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COVID-19 Stopped Everything, But Clark County's Maple Syrup Still Flows

Ben Hamilton uses a hammer to tap a maple tree.
Tom Stafford
Ben Hamilton taps a tree to free the syrup inside. Hamilton turned a hobby of making maple syrup into a full-time operation after he retired 12 years ago.

For the 31 years Ben Hamilton worked at Ohio’s Shawnee State Park, he cooked a little maple syrup on the side. Twelve years ago, that changed when he retired to his hometown of Springfield and met next-door neighbor Mitch Workman.

They found out they both hunted turkeys. Workman, a former bee-keeper, then spotted syrup-making equipment in Hamilton’s garage. Hamilton picks up the story just as it devolves into an outtake from Grumpy Old Men.

"He said, 'You made maple syrup?' And I said, 'Yeah, I made maple syrup,'” Hamilton said. "He said, 'I wanna see you make some maple syrup.' And I said, 'Well, I don’t know where any maple trees are.' He says 'I’ll find you some maple trees.'"

Workman found about 400. And Hamilton’s maple syrup operation began.

lourdes westbrook stokes the firebox
Tom Stafford
Lourdes Westbrook stokes the firebox at Ben Hamilton's sugar shack. Westbrook and her boyfriend Norman Rockwell started the 12-hour boil for the day that concentrates sap into syrup.

On the other side of the sap evaporator sits 68-year-old Neal Rockwell. He’s a friend since first grade at Springfield’s St. Joseph Parish School and a volunteer at Ben’s sugar shack. Rockwell and his girlfriend Lourdes Westbrook have started a 12-hour boil to reduce 1,000 gallons of sap into 25–30 gallons of syrup. But there’s a problem: Damp wood has slowed the burn. And only after Hamilton removes it from the stack can the two of us set off for the sugar bush.

Hanging from taps on trunks, white plastic buckets and blue plastic bags glow in the sunlight. We lift them off and start to fill our buckets.

Hamilton has wrapped ribbons on trees to make sure I don’t miss a stop.

For safety’s sake, he’s marked other spots, where broken branches overhead might be blow loose in a gust of wind. We heft the buckets over our heads and dump them into a tank on the pickup.

In two hours we make five stops. The last is at an old Selma Church, where Ben tries to call a nearby turkey but only raises the ire of a rooster.

Back at the sugar shack, guests have arrived — Jeremy and Marissa Flax and their children Jacob and Reese.

Jacob Flax tastes maple syrup.jpg
Tom Stafford
Jacob Flax tastes maple syrup at Ben Hamilton's sugar shack. It was his first taste of the local syrup since the Flax family ran out a few months ago.

"We just live right up the road," Marissa said. "We ran out probably three or four months ago, and Jacob’s been patiently waiting for syrup to be made, and been ready to stop."

Almost all Ben Hamilton’s business is generated by word of mouth. Mouths just like Jacob’s. But how many years Ben will put syrup in all those mouths is another matter. It’s the fourth straight day that his 66-year-old body has wrestled buckets while short on sleep. And late in the evening, he’s still finishing that 12-hour boil.

"At this point in the season, I can tell you definitively that I’m not going to miss gathering sap when I quit," Hamilton said.

Nor will he miss dragging, cutting, splitting and stacking 50 or more pickup loads of wood every year. Or hauling more than 10,000 gallons of sap.

Syrup ready to go.jpg
Tom Stafford
Jugs, buckets and jars of syrup await pickup at Ben Hamilton's sugar shack. One 5-gallon bucket of syrup at a time, Hamilton and volunteers lug 1,000 gallons worth of syrup in one day.

His wife Deb doesn’t expect her husband to give it up soon.

"He claims two years," Deb said. "I’m not sure. He loves it."

And there’s a family tradition.

"We have a son that lives in Nevada," Deb said. "And he sometimes comes and stays two weeks at a time. Brings one of his kids."

Hamilton calls his hope of finding a successor a “pipe dream.” But just down the road lives a guy named Rob Edwards. Rob started learning syruping from Ben a few years ago. This year, Rob, his wife and their three daughters tapped 80 trees and collected 700 gallons of sap.

"I love Ben and hope that he does it as long as he possibly can and is interested in doing it," Edwards said. "But he and I have talked about it, and once he steps away from it, we’re going to keep the torch going."

And whenever that time comes, it’s easy to think of Rob carrying on.

"It’s at this really swampy, sloppy time of the year, when everything is muddy," Edwards said. "It’s kind of like a goodbye winter, hello spring type of thing. You can just really enjoy it and be at peace with the work."