Bob Cilley and Newmarket’s Sugar Shack

By Diana Barr, The Exeter News-Letter, March 16, 1977

Making maple syrup has been around longer than pilgrims in New England.  Indians showed the early settlers how to bore and tap the sugar maple to get the thin watery liquid from the wood. They showed the settlers how to hollow out a pot from a log and put hot stones in the bottom to get the sugar water boiling to evaporate the water, leaving a thick, sweet syrup.  With early Yankee ingenuity came a refinement of the original process. The settlers used iron cauldrons and a wood fire under the hot sap until it boiled down into the maple syrup that was used for cook¬ing everything.

Although there are now pumps, hydro¬meters and evaporators to do the work, behind it all is the same manpower.  Bob Cilley, of Hersey Rd., Newmarket, operates just such a sugar shack as a maple sugar operation is usually called. The operation is housed in a pegged and posted building, easily identified by the billowing steam rising from the openings in the roof.  Cilley is the one who answers all the questions from volunteers and visitors.

The two-year-old building replaced the small shed he always used, which was barely big enough to squeeze into with the wood-fired evaporator. Now there is a front sales room and a work room large enough for people to stand around and watch, or work, if you volunteer.  A large evaporator throws steam into the room as the maple water boils into the tanks and is finally drawn off as the amber-colored, thick syrup. At times the steam is so thick it’s hard to see the person across the room and the smell of maple always hangs in the air.

Cilley doesn’t own any of the 300 maple trees that he taps. He says people will usually ask for a small amount of syrup in return for the sap he collects from their trees. Many of the trees he taps are on Grant Rd. and around the Durham area.  Cilley, picturesque with a beard and a flannel checkered shirt, knows just what to look for when tapping a tree. He says the tops of the maple trees give the clue for boring a tree.  The larger the crown, the more sap in a tree. Each branch and bud must be supplied with sap so it will grow he added, which brings more sap from the roots. The sap begins to run at different times each year.

“I listen to weather reports and look for the first thaw,” says Cilley. He watches temperatures, all important in the sugar season.  This year will be a good maple sugar year, as there
was a warm spell during February which makes the sap run. Each year he starts at a different time, dependent on these factors. Last year he started collecting Feb. 21; this year March 1.

The best size tree to tap should be eight inches or larger in diameter. Too many bores will kill a tree and Cilley is careful not to tap in the same place he tapped the previous year. He is very careful with his borrowed trees, and takes care of them well.  He gathers the sap with a truck, pumping the sap from the buckets into large drums. It is then pumped into the holding tanks at the sugar shack and is gravity fed into the evaporator.

The trees produce sap about every eight hours and must be gathered every day. He says this is where volunteer help is valuable. They help gather the gallons of sap and bring it back to the shack to keep the syrup boiling.  ”Then you start all over again,” laughs Cilley.  A truck pulls into the driveway and a volunteer attaches a three-inch hose to the pump. With a rush, a thin watery, slightly sweet liquid pours into a 250-gallon drum.

The season runs for about eight weeks from late February through the middle of April. During this time he will probably collect about 2,000 gallons of sap which will boil down to about 250 gallons of the thick syrup that tastes so good on flapjacks and French toast. Cilley started making syrup when he was 10 years old. He taught himself and picked up pointers from local people that made syrup at the time.  The equipment is a long way from the wood fire and the one pot over the iron stove. But the knowledge, the smell and the taste is still the same. The faces of people licking their fingers from the sample cups, tell the same story . . umnunmm, real maple syrup.



The Sweet Smell of Sap Permeates the Air

By Steve Dunfey ,Hampton Gazette  April 5, 1978 

The maple syrup season is alive and running in Rockingham County. Although the sap has arrived about two weeks late this year, sugar houses in Newmarket and Epping are busy boiling and bottling what the Indian’s discovered and called “sweet water.” It is now known as maple syrup and it is, of course, enjoyed by all who have ever had pancakes on their breakfast table.

There is more to maple syrup than pancakes, however, as one will find after visiting Great Hill Maples in Newmarket or the Sugar Shack in Epping. For the past three weeks the two “sugar houses” have been busily taking advantage of the short maple sap season, much to the delight of area pancake lovers and visitors from all over New England who come to see how it gets from tree to table.

