Building a Maple Legacy

All in the family for Paul Bunyan's Maple Syrup
By J.F. Pirro

Enos family at Sugar Camp (left to right): J.R., Aimee, Anna, Molly and Elle.
Photos courtesy of Paul Bunyan's Maple Syrup, unless otherwise noted.

Molly Enos can't go as far as to say she grew up in sugaring or anything. However, she does remember one early influential maple syrup experience. When she was about 10, the family tapped a half-dozen maple sugar trees in the backyard. Those taps produced enough sugar water to make 1 gallon of syrup, but when her father, J.R., was taste-testing for density, he burnt his tongue so badly it landed him in the hospital emergency room with third-degree burns.

"It was hot - 212 degrees hot," Enos recalls. "We made 1 gallon, but it was a really memorable 1 gallon. We all laugh about it now."

That first gallon cost $700 in propane and medical expenses, J.R. says. It took three layers of "hide" off his tongue, and ever since he's been relying on an old saying: "If you're going to be dumb, you'd better be tough."

Truth be told, he's the self-described "grunt laborer" (or, when he's really puffing out his chest "the guy who goes to the hills") behind Paul Bunyan's Maple Syrup in Rockwood, Pa., located in the heart of the rolling hills of the Laurel Highlands of Somerset County. The mountain laurel is Pennsylvania's state flower.

Enos, the eldest of his three daughters, is the sole proprietor of the business. They make a fitting pair. J.R. loves to be among the trees, surrounded in natural resources; she loves the sales end. She's the one with the communications background and marketing mindset on making her way into the city of Pittsburgh to infiltrate that urban atmosphere, its gourmet restaurants and outlying resort scene some 60 miles outside her small-town rural American country store milieu. Her point? Maple syrup is for everyone. "It's working well," Enos reports.

Pittsburgh is her overwhelming target, but also natural food stores, whole food markets, even little Italian markets and the resorts' gift shops. "We want to have a product that tourists will want to take home," she says. "There are so many different markets for maple syrup. I think it can be an upscale product, too, and let's face it, as opposed to Aunt Jemima, it's not cheap. Just the fact of its natural beauty, that it's produced right out of a tree speaks and sells for itself. It doesn't take long after someone has tasted some of our sugar maple cream or candy that they say, 'OK, I'll take a bag or box of that.' It's all pure and natural, from tree to table."

When she is on sales calls in Pittsburgh, she says the urban locale provides a unique sales - and buying - opportunity. "There isn't another maple salesman in front of me," Enos says. "We're not running into one another, all selling the same product in the same location."

However, some sections of Somerset County are known for their sugaring operations. Most, she says, are old-timers who sell to neighbors or give their product away to family as presents. "There's potential beyond just selling to local neighbors," she insists.

In just the sugar camp's second year, she's experimented at the Ligonier Country Market, a 100-vendor setup, and also at the Somerset County Farmers' Market. "We're in the beginning entrepreneurial stage you could say," Enos says. "Every day we do something, it's new."

Paul Bunyan has already won awards for its Grade A medium amber maple syrup at the Pennsylvania Maple Festival held in Meyersdale, Pa. That helps sell product, but Enos is definitely the new kid on the block among longtime sugar makers. "We're the newcomers," she says. "We're the young new blood in it."

It is a family venture. Enos' mom, Aimee, is a nurse practitioner, and the one who knew enough to get J.R. to the emergency room after that first testing. Her younger sisters are Elle and Anna. Up in the hills, J.R. has the help of two men - one a friend, the other an employee - to help run 4,000 taps and the lines. "I'm out selling," Enos says. "It's not like I'm putting on the snowshoes."

J.R. sells wholesale to Enos, with the hope of paying for his other two girls' college educations. The sisters are all five years apart.

He built the 2,000-square-foot sugarhouse, which sits on property across the road from the farm. Last year, they operated out of an old garage. Start-up equipment costs have run $60,000, but if they make their goal of 1,000 gallons of syrup this year, all sold at $30 to $33 a gallon, it's a business that can promise a quick return. "It's the quickest return of any kind of farming," J.R. says. "If you have the trees, and once you're set up, you're set up."

Molly Enos pouring sweet, fresh sugar water.

A phone call at college

Enos was a senior in college majoring in communications when J.R. called and told her he was thinking about tapping the sugar maple trees on the 300-acre farm he'd bought in the middle of last decade. "I told her we were going to make syrup," he recalls. "She was excited, like when she was a little girl."

The family already had half of it in Christmas tree production. Sugar maples run up on the hillside; the pine trees down the hillside. The family planted 60,000 pine trees.

Tree work was nothing new to J.R., who already owned Paul Bunyan, Inc., a company that specialized in disaster relief cleanup, and also Paul Bunyan Tree Service for more regular residential work. He had diversification in mind when he bought the farm that was once a sugar camp dating from the late 1800s into the 1950s. "They pretty much always made sugar on that hill," he says.

When he bought the land, another maple farmer was tapping the sugar maples. He bought the acreage mostly because of its hardwoods, but says he was always interested in sugaring. "We did it when the girls were young, some backyard sugaring," he recounts. "It's pretty amazing stuff."

The operation's evaporator.

J.R. says he could timber that hillside and get paid once for the wood, or he can tap those sugar maples and get paid every year. He's getting a half-gallon of syrup per tap, so if there are two taps, that makes a gallon, or $30 per tree a year compared to $50 to timber it one time. It's a no-brainer.

Enos decided that her father's companies' names were so well- branded, that she'd use a spin-off of his ingenuity, and her ideas - Molly's Maple Syrup among them - went by the wayside to proven name recognition. "Plus, people relate Paul Bunyan to trees, so that's the whole thing," she says.

She did work in the financial industry for six months after graduating from college in 2010, but that didn't stick. She prefers making trips up to the Western New York Gift Show or designing and redesigning labels by trial and error, all with the goal of giving maple syrup an upscale, high-end look so it can be more competitive on shelves - urban shelves.

"There are so many opportunities if you're willing to dig for them," Enos says. "The sky is the limit. I can cold-call five places in Pittsburgh and set up meetings, or I can hop on a plane to Colorado and sell to that market."

High-tech operation

This past season, J.R. used a high-tech vacuum system and reverse osmosis. He totally changed and upgraded the system after the first year. "The vacuum system is so much more efficient," he says.

With reverse osmosis, he says he can take 1,000 gallons of sap and get rid of 800 gallons of water, leaving 200 gallons of sap to boil. Therefore, instead of taking 50 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, he can now make up to eight or 10 gallons from the 50. Boiling time is cut down, as is fuel consumption.

"It used to take 1.5 gallons of fuel oil to make a gallon of syrup," J.R. says. "Now, it should take a third of a gallon. We've taken 80 percent of the raw water out."

The first year provided a big learning curve. "I wouldn't want to do it again like that," he says. "There wasn't a lot of profit, but now I can see that to be profitable we have to be efficient."

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The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.