SKOWHEGAN — On a chilly night in February 1983, eight Maine maple syrup producers gathered in the living room of Jack and Eva Steeves’ home in Skowhegan, looking for ways to promote their product.
The eight producers, all directors of the newly formed Maine Maple Producers Association, were about to change the way Maine — and other Northern states — marketed their maple syrup.
They were about to designate one day for maple syrup lovers to visit the state’s many sugarhouses, smell the vapor of the evaporators and see how sap is transformed into sweet, golden syrup and maple candy.
The group decided that Maine Maple Sunday, to be celebrated this Sunday, would be the fourth Sunday in March.
“The date was chosen because it was sort of an in-between date for the southern part of the state and for the northern part of the state,” Jack Steeves said.
Steeves, now 81, who with his wife, Eva, and son Jeremy own and operate Strawberry Hill Farms on Rowe Road in Skowhegan, said the idea behind Maine Maple Sunday was two-pronged. He said producers wanted to be sure they had the finished product ready for visitors during maple season and thought it was important to get the message out about maple syrup and where to find it.
Thirty years ago, he said, each sugarhouse was doing its own promotion for the public “catch as catch can,” without coordinating the date with other producers.
“The public never knew when to come or not, or whether the maple operation would be operating when they got there or if there would be anyone available to talk to them or explain anything to them,” he said. “So we felt it would be a good idea to have a special day that we all did it and then publicize it.”
The first year, Steeves said, it was just the eight producers in Maine who coordinated Maple Sunday. The second year, several more producers joined the Maple Sunday celebration. Today, he said, there are about 80 maple sugarhouses giving tours and offering free maple treats in Maine.
The practice has stretched into Maine Maple Weekend in places and has expanded to most New England states and as far west as Ohio, according to Steeves.
“They saw that it was a good thing,” he said of the Maine model. “They saw that maple Sunday in Maine was a progressive and innovative thing, and so they adopted some of the ideas and pursued it.”
The town of Skowhegan even is doing a maple week this year, which continues today with maple-leaf cookie decoration at The Pickup Cafe at the Somerset Grist Mill from 10 to 11:30 a.m. and again from 3 to 4:30 p.m.
Gary Keough, New England Field Office Director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said he has been on the job for only about seven years, but the story goes that Maine had the first organized statewide day of maple celebration, just as Steeves said.
Mary Croft, administrative assistant at the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, said Vermont Maple Open House Weekend, which also is this weekend, has been going on statewide for about 12 years.
One long-running celebration, a commercial, one-location Vermont Maple Festival, in St. Albans, Vt., in April, has been held with carnival rides, antique and craft shows, a parade and maple events for nearly 50 years, Croft said.
The Steeves farm is not only among the first to set aside a single day to celebrate the sap, it is also the largest American-owned maple syrup producer in Maine, Jack Steeves said. It has as many as 40,000 tree taps, producing and selling as much as 12,000 gallons of organic, finished maple syrup a year.
The farm is also among numerous sap operations in Somerset County, which was named by the USDA in 2009 as, among all the nation’s counties, the one with the most maple taps. Maple producers in Somerset County reported 1.26 million maple taps in the Census of Agriculture by the USDA in 2007, the most recent data available.
The next-closest county was Franklin County, Vt., with 715,535 taps.
Robin Helrich, a USDA maple statistician in Concord, N.H., said the department is collecting information now for another survey, possibly to be released in 2014.
The Steeves family first started making maple syrup in the 1840s and has been bottling the stuff commercially for 40 years. The sap for Strawberry Hill is collected using a vacuum system, stainless steel holding tanks and miles of sap lines crisscrossing the sugar bush.
By last week, with warm daytime temperatures and freezing temperatures overnight, Steeves estimated his production is about one-third of the way through its season. By Sunday — Maine Maple Sunday — production should be about halfway through.
Production is just getting under way up north and is about finished in southern areas of Maine, he said.
Steeves said this weekend’s events will include tours, demonstrations and treats such as warm maple syrup spooned onto ice cream or drizzled onto snow for traditional maple taffy, all free by the spoonful.
Last year, Steeves said, Strawberry Hill Farms had about 3,500 visitors during the Saturday and Sunday of Maine Maple Weekend.
“You can’t count them, because the whole yard’s full and the cars are parked to the top of the hill and down the other way,” he said. “You know how we figure how many were here? We count the spoons.”
Doug Harlow — 612-2367