Into the woods: Family syrup operations still going after 70 years

For around 70 years, Alice (Townsend) Spidahl’s family has been making maple
syrup by tapping area maple trees

Melvyn “Muggs” Townsend, Alice’s father, started the syrup-making operation on what is now the south end of Maplewood State Park. Muggs taught all five of his children the process, even teaching them how to make their own spiles from sumac bushes. Muggs would get tin cans from the Fergus Falls State Hospital to collect the sap in. The family has never sold the syrup, but it has been a staple at Easter celebrations for decades.


Now, Muggs’ children have taught their own families the tools of the trade, with the third generation becoming more involved over the years.

“I started when I was 19 or 20 with Muggs. I think I was coming out here even before I knew Alice really well,” Rod Spidahl, Alice’s husband, said. They would occasionally stay in tents, cooking down the sap day and night.

Now, operations have moved a bit away, as the prior location is now Maplewood, and their spiles are a little more modern, but sap collecting and syrup making is still largely dependent on the weather. With the long winter at hand, it has also extended the collecting season.

“You can’t plan maple syruping,” Alice said.

When a Fergus Falls class came out to learn about the process, most of the collected sap was frozen into blocks, fittingly referred to throughout the day as sap-cycles. Still, it was an informational afternoon, touring the wooded area and finding bags filled with sap to empty into buckets and bring to the wood-fired boiler.

Rod explained that on a good day, one might expect 2 gallons of sap from a tree, and on a really good day, there might be 4 gallons. With a ratio of 40 gallons of sap to a gallon of maple syrup, the more collected the better.

While you’d normally want a sunny day for collecting, the overcast Tuesday afternoon still brought with it tappable trees and a breath of fresh air. Rod and Alice taught how to identify a maple from the rest and let the visitors find the perfect tree to tap. With a hand drill, a student was able to drill about 1.5 inches into a sugar maple and tapped in the spile.


With the clear sap filling a bucket, Alice told of how Muggs started the Easter tradition of going into the woods in the afternoon for pancakes and homemade maple syrup. He loved to be in the outdoors and invited friends and family and anyone else who wanted to be outside to enjoy it. This past Easter, the Spidahls’ grandson got to experience his first maple syrup Easter.

The family has always made it the simple way, with a wood fire that adds a certain amount of smoky taste to the syrup, making it distinctly unique with its flavor profile. Alice said it’s definitely not like what you’d find sitting on any restaurant’s table. Adding it to pancakes, coffee and even ice cream isn’t unusual for the family.

With a fire started in the boiler, the class poured in the collected sap and were able to experience the sweet smell of the sap cooking down into a syrup. The syrup would then be run through a dishcloth after it was brought to the perfect consistency to get out any leftover imperfections from the boiling process.

The slow and laborious process from collection to jarring has not changed much in 70 years, but that’s the way the Spidahls like it. It’s an opportunity to spend time outside, making a quality product to be enjoyed by loved ones.

By Kristin Goosen

Source, images, credits & more information: FergusFallsJournal