Stafford: Clark County man’s maple syruping attracts moths, ants, certain kind of people

Ben Hamilton talks about how the relationship between the color of maple syrup and the taste in his backyard sugar shack Thursday. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
Ben Hamilton talks about how the relationship between the color of maple syrup and the taste in his backyard sugar shack Thursday. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

SOUTH CHARLESTON -- The hint of sweetness in the steam that rises each year from Ben Hamilton’s sugar shack is something of a tease.

Twelve consecutive hours of boiling does produce 25 or 30 gallons of maple syrup. But it burns three pickup loads of wood of the 45 Hamilton dragged, cut, split and stacked over the past year.

And in a single day it consumes 1,000 gallons of sap he and helpers haul in five gallon buckets over stick-littered, uneven ground to dump overhead to dump in a tank in the bed of a pickup truck.

This year, COVID did two things to gum up the works during the three-week period that in February and March.

One, wife Deb had trouble finding canning jars, though ultimately was rescued by a customer who grabbed some at Menards.

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Two, two of Hamilton’s faithful helpers were sidelined by worries about the virus.

That forced him to reduced from 400 to 300 the number trees he tapped in the area of Pitchin, Selma and South Charleston. It also forced him to use a 66-year-old journalist on Medicare (me) as a bucket wrestler.

Standards lowered by COVID opened the door for Tom Stafford to participate in this year's sap collecting. TOM STAFFORD/CONTRIBUTOR
Standards lowered by COVID opened the door for Tom Stafford to participate in this year's sap collecting. TOM STAFFORD/CONTRIBUTOR

In the process I learned the same things this year as 19-year-old Ethan Cundiff did when he first helped Hamilton last year.

Smooth operator

One lesson was in Hamilton’s operational efficiency.

Truck tracks cut paths through woodlots so no buckets are too far afield.

Ribbons wrap around selected trees, some so an unseen tap on the far side isn’t missed. Other ribbons remind bucket-haulers not to linger under overhead branches on windy days.

Cundiff, a landscape architecture major at Ohio State, also noticed that Hamilton constantly pulling out a note pad, writing down a list of to-dos he quickly gets done.

And as impressive as he found Hamilton’s turkey call to be, Cundiff was impressed by the frequency with which those on the roads around Pitchin, South Charleston and Selma gesture to him through their windshields – but in a friendly way.

“I remember distinctly, everybody would wave,” Cundiff said. “I’m a city guy. I’d never seen that.”

Turkey brothers

That spirit of neighborliness is part of what led Hamilton, also 66, to do what he wasn’t sure he was going to do in retirement: expand the much smaller syrup footprint he had during his 31-year career in management at Shawnee State Park.

In his new next-door neighbor Mitch Workman, Hamilton found someone who shared more than half of his interests and encouraged the others.

“He hunted turkey and I hunted turkey,” Workman said, “and that got us started.”

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So, when Workman, a former beekeeper, spotted Hamilton’s leftover syruping gear, “I wanted to see somebody make maple syrup.”

To that end, he provided Hamilton with a list of neighbors willing to have their trees tapped. That led the Hamiltons to slowly amp up the operation until, three years later, Hamilton and Workman built a sugar shack to accommodate Hamilton’s 12-foot “dream evaporator.”

Soon Hamilton’s lifelong friends got involved.

Old friends and ways

“We met in first grade at St. Joe’s,” 68-year old Springfielder Neal Rockwell explained. “We all ran together, played CYO baseball, CYO football. Lot of fun.”

The two stayed in contact over the decades, and when Hamilton started cooking syrup, Rockwell not only pitched in but brought his girlfriend, Lourdes Westbrook, along.

“Best helper ever,” Rockwell said.

Neal Rockwell sits in the steam emitted by the sap cooker in Ben Hamilton's sugar shack. TOM STAFFORD/CONTRIBUTED
Neal Rockwell sits in the steam emitted by the sap cooker in Ben Hamilton's sugar shack. TOM STAFFORD/CONTRIBUTED

They now run the evaporator, feeding the furnace from the woodpile out back, adding cooking oil to knock down the foam when it boils up, and watching a water-clear liquid slowly thicken and turn to amber.

On the two days I pitched in, l saw two other friendly visits, one from the Flax family, which lives just up the road.

