We stopped by the historic Van Raalte Farm while my family was in Holland, Michigan for a weekend road trip to learn about how the maple sugar that is used in candy and syrup is made. March is the ideal time of year in Michigan for creating maple sugar. The freezing temperatures at night combined with warm, sunny days stir trees to emerge from their winter dormancy producing flowing sap from which the maple sugar is made. While visiting Van Raalte Farm, my kids had the chance to learn how sugar is created from the sap of maple trees, watch that sap be transformed into syrup, and taste some treats made from it.
The 19th Century era farm house and barns built shortly after the end of the Civil War have been preserved as a city owned 160-acre park and nature preserve. The buildings are surrounded by a forest of maple trees. Some of these trees are more than 300 years old and tower over the landscape.
Upon our arrival, we took a hike along a wood chip path among the trees. You could see buckets hanging from tree trunks throughout the forest collecting sap to be used for making maple sugar. Educational posters along our route shared information about how Native Americans made sugar by draining sap from maple trees into hollowed logs then threw in hot stones from their camp fires so that the heat created a sweet tasting paste.
European settlers learned about maple sugar from the Native Americans and enhanced the process using metal kettles so they could boil the sap to reach temperatures which turned it into syrup. At a demonstration spot, my son and daughter saw raw tree sap being poured into an old-fashioned cauldron and made into maple syrup the way pioneers would have made it. They were able to take a taste test of some of the syrup that had been taken off the fire and poured out into a bucket to cool off. As the kids sucked the goo off their fingers, both of them gave the stuff a thumbs-up.
Our next stop along the trail challenged my kids about whether they could be as rugged as pioneer children were. In the days before modern conveniences, a common chore was to go out collecting wood and carry it back to fuel the fire for making maple syrup. From this demonstration they learned first-hand this was a tough job and that maybe they shouldn’t complain so much about the things they are responsible for doing around our house.
As we came towards the end of the trail, a guide provided a close up look at how a spout is placed in a tree trunk and talked with us about the process of collecting the sap into buckets. He told us it takes around 40 gallons of sap to make about one gallon of maple syrup. That is because sap is around 98% water which needs to be evaporated to congeal the 2% that is sugar into maple syrup.
Each of us had a chance to dip a finger into the sap to get a lick of how the raw sap tasted. To be honest it tasted just like water to me and my wife. My kids insisted though they thought it had a sweet taste to it. The guide also encouraged us to smell the sap pointing out there was no scent to it.
Then we entered a modern sugar shack that has been built on the property to turn the collected maple tree sap into syrup. We watched as colorless sap was poured into a machine called an evaporator which steamed the water out of it as the operator explained the process to us. As the clear sap heats up to a boil it slowly turns into thick brown syrup. Oh, and it begins to smell really good too! He let my kids take a whiff of the mixing scooper before we left the shack which put big smiles on their faces.
To get a taste of the final product we bought some candy and syrup made of pure maple sugar from the trees at Van Raalte Farm after looking around the shack where the sap was being transformed. Look at the labels on syrup found on grocery store shelves and you’ll see most of it is filled with corn syrup and a variety of other sweeteners. What we picked up at Van Raalte Farm and brought home as a tasty souvenir of our experience was made simply from maple sugar transformed from the sap of the trees of the forest we’d walked through. If you haven’t eaten pure maple syrup before, I really recommend you try it sometime.
Holland is located along the state’s Lake Michigan shoreline and is a popular summer vacation destination. The city has a quaint downtown filled with a nice array of stores and restaurants. It is also home to a popular state park that provides public access to lakeside beaches and sand dunes as well as provides a great vantage point for scenic views of the area’s iconic “Big Red” lighthouse. Additionally, the community is also well-known for its annual Tulip Time Festival in May that honor’s the Dutch heritage of the city’s founders. To learn more, visit Holland.org