Making maple syrup at Cozy Grove

ALGONA – Every spring at the H.M. and Eva Smith Wildlife Area, south of Algona, two things are sure to happen.

Sap will flow through the trunks of maple trees, and hundreds of visitors will watch volunteers transform the colorless sap into rich, brown maple syrup.

The Cozy Grove Sugar Shack is on property owned by the Kossuth County Conservation Board. But it’s been used for making syrup since the 1940s, when then-owner, the late Slim Smith, and his friends built it using local timber. For years, Smith, his friends and family ran the operation, originally using an outdoor wood-fueled fire pit.

Today, visitors are welcome to stop by, particularly on weekends, when syrup is being processed, said Kossuth County Naturalist Billie Wille. However, by far, the most visitors come from area schools from a five- or six-county area. There are usually between 400 and 600 students every year, and mostly, Wille said, it’s students in fourth grade and younger.

The trick to scheduling those field trips, she said, it that sometimes, she can only give the schools 24 hours’ notice.

Syrup season is completely weather-dependent.

“As long as the weather holds below freezing at night and above freezing during the day,” the process continues, Willie said.

The basic process include drilling taps into the maples, so raw sap runs into buckets hung on the trees. The sap is then stored outside the sugar shack in water tanks and fed by gravity to a shallow evaporator pan inside. The sap is then drawn to a finish pan for final cooking over a wood-fed fire box. Finally, the syrup is poured through a wool strainer into a spigoted keg, then poured into jars and sealed.

It takes approximately 40 buckets of sap to produce one bucket of syrup. During a good season, Wille said, the Cozy Grove Sugar Shack will process 40 to 60 gallons of syrup.