It was so peaceful, that grove of trees with snow-covered branches. It somehow took me back to my childhood and reading Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wanted to be part of the family as they visited Grandpa’s house and went out to tap the maple trees and watched, and of course tasted, the maple syrup Grandma made.
The grove of sugar maples I’m standing in is known as Funks Grove. It was discovered by Isaac Funk in 1824, and his children were contemporaries of the Ingalls family. Isaac and his children made maple sirup and maple sugar for their family’s consumption. It wasn’t until 1891 that Arthur Funk began selling maple sirup for $1 per gallon.
In the early 1920s, Hazel Funk Holmes took over the business. There were about 600 buckets hung from the trees and about 240 gallons of sirup made each year.
Today, the sugar maple grove is in a family trust set up by Hazel to protect the tradition for generations to come. In her trust, Hazel expressed her wish that the product always be referred to as “sirup”, which was the Webster’s preferred spelling for the boiling down of sap without adding sugar. The family retains that spelling to this day as they continue the maple sirup tradition. Mike and Debby Funk are the current operators with help from their children, Jonathan and Katie, along with their nephew Sean and his wife.
Starting in mid-February more than 3,000 trees are tapped with around 7,000 spouts. The majority of the sap is still collected in buckets, like they’ve done for generations. As the temperatures rise and fall the pressure inside the trees changes causing the sap to flow from the roots up to the branches to help feed new growth. Optimal conditions have night time temperatures in the 20s and day time in the 40s.
Once the sap is flowing, you can hear the clanging of the metal buckets as the sap-gathering crew walks from tree to tree removing the buckets and pouring the collected sap into their carrying buckets. As they get full, the crew pours it into a large gathering tank pulled by a tractor. As the gathering tanks fill up they are pumped into an even larger tank on the back of a trailer. Once that tank is full it is driven back to the sap house and run through a filter into a large holding tank. When the sap is flowing quickly each four-gallon bucket can fill up in as little as 12 hours, so collection is an ongoing process.
In 2011, the Funks added high-vacuum tubing to parts of the grove. Three vacuum pumps gently suction the sap through the tubing, which then flows to a collection tank. If overnight temperatures are above freezing they can leave the pumps on and collect all night.
Explaining the process Mike Funk says, “A reverse osmosis system separates about half of the water from the sap, which is only two to two-and-a-half percent sugar. The concentrated sap is then pumped into a 300-gallon evaporator heated with two oil burners, which boils the sap to remove the water.” Sap boils at seven degrees above water, or 219 degrees, and is closely monitored by Mike. The process boils up minerals which are filtered out to make the finished product the clear amber color we expect.
The evaporator system is automated so that as the water evaporates and syrup is pulled off, new sap is pumped in. The process produces so much humidity, my glasses steamed up upon entering the sap house. According to Mike, the entire process takes about 40 gallons of sap and one to one-and-a-half hours to make one gallon of sirup.
Finished sirup is held in drums until it is heated one more time upon bottling. Sirup is usually available in early March until they run out sometime in August or September. On the average they produce 1,800 gallons each year, depending on the weather.
When you step inside the sap house your senses immediately detect the sweet maple smell wafting up from the evaporator in the back. Your taste buds will be tempted by the sirup, maple cream and candies they sell.
Funks Grove sits beside historic Route 66 outside of Shirley, Ill. Many tourists come in as they are traveling the route and according to Debby Funk, “It is not unusual for European tourists to stop by. And, once they’ve tried the sirup they want it again. Twenty percent of our business is done through mail order and we have shipped it all over the United States and as far away as Japan.”
To learn more about Funks Grove, or to order their products, visit the website at www.funkspuremaplesirup.com, or take a trip down Route 66 and see for yourself. Funks Grove is just south of Bloomington, Ill. and on the west side of I-55.
Want to try your hand at making maple syrup?
With a bit of planning you can make your own maple syrup. Any maple tree will work but the sugar maple (also called hard or rock maple) has the sweetest sap. The tree needs to be at least 12 inches in diameter and healthy. A few minutes of research online will give you a wealth of knowledge about how and when to tap the trees. You will also find information on gathering, storing and processing your sap into syrup as well as videos that show you the step-by-step process.
Here are a few websites to get you started: