Rantoul man taps into past, makes syrup

Don't be surprised if Al Varney and Mrs. Butterworth know each other on a first-name basis.

A Vermont native, Varney grew up tapping maple trees the way many central Illinois residents grew up tasseling corn and baling hay.

It was a way to make some cash.

Now 86, the Rantoul man still keeps his hand in making maple syrup, but on a far smaller scale.

He taps into the sugar maple tree in his front yard on — appropriately enough — Grove Avenue.

"I grew up in it," Varney said. "I used to go to the sugar orchards, into the sugar houses and gallivant with the guy" who boiled the sap at the local maple tree farm, Varney said.

As he got older, he worked for the farmers who had sugar orchards.

"Junior and senior boys, if your grades were good enough during the month of March, we had three weeks of vacation in school. You could go the extra week and hire in and gather the sap," Varney said.

It might sound like a sweet job, but not so much back then.

"It wasn't the easiest job in the world," he said.

Varney was one of the hired help who took the buckets and lids around to the 5,000 maple trees on the farm. That completed, they started drilling holes in the trees and then hooked the buckets up to them.

"Once the tapping was done, the next thing was gathering the sap," Varney said.

"Then it was done with a team of horses and a sled with a tank that held 50 5-gallon pails. When you filled that you went to the sugar house and unloaded that into a big vat outside the sugar house."

From there the sap was piped into the sugar house.

The sap was then boiled down. Varney said it takes 30 gallons to 35 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup.

"That's a lot of steam going out the roof," he said.

Before the days of mechanical testers, the man in charge of the sugar house used a ladle to dip into the syrup. When it would start to hang onto the ladle — what Varney called "aproning" — before spilling over, it was ready.

The ideal syrup weight would be 11 pounds to the gallon.

Finished, the syrup was then poured into large barrels, which were sold to distributors.

Varney said syrup making is still big in Vermont, but it has become more automated.

"It's changed a lot since I was there," he said.

The farmers switched to a pipeline system with a vacuum that pulls the sap out of the tree.

Some old-timers don't like the system, Varney said. They think it damages the trees.

Varney came to Illinois in 1946 when he was stationed at Chanute Air Force Base. He was transferred to England, where he remained until 1952. He liked Rantoul well enough to return after he got out of the service.

Varney worked several jobs after his Air Force days were over. The longest stint was 35 years working in glass at Woods Paint Store in Rantoul.

One recent early April day, Varney had three 3-gallon pails full of sap hanging from the sugar maple tree in his yard. A dip of the finger into the sap revealed it tasted like water, not sweet syrup.

Varney said the day was ideal for making the sap run. Not too cold at night, about 29 degrees, and then warming early the next morning.

"Anything above freezing, it will run," he said.

Varney collected enough sap to make about 2 quarts of syrup this year. He doesn't collect it every year.

Not all maple trees are good for collecting sap.

"Soft maples would put out sap, but you wouldn't use it for syrup," he said. "It would be more like molasses. A sugar maple or a hard maple is what you use" to make syrup.

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