The Orchard School’s Sweet Tradition

The Orchard School’s annual syrup-tap sticks around.
A spile used to drain syrup from trees on The Orchard School

They say a watched pot never boils. That’s surely not the case during The Orchard School’s yearly maple tree–tapping and syrup production, when constant monitoring is required.

Orchard shop teacher and Gnaw Bone Camp founder Fred Lorenz gets credit for originating the syrup-tapping project decades ago to teach students the value of hard work in the great outdoors. In this photo taken sometime in the 1950s, Lorenz sits stoically on the left side of the image, keeping watch over students who take turns stirring the boiling sap to make the syrup.

“Being outdoors has always been a priority for our students,” says Diana Shellhaas, Orchard’s outdoor education coordinator. “Fred had them gathering wood on our 40-acre campus to use in other projects, and got the idea to start tapping the trees.”

The process starts each year in late February or early March, depending on the whims of Mother Nature. “The temperature has to be above freezing during the day and below freezing at night for several consecutive days to start the sap flowing,” says Shellhaas.

Orchard first-graders do the hands-on work as part of a curriculum that teaches them all about trees. The kids do everything, from measuring the trees’ diameters (FYI—you want the trunk to be at least 9 inches wide to tap), to drilling holes and inserting the pegs that drain the sap, to collecting the sticky stuff several times a day and boiling it down. Along the way, they learn about evaporation, chemical processes, and other practical lessons.

The kids do everything, from measuring the trees’ diameters, to drilling holes and inserting the pegs that drain the sap, to collecting the sticky stuff.

That hard work Lorenz was so fond of still applies today. “It takes 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup,” says Shellhaas. “Students have to stoke the fire and keep it going using wood from our woods. It’s a very labor-intensive process.”

Last year, the tapping netted five gallons of syrup in total. After boiling, the syrup is filtered and bottled to drizzle over stacks of pancakes at Orchard’s annual alumni breakfast, which the public is welcome to attend. In keeping with Orchard tradition, the pancakes are cooked over an open fire; tours of the woods, kids’ activities, and syrup-making demonstrations are all part of the fun.

Although Lorenz died in 2000, the school honors his memory by continuing to use his original stainless-steel boiling pans and pancake griddle. A sweet tribute, indeed.