Jeff Green | Apr 24, 2008
Feature Article - April 24, 2008
Back toHomeFeature Article -April 24, 2008 Maple Syrup:Historically SignificantBy Jeff Green
MP Scott Reid taps a maple tree the old fashioned way with a brace and bit. After much exertion, he asks if he's gone far enough. Vernon Wheeler responds, " Oh you've gone too far, but I didn't want to stop you because you seemed to be having so much fun."No, this isn't another story about sugar shacks being designated as industrial sites, which is something the Ontario Municipal Property Assessment Corporation tried on for size a few years ago; it's about maple syrup products achieving the federal designation from Parks Canada as an “event of national historical significance.”
The designation was formally announced on a sunny post-maple syrup season day at Wheeler's Maple Products in McDonalds Corners, which is one of three sites that will be hosting the designation. The other two are in the Province of Quebec.
“It is fitting that Lanark County is being identified as the home of Maple syrup in Ontario, and that Wheeler's will be noted as the Capital of maple syrup in Lanark County,” said Lanark Highlands Mayor Bob Fletcher, who was one of the dignitaries at the event.
Scott Reid, the MP for Lanark, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington, represented Environment Minister John Baird in making the designation, which was done on behalf of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, a division of Parks Canada.
“If there is something that is uniquely Canadian it is maple syrup,” said Scott Reid, “I'm actually surprised that this hasn't been done in the past.”
One of the reasons Wheeler's was chosen as the location where the designation was announced, and eventually where a commemorative plaque will be located, is the maple syrup museum that the Wheelers have built in their old sugar shack.
An official with Parks Canada said that the museum contains the largest collection of artifacts related to the maple industry that is located in any one place.
There is no fixed dating to identify when the aboriginal peoples who lived in the “maple belt”, which includes the four Canadian provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario) as well as states in the northeastern United States, began to gather sap and make sugar from maple trees. But gathering and concentrating sugar from sap likely goes back one or two thousand years at least.
The trade and supplementary income that came from maple products was important to the population living in the maple belt before and after the “sweet water” was introduced to the European settlers when they arrived.
“To a degree, these products represent, both at home and abroad, the national identity and way of life of Canadians, and are a symbol of the end of the Canadian winter,” says the background document circulated by Parks Canada to mark the historical designation.
Local historian Claudia Smith, who has written a book called “When the Sugar Bird Sings” about maple syrup in Lanark County, spoke briefly about some of the history of the progression of the industry since 1900. She also explained that it early in her research a 90-year-old man had told her that “when the voice of the sugar bird can be heard, its time to tap”. It took her years to find out what species of bird the sugar bird is, but finally she found out it is the Saw Wet owl, which does sojourn in this region in late winter.
Vernon Wheeler spoke for his family, who had gathered to witness the event. He pointed out his wife Judy, son Mark, daughters Angela, Kristy and Tracy and their spouses and children, who all help out in the business, and said, “One person can’t do it alone. If you get them started young, like my grandchildren over there, they tend to stay with it.”
Vernon Wheeler comes from a family of maple syrup producers that go back to 1868 in western Lanark County. With his wife Judy he purchased his 730-acre bush near McDonalds Corners in 1978. He had planned to log the property but found he had trouble cutting the maple trees because he liked them so much.
He opened his sugar business in the early ’80s, and the rest is history.
And now it is hosting a site of national historical significance.