Multigenerational Maple Producer Shares Secrets of Sugarhouse Design

4/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Patti Orton Kuna Northwestern Pa. Correspondent

ALBION, Pa. — Chris Casbohm remembers thinking at age 10, “I have it made!” His job was to keep the wood fire going under the evaporator while his dad milked the cows.

“I could stay up late, play with fire and drink sweet syrup,” he chuckles.

Fifty years later, Casbohm lives out his childhood joy as a maple syrup producer in Albion, Pa., in Erie County. He and his wife, Cheryl, are the proprietors of Casbohm Maple and Honey, a business that periodically involves their grown children and young grandchildren.

The couple has four children, all of whom participate in some way with the sugaring. Their son, Eric, helps gather sap in much the same way as Casbohm did with his dad. The trees are roadside and rented.

“Our route is about 30 miles and 30 stops,” said Casbohm. What is different today, however, is that Casbohm and his son are not emptying buckets, but 40 gallon totes at the end of a network of tubing, a modern-day method.

Their daughter, Kelly, is interested in the marketing aspect, while their son, Adam, is the computer guru. Adam is responsible for the availability of a credit card machine on site. He also injects his computer animation talent into the business’s website:

“He brings our marketing into the 20th century,” Chris Casbohm said.

Their daughter, Stacy, has traveled from her homestead near New York City to relive the sugaring life. As her schedule will allow, she assists with making products for the Pennsylvania Maple Weekend. This is an important venue for the Casbohms, bringing in 300 customers in two days. Held in the early springtime, this year was the 10th year of the promotional event.

From the oldest to the youngest, all of the grandchildren can be counted on for taste-testing. Marly, their 6-year-old granddaughter, seems particularly engaged.

“She is hooked on maple syrup,” Casbohm said fondly.

He said that Marly at times accompanies him on the sap-<\n>collecting route. Her job is to hold the lids up on the 40 gallon totes while her grandpa pumps out the sap.

A Custom Sugarhouse

But before the Casbohms tapped even one tree to start their business, Chris and Cheryl did their homework. They visited other sugarhouses to study the layouts and styles before settling upon their vision of the ideal. Their planning, combined with the building and welding skills Casbohm acquired through his farming childhood and through his day job as a manufacturing engineer, paid off. In the spring of 2011, the business was born with a custom sugarhouse.

What they have today features at least five intentional decisions made to optimize efficiencies and working conditions.

First, the vintage fire arch and its chimney are built in the middle of the evaporating room. (The cast iron King Arch, circa 1930s, was Casbohm’s father’s.)

“It’s very common to have the arch and chimney built right up next to a wall,” Casbohm explained. “I wanted to be able to walk completely around it because it is more convenient.” He likens the setup to the flow of a well-designed kitchen.

Secondly, the woodshed is attached, streamlining the ability to keep the fire stocked.

“We use a couple of utility wagons to bring in the wood,” he said. “It works very well.”

The third and fourth aspects deal with steam and light. Reminiscing from his childhood, Casbohm said that between the heavy steam and one lone incandescent bulb, “it was like working in a sauna in a cave.” Those conditions motivated Casbohm to fashion his own stainless steel steam hoods and piping system. He also installed high output lighting.

Fifthly, although 8-foot ceilings are common in sugarhouses, Casbohm found it impractical.

“I have a steam-away box’ for more efficient boiling. It sits 22 inches over the pans, plus I needed room for the hoods,” he said. His ceiling is 10 feet high.

Lastly, the Casbohm’s sugarhouse includes a kitchen, and a loft that holds the tanks of sap.

Customers can find Casbohm’s maple products dotted around small markets in the area, but not at large groceries chains.

“We do about 100 to 200 gallons per year of maple syrup,” he said. “That makes us a smaller producer.”

Thanks to Adam, their products are also sold online through their website.

This year, is shaping up to be one of the best runs. Due to the belabored winter, Casbohm has collected more than 715 gallons of sap from 125 to 130 trees. He used about 600 taps in all. As the sap boils down and thickens to 190 gallons of syrup, Casbohm projects that it may be a record breaking year.

Considering how the tradition of making maple syrup began in this family with Casbohm’s great-grandfather, Gideon Draper Stump, more than 100 years ago, he said, “We all hope it passes to the next generation.”

For now, he and Cheryl are planting the seeds of this tradition and lifestyle in the multiple generations who surround them.

“We just try to make it as interesting and understandable for them as we can,” Chris Casbohm said.

Casbohm is a two-time past president of the Northwestern Pennsylvania Maple Syrup Producers Association. He encourages younger producers to get involved with leadership roles, and said, “I do not want to dominate. I would rather be a mentor.”

Casbohm still gets all the perks he enjoyed during childhood: Playing with fire, staying up late, and sampling all the sweet syrup he can handle. It is his self-described “ultimate antidote for cabin fever.”

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