March 17, 2009
Maple syrup maker tapping his roots
Solon man boiling sap this season outside with kettles the way his father did the year he was born
SOLON — In a backyard overlooking Maybury Brook, Paul Heller is boiling maple sap to make syrup the old fashioned way — the way his father used to do it.
Heller, 51, of Blodgett Mills, boils the sap in a black kettle that hangs above an outdoor fire from a black chain wrapped around the summit of a three-log pyramid. Light blue tubes hook into several nearby trees and lead to pails full of the clear, watery sap that he boils to make the syrup.
Most maple syrup makers today work inside a “sugar house” — a barn or shed with long flat pans called evaporators that allow the sap to boil faster than in a deep kettle.
Heller, who is recuperating from throat cancer, is making maple syrup this year as a form of physical therapy. He is using the black kettle his father used to boil maple syrup when his mother was pregnant with him in 1957.
“I thought I’d try it the way my dad first did it and the way the pioneers did it,” Heller said. “There’s nobody that does it this way anywhere that I know of.”
This is the first season in eight years that Heller has made maple syrup and the first time he has made it outside in a kettle. After making it in the black kettle for one season, Heller’s father bought a more modern evaporator and formed Heller Maple Farm, which became the fourth largest maple syrup producer in the state, Heller said.
Heller left the business in 2000 after his father had retired, his siblings had left, and the operation became too difficult to maintain.
Heller said he boils 40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. Boiling 40 gallons takes him five to six hours. Rather than sell the syrup, Heller is giving it to friends and family members.
When the sap is tapped from a tree, it contains about 2 to 4 percent sugar. The finished syrup contains about 66 percent sugar, he said.
This year, Heller, began tapping the trees on Feb. 27. He will probably boil four to five gallons of syrup before maple syrup season ends, he said. It usually ends in late March or early April when buds begin to form on the trees.
Because maple syrup farming is a seasonal business, Heller worked in construction for most of his life. In 2007, he enrolled in a heating, ventilation and air conditioning course at Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES Center for New Careers on Port Watson Street in Cortland.
Toward the end of the class, he was diagnosed with stage-4 throat cancer. He had to stay in the hospital and miss the end of the course, but he returned to the Center for New Careers for a day to take his final exam. He passed the test and earned a certificate to work in the field.
Heller said his cancer was most likely caused by smoking tobacco. He said he smoked at least a pack of cigarettes per day for 35 years. He quit in March 2007, 10 months before he was diagnosed with cancer, but that was too late to prevent the cancer from developing.
After doctors did a biopsy and removed some of Heller’s tumor, he underwent nine weeks of chemotherapy and seven weeks of radiation treatment. Last May, his daughter organized a fundraiser for Heller with a pig roast and live bands at the Marathon American Legion. His family used most of the money they raised to pay bills that Heller’s family had trouble paying while he was being treated.
Heller finished his treatment in July. In early December, doctors did a biopsy and found that his cancerous tumors were gone. His doctor told him that he should do some physical activity, such as walking, to physically rehabilitate himself. Heller told him he would like to make maple syrup, and the doctor said that would be fine as long as he did not strain himself.
Heller said he works about six hours a day making the syrup, but if he becomes too tired he puts out the fire early and goes to sleep.
He said that once he fully recuperates, he will probably work in heating ventilation and air conditioning.
But while he is recovering, Heller said he is thinking about writing a book on the history of maple syrup production and how to make maple syrup in a backyard. He has already read books about the long history involving colonials and American Indians. By making the maple syrup, he is not only exercising but doing preliminary research for his book, he said.
Heller’s entire setup is behind his friend Larry Moore’s house on Maybury Road. Heller’s father used to rent the trees in the backyard from Moore’s father. Along with his father, sister and four brothers, he would tap the maple sap in return for a sum of money. But Moore is letting Heller tap the trees at no cost to support him and his recuperation efforts.
“Being a cancer survivor, all of us good friends are in awe about that,” Moore said. “The man is still looking to keep himself busy.”
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