Maple syrup is as Canadian as hockey. And in our region, Shaws Maple Syrup has long stood as the standard-bearer for the industry.
The local operation is older than most of our municipalities, beginning in 1893, when Eleanor and Thomas Shaw purchased the old growth maple bush from the Grand Trunk Railroad.
In 1904, Eleanor and Thomas’ 16-year-old son, James, encouraged the family to make and sell maple syrup. As a result, they put 60 taps in trees, gathered the sap in buckets, and boiled it into syrup using three iron pots under a simple lean-to in the bush.
Things have changed a bit since then.
Now, each year, Shaws aims to make over 4,000 litres of maple syrup. Fifth-generation owner Tom Shaw says the Oro-Medonte Township business is on pace to meet that mark again this year.
The success of a season is all weather-dependant, Shaw says. It takes a combination of freezing nights and warm days to create pressure in the 4,500 maple trees on the 80 acres of land at Shaws in order to produce sap.
While Shaw’s used to open on March 1 and run until April 30, it now opens in mid-February and closes after Easter weekend.
“The early flow back 20 years ago that really wouldn’t produce that much sap, now produces a lot of sap,” he said. “We have to be ready to go for the season earlier than we ever had to worry about it before.”
Shaw says winter weather is trending toward getting warmer each year, causing maple syrup season to keep getting pushed up the calender. While Shaw says the change in climate is a little concerning, he has maple trees on his property that are 300 years old. They are still healthy and growing today, he notes.
Each year, thousands of people visit Shaws to enjoy pancakes, French toast, and sausages, and learn how maple syrup is made.
“The majority of our customers are local,” he said. “They are generational customers which is really fun about our business.”
Shaw enjoys it when he is told stories from customers about how their grandparents bought maple syrup from his grandparents. He said he also enjoys chatting with first-time customers and tourists from other countries who visit each year. Folks from Australia, Japan, Germany, and Brazil have all visited the popular sugar bush.
Shaws employs 25 to 30 people each year for the seasonal work, serving tables, offering horse and buggy rides, and making maple syrup.
“We are pretty proud of the fact that each year there is a whole group of girls who work here and it’s usually their first job after babysitting,” Shaw said. “They start here at 14, they work here for three or four years, and then they go off to college.”
While the employees are young and energetic, Shaw says the facility is getting old and tired. He has plans in the works to build a brand new and more accessible facility in the coming years.
“We have an awful lot of retirement homes coming here,” he said. “We had school groups come here for 50 years and we’ve stopped doing that because it’s too challenging for our facility and customers.”
Shaw is hoping that a new facility would welcome more people back to visit.
“We want a facility that would do a better job at educating people and showcasing maple syrup,” he said. “We try to do it here now, but it’s difficult to do a good job of that with limited space and old buildings.”
The business all started with Shaw’s great-great-grandparents, and every generation since has kept the business going. Shaw, 55, says his two children, Beth and Brett, have both worked in the business and like it. However, right now they are exploring their own careers. Beth is a teacher and Brett is a geographic information system worker.
“Our intention is to keep making the business bigger, better, and profitable so that later on in life, taking over the business should look very attractive to them,” Shaw explained. “Right now, with this old facility, it’s just OK, but a new facility would make it incredible.”
It’s important to Shaw for the maple syrup-making tradition to continue through generations of his family for years to come.
This weekend is Maple Weekend in Ontario — a time for Shaw to celebrate the family’s heritage and traditions. The weekend is hosted by the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association, which Shaw’s father helded found.
“My dad and other people had a vision that the producers would work to increase the exposure and awareness of the maple syrup industry,” Shaw said. “This is definitely the time of the year to reflect on how far the industry has come and the role my family has played in that.”
In some ways, Shaw feels has his parents and grandparents paved the way to show sugar shacks their true potential.
“When you go out to a lot of sugar shacks, you probably aren’t going to go out to a restaurant, go on a horse and buggy ride, and have the experience you have here,” he said. “Because of the infrastructure built here by my parents in the ‘60s we are fortunate to have this in our community.”
Since the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association was formed, and his family helped revolutionize the business, Shaw says the tourism aspect of the industry continues to grow each year.
“It’s an incredible tradition,” Shaw said. “The flavour of syrup can’t be matched by anything."
Shaw says what gives maple syrup its magic touch, is it’s not manufactured by humans.
“It’s manufactured in a tree,” he explained. “We add nothing to this watery sap that doesn’t taste like anything, that flavour is already in there and we just boil it, concentrate it, and that flavour comes out of that tree sap. It’s incredible to think about.”
Shaw encourages people to buy Canadian-made maple syrup to support old-growth forests.
“When you buy maple syrup, you are supporting a tree to keep it growing,” he said. “It keeps trees alive.”
Wanda Beaudoin, a senior who is from Coldwater, was visiting Shaws this weekend with her two siblings and their partners. She is a frequent visitor to the restaurant.
“It’s so tasty,” she said. “It’s a family business in a beautiful location.”
Wanda's husband, Tim, says eating breakfast at Shaws reminds him of eating at his grandparents' house.
“It’s informal, the tables aren’t perfect, and there is nobody running around all over the place,” he said. “The meals are very robust, the pancakes are consistent every time, and they are nice and thick.”
Tim says eating at Shaws is a little like taking a trip in a time machine.
“It’s a rustic, old-time family breakfast,” he said. “It’s as close as you are going to get to eating at your grandparents.”