both the maple trees and the pipelines in the sugar bushes. Millions of tree branches were caked with the build-up of ice, and became so heavy that they split right off of the trees; severely affecting the sap flow. At the time, there were speculations that it might take forty years for maple production to return to normal.
Through hard work, and good fortune, many of the damaged trees came back, and the maple production resumed within a few years of the ice storm.
Many of us, raised in Lanark County, have participated in making maple syrup at one time or another, and know from experience that it’s extremely labour-intensive. We also have a clear understanding of the enormous amount of sap it takes to make a very small quantity of syrup. No matter how modern the equipment or methods, it still takes forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
Now, add in the hours of labour for the tapping, transporting from the tree to the evaporator, the boiling down, the straining, the bottling, and the labeling. Next, factor in the cost of equipment such as the spiles, the pails or tubing, the evaporation tank, fuel, the straining equipment, the bottles, cans, and cost of transporting to market. The price per gallon really doesn’t sound like all that much anymore now, does it?
So, the next time you pass by the maple syrup display in your grocery store aisles, or visit a maple vendor at his farm, or at a festival, please remember how it’s produced.
Pause a moment, to remember the proud, hard-working, pioneer families who settled in Lanark County, and passed down their knowledge through the generations. Think of the enormous quantity of sap required to make a very small container of syrup. Most of all, please stop and consider the origin of your syrup, and take it from this Lanark County kid – you won’t find any better, more flavourful syrup, than from the Maple Syrup Capital of Ontario!