GTPulse: Mancelona Family Has Been Making Maple Syrup Together For Generations

There are countless perks of living in Northern Michigan, one being the access we have to fresh, local maple syrup. My dad always says that there’s no good reason a Michigander should rely on using non-local maple syrup. There’s never an instance where I go visit and there’s not a familiar beige jug sitting on the kitchen table. Maple is a fall flavor that I enjoy and it was only after I set up a visit to Southwell Sugar Shack that I was informed maple syrup isn’t actually harvested until February. To this I say… fall is maple syrup season. I will die on this hill. 

Del Southwell and his family own and operate Southwell Sugar Shack. The maple farm, located in a wooded area of Mancelona, Michigan has been harvesting maple syrup for generations.

“We’ve been making syrup up my whole life. I made it as a kid with my dad and I made it with my kids when they grew up and now we make it with the grandkids,” Del said.

Del’s roots are in Michigan, and his family has been in Mancelona a long time. Del’s family has roots in Kalkaska County dating back to the early 1900s. His father had helped his father tap maple syrup and it provided enough syrup for their family, and Del has happily participated in the same tradition.

Del spent his career working in oil and it took him all over the world. Retiring was a great way for him to be able to spend more time producing maple syrup, and more time with his family.

Southwell Sugar Shack started commercially selling their maple syrup around five years ago. Del taps 2200 sugar maples to produce about 700 gallons of syrup a year. Del and his family will drill a hole in the maples sometime in January or February depending on weather and place a tube in the drilled hole to drain the sap. Each year a different hole is drilled in the tree, and the hole drilled the year before heals up, like adding or removing a piercing.

“We were old school until five years ago.” 

Old school maple syrup harvesting consisted of collecting sap in buckets and hauling the buckets to a tank. When Del was a kid he and his brothers used to use a sled to drag around milk jugs to fill with sap. The intertwined tubes that drain the sap directly in to an indoor tank makes the syrup producing process quicker and less labor intensive. 

The freezing and thawing of the maple tree is what produces sap. The trees build up starch during the colder season and that starch transforms into sugar when it begins to thaw in the spring. The water absorbed through the trees roots mixed with the sugar creates sap. Sap production varies based on a tree’s size, but each tree roughly produces 10 gallons of sap per season. For every 40 gallons of sap, one gallon of maple syrup is made.

The syrup goes through a rigorous process that consists of collecting the sap in a large tank that will eventually be put through a reverse osmosis process to raise the sugar content. Sap is then boiled in an evaporator until over half of the water is boiled out. When the sugar level is right, the sap is run through a filter to remove sugar sand and other impurities in the sap, that filtered sap is what is then stored in barrels and sold as maple syrup.

Southwell Sugar Shack has a few different grades of maple syrup, and Del says that the grade depends on how strong of a maple taste someone wants. The darker the syrup, the stronger the maple taste. Del’s personal favorite food to use maple syrup with doesn’t actually use maple syrup. Beyond syrup Del also makes maple syrup by processing the sap with more heat to draw out more water, and mix it until it turns into a granulated solid state which is the maple sugar that Southwell Sugar Shack also makes and sells.

“So, probably my favorite is apple pie made with maple sugar.”

His favorite maple recipe may be the maple sugar apple pie, but his favorite part of the business is getting to spend time with his family. He is retired and looks at the business through a lens of love, nostalgia and memory making.

“I get to spend time with my grandkids and my kids. It’s just a fun family business.”





Categories: GTPulse