Kent State Geauga Helps Keep Pancaketown USA Sweet
BURTON - Maple syruping has been a long, proud tradition in Geauga County since its pioneer origins. Kent State University at Geauga is equally proud to play an enduring role in this ongoing venture that makes Geauga County the number one maple production region in the entire state of Ohio.
For decades, the Burton Chamber of Commerce has been harvesting sap from the 80-acre stand of sugar maples on the Kent State Geauga campus. It’s all part of a 92-year tradition that started back in 1931 and has earned the village the nickname, Pancaketown USA.
Burton Chamber constructed a log cabin on Village Square where local maple syrup producers could bring their commodities together as a co-op to ship maple products out to cities including Detroit, Chicago, and Pittsburgh during the Great Depression. Burton Chamber Cabin and Sugar Camp Manager Amy Wehn says that the Chamber would purchase syrup from area farmers who then used the cash to pay taxes or buy fertilizer and feed in the spring. The Chamber still purchases maple syrup from local producers to supplement their retail sales of syrup and candy as a major fundraising source for the Chamber.
Nowadays, the not-for-profit Chamber uses proceeds from maple syrup product sales to fund community projects such as seasonal celebrations (Fall Festival, Halloween Party, Easter Egg Hunt), flowers in the park, and $500 college scholarships for local high school graduates from Berkshire and Agape who plan to attend Kent State Geauga.
The cabin still functions as a working sugarhouse, making maple syrup in the spring and maple candy throughout the year. Each February or March (depending on the weather), people are invited to take part in the traditional sugaring process, using a drill and metal spile to tap about 100 maple trees in the Village Square and gather sap in hanging metal buckets. But the Chamber also taps trees from the sugar maple woodlands at Kent State Geauga, Burton Township Park, and Burton Village Park to produce and sell about 50 barrels of maple syrup each season at 40 gallons per barrel.
Wehn says the woods behind Kent State Geauga previously had trails cut through them by the high school cross-country team. Sap-gathering volunteers use those trails to access the trees when the sap begins to run in late winter-early spring, where the Chamber maintains 600-800 taps.
GEAUGA COUNTY’S PLACE IN THE BIG PICTURE
According to the Ohio State University Extension Office, North America is the only place in the world where maple syrup is produced. There are 12 maple-producing states in the US, including Ohio. In 1840 during the sixth U.S. Census and the first agricultural census, Ohio ranked as the second-highest producer of maple sugar (approximately 6.4 million pounds or 582,000 gallons). In recent years, Ohio typically ranks as the fourth- or fifth-largest producer of maple syrup in the United States (100,000 gallons or 1.1 million pounds).
There are 1,000-1,200 maple producers scattered across Ohio’s sugar maple landscape. In 2005, maple producers were found in 69 of Ohio’s 88 counties. The highest concentration of production is in the 12-county “maple belt” stretching from Ashtabula County to Holmes County.
By far, Geauga County has maintained its reign as the maple belt’s top producer. Geauga County’s average-size operation had a sugarbush of 27 acres with an average bucket operation of 417 taps and an average tubing operation of 720 taps.
A 2018 count within Northeast Ohio’s highest producers noted that Geauga County supported 153 operations (100,964 taps), compared to the next-highest producing county — Portage — with 29 operations (24,963 taps). Medina County came in third with 29 operations and 12,778 taps.
A TENUOUS HOLD ON A LONGSTANDING TRADITION
But this strong and seamless tradition in the village and among generations-long family operations is fading over time. Wehn says that she grew up in Geauga County and has spent a lifetime engaged in the rhythms of maple syrup production and celebration. But she isn’t seeing younger adults getting involved as community volunteers to sustain the tradition for future generations.
“I’m disappointed that we don’t have people in their 40s coming up to help out,” she says. “I’ve been involved with the Chamber for 20 years and now all of us volunteers are in our 60s-80s. People need to understand, if they don’t contribute to making our community a continuing success, this can eventually die out, which would be a huge loss. It takes a big commitment to keep this all-volunteer tradition alive. But it’s worth it. We’ve been making quality maple syrup for 93 years.
“If there’s no one left to do it, it will just go away, which would be tragic. Get involved, come outside, and be part of the experience.”
While this season’s work of syrup-making ended in March, maple festivities in Geauga County continue during the last full weekend of April. The town of Chardon hosts the annual Geauga County Maple Festival on Chardon Square (www.maplefestival.com) on April 27–30 this year.
Festivities include a baking contest, an arts-and-crafts show, a grand parade, a queen contest, rides and concessions, and live entertainment. Appropriate to Pancaketown USA, the festival will also feature the annual maple contest, a Sap Run, pancake breakfasts, a maple-syrup auction, and a pancake-eating contest.
Wehn says this crowning celebration of the season showcases the best community synergy, where everyone enjoys the sweet rewards of shared efforts. “We really appreciate Kent State Geauga allowing us to go back in their woods to help keep this tradition going,” she says. “If we didn’t have access to those trees, and if they charged us a fee, we couldn’t do this and afford to give back to the community as part of this nearly 100-year-old tradition.”