“We ran out of syrup probably three or four months ago,” said mother Melissa, “and (7-year-old) Jacob has been patient waiting.”

The steam from the sugar shack made Jacob think it was time to stop in, and after sampling a small cupful was nearly as shy in his mother’s arm as he was excited about the taste.

Hamilton described the other visitors as a friend and “a friend of a friend” who might be interested in selling the syrup at a farm market. (He now sells it at the Springfield Farmer’s Market and at a few local stores.)

Lourdes Westbrook tends the fire in Ben Hamilton's sap cooker. TOM STAFFORD
Lourdes Westbrook tends the fire in Ben Hamilton's sap cooker. TOM STAFFORD

From the beginning, the Hamiltons have relied on word of mouth from the mouths that have tasted the syrup.

“We’re not on the Internet, we don’t have a web site, we don’t take credit cards, it’s strictly cash,” said Hamilton.

“And we don’t ship,” he added. “Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that. It just kind of reflects my life.”

None of it stood in the way of the friend of a friend wanting to sell Hamilton’s syrup at his farm market.

Return of a third-grader

In addition to the 300 trees Cundiff and I helped him collect sap from, Hamilton processed half again as much sap from a few people who do their own tapping, and split the syrup half-and-half with him in exchange for the cooking, filtering and canning.

The largest single supplier, it turns out, had had been in my house years ago.

Although 39, Rob Edwards didn’t mind me calling him Robbie, which I remember him as when he came over to spend time with my son Benjamin the year Mrs. McDonald was their third grade teacher.

When he, wife Sara, and their three girls had a house built on her family’s land near Pitchin, Hamilton had already been tapping the trees. When Hamilton asked if he could keep doing so, Edwards said “Sure, go ahead, but I’d like you to teach me how to do it.”

Edwards likes that the sap flows “in this really swampy, sloppy time of year,” a time he associates with “goodbye winter, hello spring. It’s cool outside, you’re not being eaten up by mosquitoes.”

Each of the daughters lends a hand: Youngest Reagan runs empty buckets to the trees; middle daughter Kayla is assistant tree tapper, sometimes drilling the holes herself; and eldest Olivia specializes bucket and tree accounting and wrapping trees with ribbons. Wife Sara, bucket wrestles.

It’s not time yet

It was my second day of work in the woods with a day off in between and Hamilton’s fourth consecutive day when he made his confession: “At this point in the season, I can tell you definitely that I’m not going to miss gathering syrup when I quit.”

Ben and Deb Hamilton with some of their delicious maple syrup Thursday outside their backyard sugar shack. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
Ben and Deb Hamilton with some of their delicious maple syrup Thursday outside their backyard sugar shack. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

It’s not clear when that will be.

“He claims two years,” Deb says, “but he loves it. It’s a hobby.”

And more, she said.

“We have a son in Nevada, and sometimes he comes for two weeks a time (during syruping season) and brings a son.”

But there is a successor in the wings, that one-time third-grader.

“I love Ben and hope he does it as long as he is interested in doing it,” Edwards says. “But once he steps away from it, we’re going to keep the torch going.”

He’s considering a vacuum pump system to draw the sap from the trees on his land, a new wrinkle of the sort a new generation could bring. And, surely, the operation would go online.

But for Edwards, tradition is the draw. And that’s because of the taste left in his mouth by camaraderie.

“That part is my favorite. At Ben’s house, people are always coming and going. Some guys are dropping off buckets, others are there to help cook. That family (the Flaxes) came in last year or the year before.”

Even in an average year like this one, in which the harvest was 165 gallons, those people were drawn to the process like the workers and like moths and ants to sap.

Said Hamilton, “It seems to attract good people -- you know, just people that like the outdoors and are as fascinated by the process as I am.” The sort of people that gesture to him through their windshields – but in a friendly way.

Ways of evaluating maple syrup

One hundred percent maple syrup snobs prefer the golden variety, which requires the lightest sap, quickly and expertly cooked.

More prefer amber, said maker Ben Hamilton, which is a shade two darker.

A few even want it like coffee cooked in the pot all day.

Make it as dark as you want, he said, “and they’ll knock it back.”

But there’s also a traditional homemade method of evaluating 100 percent maple syrup: by the swiftness with which it disappears.

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