They don’t call it Sugar Island for nothing. This unincorporated farming community between Lebanon and Ashippun in Dodge County is filled with drumlins, marshes and lots of maple woods. That makes it prime territory for tapping trees for maple syrup.
The sweet smell of boiling sap fills the air in spring. All around the area, home owners with just a few trees and farmers with huge woods are out collecting and cooking when the days begin to warm above freezing and the snow begins to melt under the warm spring sun.
Typically, they would be cleaning up their equipment by the end of March, but this year things just got started due to spring’s unusually cold weather.
During the week preceding Easter the daytime temperatures slowly warmed to the 40s during the days and dipped below freezing nights. As the frost slowly moved out of the ground the sap began flowing freely.
Seven generations of Pankows have enjoyed maple syruping in the Sugar Island area. The Pankow family was one of many Pomeranian and Brandenburger descendants who settled in this thickly wooded area in the center of a huge marsh.
Jeff Pankow says, "Our family has been tapping the maple trees in this area since 1846. Everyone pitches in."
Pankow and his brothers, nephews and a handful of friends don’t do it as a business. He says, "We do it because we’ve been cooped up inside over the winter and are glad to get out into the woods as soon as it gets nicer outside."
During the weeks proceeding the season they cut and stack wood next to the flat, 3x10-foot shallow pans made out of English tin that can stand the high temperatures needed to cook the hot sap.
"That wood pile will be gone by the time the season ends," he says.
They recycled milk cans for transporting syrup from the woods across the road to the area where the evaporator is set up. A recycled bulk milk cooler next to the evaporator holds the syrup that won’t fit in the pan during the season’s peak.
Jeff shares the story about one of the evaporator pans. "There was a fur trader living in Ashippun who also made moonshine back in the Prohibition era. On one of his runs to Chicago he was shot and came back to Ashippun but he couldn’t make moonshine any more so Grandpa asked him if he could have the pan. We’re still using it."
He quips, "He never did share his recipe for the moonshine, though."
The Pankows cook most of the water off the sap in the pans in the woods and then he takes it to his farm nearby where he does the final cooking, filtering and bottling.
Donning a beard, Jeff says, "It can be tricky transferring syrup. It’s hot and sticky. If I forget to tuck this thing (the beard) inside my shirt it ends up shorter by the end of the season."
He points out that sap itself is not sticky but syrup is very sticky. It takes very hot water to remove it.
Pankow doesn’t know if the tradition will continue but on a nice spring day it’s evident there certainly is an interest. There is a big range in age among those helping with the process including five-year-old Jaden Pankow who enjoys hanging out with the guys.
The family taps about 250 trees and it takes lots of help. The hardest part about the job is carrying the buckets in muddy conditions. As long as the younger generation is ready and willing to help with these tasks the syruping will continue.
Pointing to a nearby woods Pankow says, "There would be lots more trees we could tap if we could find a way to get to that woods. When spring melts in spring it’s almost always surrounded by water."