Making Syrup Is 166-Year Spring Ritual For Plymouth Family

The Drewrys are expecting to make more than 2,000 gallons of maple syrup this year.

Published on: Apr 26, 2013

By Harley Buchholz

The sap ran sweet and plentiful during the short, late winter-early spring maple tree tapping season at Drewry Farms near Plymouth.

In the syrup room, as water was removed from the sap, a maple scent spread across the Onion River valley around a rural settlement known as Winooski.

Since it takes 40 gallons of maple tree sap to make a gallon of syrup and the Drewrys are expecting to make more than 2,000 gallons of syrup this year, well, do the math. That's a lot of cooking.

Long, syrupy history
The Drewry family has been making maple syrup since settling on their central Sheboygan County farm in 1847. Coming from Vermont, "they probably brought their maple syrup making knowledge with them," writes Ruth Drewry, matriarch of the family, in an informational sheet. She and her husband, Dave, modernized the gathering of maple syrup and now their children and grandchildren have taken the next steps. The latest technology has sap collected in suspended plastic tubing which gravity feeds into larger vacuum lines for pumping first into reverse osmosis machines and then into evaporators designed to speed water removal. "The faster the water is evaporated the lighter the color and more delicate the flavor and the higher the grade of syrup," Ruth writes. Dave's and Ruth's daughter and son-in-law, Mark and Barbara Drewry-Zimmerman, oversee the day-to-day operations on the 120 acres of maple trees and 4,000 "taps" - the sap-collecting spouts on the trees. Some older trees have four taps each. One old tree has five. Barbara proudly displays old black and white photos, made from early glass negatives that show syrup-making around the turn of the 20th century. Some maple trees in their two woodlots date to the same time even though a straight-line windstorm in the 1990s took down some 200 trees. "It's amazing how this woods bounced back," Barbara says. 

With help from the family dog, Barbara Drewry-Zimmerman places a tap in a maple tree. Also visible are the lines that stretch among the trees to carry the sap.
With help from the family dog, Barbara Drewry-Zimmerman places a tap in a maple tree. Also visible are the lines that stretch among the trees to carry the sap.

The Farms' separate 100- and 20-acre sugar bushes are self-propagating. "God does a good job of that," Barbara says. "We help out (with some transplanting)." The family also works with a local forester and is in the Wisconsin Managed Forest Program.

Time-consuming process
Starting in late February, three crews of two persons each drill, insert taps and connect them to the feeder lines 7 to 8 hours a day to begin the season, Barbara explains. Sap is collected until the trees begin to bud and the flow stops. So the collection season is a short, sometimes frantic one. Fortunately, there's a lot of help. Drewry Farms is a true family operation, involving Barbara and Mark; their daughter, Jesse; Barbara's brothers, Dave and Russ, and sister, Ann Weeden and her husband, Jon, and Ann's daughter, Kelly Cowhig and her husband, Neil. Jesse and Kelly developed the Farms' website at drewryfarmsmaple.com. Some seasonal help also is hired, but "with automation we don't need as many to handle" the jobs, Barbara notes.

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Drewry Farms Inc. is a family held corporation established by Dave and Ruth who gifted shares among the family and awarded some for "sweat equity.... "We're very family oriented," Barbara says. A reunion is held every three years, the last noting 160 years of the family in Wisconsin. So it was a family decision last year, after a successful experiment with suspended collection lines, to double the number of taps. Barbara's dad was among the earliest to use collection lines but they were laid on the ground. Buckets and bags hanging from trees are used today for demonstrations to tour groups.

The expansion and technology advances actually began in 2008 after a fire destroyed the syrup house. "We were kind of at a crossroads," Barbara says. "Mom and Dad were not able to do as much. I'd been getting more involved. We made the decision we'd continue but decided we were behind in technology and needed to make some changes." In 2009, they rebuilt the syrup house and installed the first suspended collection lines. The only drawback they found was a need to constantly monitor against deer nibbling and squirrel chewing. They found used equipment from a Door County operation that was going out of business and paid for it with the insurance proceeds from the fire.

Updating technology
"That first year was absolutely great with the new technology," Barbara says. "It far outdid the old, so we were convinced." So in 2010 they replaced all of the old ground-level collection lines in their two sugar bushes, increased from 500 taps to 2,000 and saw a 1,200-gallon syrup yield. This year they've added 2,000 more taps and are looking for 2,000-plus gallons of syrup, though on some of those really cold March days when temperatures dropped below 25 degrees the pumps had to be shut down.

Visitors are welcome at Drewry Farms. There's an open house in late March each year, considered a huge success this year with more than 600 visitors, and lots of school and other tour groups stop in.

Their syrup is sold at "a lot of farmers' markets," Barbara says, and at health food stores in Milwaukee and Sheboygan. "A couple co-ops in Milwaukee buy our syrup to use in restaurants." Both the American Club at Kohler and the Osthoff Resort at Elkhart Lake use Drewry Farms maple syrup in their restaurants.

Barbara says the operation is "medium large. We think we are the farthest-south licensed producer in Wisconsin." 

Buchholz lives in Fond du Lac.