Sechler Sugar Shack… A family tradition making life sweet since 1850
Maple syrup often equates with big business in the Eastern portion of the United States. In places like New England, maple producers have the trees, the equipment and the volume to build an industry. But here in Pennsylvania, maple syrup does not center around quantity but on quality — quality syrup and quality time spent with family and friends during the sugar season each year. At Sechler Sugar Shack, Confluence, owners Everett and Christine Sechler strive for the best on both counts. Each year as the weather turns cold, the Sechlers gather their crew of family and friends to begin the long and tiring task of checking the miles of sugar line that span across Everett's woods and throughout the woods surrounding his brother, Eldon Sechler's farm to the north. Nephews, sons, cousins and neighbors spend days and weeks walking through brush and up and down hills making repairs to the tubing, stringing new line, and, eventually, drilling Sechler Sugar Shack's 4,000 taps for the year's maple sugar harvest.
All of this devotion of time and effort started in 1983 when Everett had a plan for a "small" project to do with his young sons. Joel and Joshua [Everett's sons] were just little and I wanted to do about 20 taps that first year, just for a little fun project. After that, things just kind of snowballed," laughed Sechler.
Sechler's love for the maple syrup making process comes to him through a long and proud line of sugar camp owners. Jonas Meyers, Everett's great-great-grandfather built his first camp in the year 1850. When his daughter Emily married Joshua Sechler years later, Meyers passed his maple sugar boiling skills down to his new son-in-law who proudly kept up the tradition. Although time brought new land and new family members, the Sechler family's winter/spring ritual continued from generation to generation, all the way down to Everett's father Earle who did his best to make updates to the camp when he could. "I remember when he [Earle] used an open pan to boil. On a rainy day it would get so steamy in the camp that you could hardly see a person standing five feet in front of you. You could only make out a shadow of an outline," recalled Sechler.
In later years, Earle invested in several steam boilers that he bought from the Somerset Canning Co. The series of five steam boilers made the syrup boiling process go much faster than it had ever gone before. With the steam heating the tanks from below, the water traveled from tank to tank until a good portion of the water had evaporated, leaving pure maple syrup in the last one. Love for the process could only take Earle Sechler so far, unfortunately. By 1970, he was beginning to suffer the effects of rheumatism and he could no longer keep up with the demands of sugar season. At the time, none of his sons had the time or interest to maintain the sugar camp, so Earle made the decision to sell all of his equipment and give up syrup making for good. Of course rheumatism did nothing to stop Earle from giving his son advice and encouragement when Everett began to show an interest in starting up the sugar camp again. "Dad was still alive at that time and he encouraged me to start," explained Sechler. "He told me that he would help me along. By the time I had made the decision though, he had passed away. Luckily his friend George Metheny was still around to give me advice."
Armed with fond family recollections and a knowledgeable friend, Sechler set out to make some syrup and some lasting memories for his two young sons. Throughout the process, George Metheny offered both help and wisdom to Sechler as he began purchasing equipment and tapping trees. Neither Sechler nor his wife can recall a whole lot from those first few seasons. They just remember that they put in their best effort — and each year they managed to find a couple more trees to tap. Thirty years have passed since those first months and years full of challenge and learning, but Sechler Sugar Shack remains fully devoted to producing the highest quality Pennsylvania pure maple products. As we have discovered in so many other areas of modern life, quality does not always mean devoting oneself to the same old ways forever, and as new maple producing technologies proved their worth, the Sechlers have adapted their simple family tradition to incorporate time and energy saving techniques and equipment.
The Sugar Shack itself has seen changes both large and small in recent years including the addition of a reverse osmosis machine and a switch from wood and coal to the more even heating of natural gas. Even their sap collection process has been simplified with the introduction of a vacuum that brings the sugar water to central location. Perhaps the most important change that they have seen in the last 30 years has been the introduction of tubing that can be left up year round. Everett and Christine vividly remember the years that they spent numbering the maple trees and creating intricate maps of where and how each piece of tubing was connected and spanned between trees.
During the season, they had to collect the sap in tanks and pump the tanks into the evaporator. Then, when the season came to a close they had to retrace their steps over and over again as they removed spouts, drained sugar lines, gathered and wrapped the lines only to unwrap them again at home in order to stretch them out along the entire length of their driveway to flush them out for the season and let them dry before winding them all back up and storing them for the next year. "We loved doing it then, but there is no way that we could do that again today. Sugar season is tiring enough as it is," said Christine. The new technology proved worthwhile during the 2013 maple sugar season when the Sechlers were able to boil 12 separate batches of syrup in a little over a month. The fruits of their labor resulted in 1,700 gallons of pure Pennsylvania maple syrup — some almost translucent in color. "We had our biggest day ever this year when we boiled 250 gallons of syrup in 11 hours. When you take away the first hour that was all cooking, that adds up to 25 gallons per hour," explained Sechler with pride and a touch of amazement.
All of the hard work ends up being well worth the effort when Everett and Christine take the time out of their daily routines to attend the various festivals and events where they display and sell their pure maple products. The Sechler Sugar Shack display table is filled with items that are as beautiful as they are delicious. Instead of having only the traditional brown maple syrup jugs, the Sechlers showcase their syrup in tin log cabins and glass bottles that are shaped like everything from a maple leaf to a fiddle to the Statue of Liberty. Many are even etched or painted with beautiful objects or country scenes, and all of them quickly draw an appreciative eye to their table.
Sechler Sugar Shack also proudly offers maple sugar cakes, maple cream, maple sugar and the ever-tasty maple covered peanuts in addition to their maple syrup. The presentation may draw in the customers, but it is the kindness and humor that Christine and Everett meet them with that keeps people visiting them time and time again. Often the people they meet out and about find themselves visiting the Sugar Shack during sugar season and seeing first-hand how the boiling process works. "This year, we had a Girl Scout troop from somewhere around Pittsburgh come in. We had hot dogs ready for them and we made them maple sundaes and we showed all of them — six adults and 12 Scouts — the reverse osmosis machine and how we boil and then Mark Millin took them to see the vacuum and how it works," said Sechler.
Patience and willingness to invite others into their sugar camp make the Sechlers both unique and beloved amongst maple producers. Their kindness extends to all of the family members and neighbors who help them string lines, tap trees and clean up everything; every year, after the weather gets warm, all of the workers and families are invited to Everett and Christine Sechler's home for a pancake dinner in thanks for all of their help. With hard work, commitment and a great love of people and maple syrup, Everett and Christine Sechler have upheld more than a mere sweet family tradition with the Sechler Sugar Shack — they have built a lasting legacy that will hopefully continue on in the next generations.