My first stop on the sugar circuit this weekend was Robert Cilley’s Great Hill Farm on Hersey Lane, just off Route 108 in Newmarket. A sign that says “Boiling Today” attracts you off the road and into the hewn timber sugar house. While tending the sap evaporator, Cilley is eager to explain the process that keeps him working 10 - 12 hours a day. “It takes 40 gallons of sap to produce on gallong of syrup,” he explains. “But it’s really very simple. I just boil the sap until enough water has evaporated and you are left with the heavier sugar syrup.”

(photo caption: Robert Cilley of Great Hill Farms in Newmarket describes the process of boiling maple sap to a visitor from Porstmouth.)

Before the boiling is done, the collection of the sap must take place.  Any native New Englander knows that you tap a maple tree to get maple sap. Many have maple trees in their own backyard that are tapped for the homemade stuff. Few people though, have 1,500 tapped trees, as Robert Cilley has. Cilley has taps in Newmarket, Durham, Dover and Newington and other areas as far as ten miles from his sugar house. None of the taps are on his own land, so Cilley offers syrup in return for use of the trees. The sap is then collected and taken by truck to his farm in Newmarket, where it is stored in a 1,000 gallon holding tank. Storing in the tank is not for long though, as it is constantly being fed into an evaporator inside the sugar house.

The boiling room is full of maple scented steam that makes it way to openings in the roof. As he attended to the boiling process, Cilley explained the climatic conditions that are best for the sap to run.

“The sap runs best when it’s 20 degrees at night and around 40 to 50 degrees during the day. The cold weather at night brings the sap in the tree downward, while the warm wea¬ther during the day draws it back up again. That gets the sap circulating and out the tap,” he said. “The sap started running around March 12 and I would expect about one week more.” According to the N.H. Maple Producers           Association,  the traditional maple syrup season arrives in southern New Hampshire around February 28 and generally lasts until about April 10. Cilley felt that weather conditions led to a two week late start for this years season.

Our conversation then turned to the steaming evaporator.  The evaporator is about four feet wide and eight feet long, with sap flowing into long metal pans. Below the pans is an oil burner that keeps the sap boiling at 219 degrees Faren¬heit, or seven degrees above the boiling point of water. 60 to 70 gallons of sap are boiled every hour producing about one and a half to two gallons of the final maple product every hour. Every three to four minutes Cilley turns on a spigot on the side of the boiling pan, which rleases a short stream of maple syrup into buckets covered with cloth filters. Cilley, a 12-year sugaring veteran, knows exactly when the syrup is ready by reading a hydrometer. The hydrometer measures the density of the syrup which should wiegh in at 11 pounds per gallon. The next step before bottling is to run the syrup th-rouhpgh a “filter press,” which is a long series of cloth filters.

 Although most of the work is done by Cilley, his wife Betty bottles the syrup in the plastic jugs sold to their customers. Good neighbor Michael Vilodica cooks the pancakes and sausages that visitors can buy in a country style eating room next to the boiling room.  A steady flow of visitors is a routine at Great Hill Maples.  Cilley offers free sugar-on-snow parties which have brought him busloads of kids 35 residents of the Rockingham County Nursing Home this season,

Ken Gowen’s Sugar Shack

Having thanked the Cilley’s for versing me in matters of maple, I proceeded to Kenneth Gowne’s Sugar Shack on Route 155 in Epping. There I found Mr. Gowen attending his evaporator while busily passing out samples to interested visitors.  Like Robert Cilley, Gowen enjoys describing his operation to all who ask. Though basically the maple process is the same, Gowen, who was once a partner with Cilley, explained some differences.

“I use a wood fueled boiler, which I think is cheaper. Instead of using buckets I use five and a half miles of plastic tubing in my two maple or-chards in Deerfield. The tubing goes from tree to tree and collects in centralized locations, making it practically a one man job.” he said.

The Sugar Shack is quite a large operation. “I have four people working here on weekdays and nine on weekends. Probably 1,200 to 1,500 
visitors came through here today.”  Gowen also serves breakfast in a large dining room with the largest fire you’ve ever seen in a fireplace.  Maple cream, maple taffy and other candies are made and sold in another room where Edna Johnson described how they were made.

“All you do is heat and stir the syrup until it crystalizes,” she said. “Boiling it at different te-peratures will produce a different type of candy.  Then it is poured into rubber molds that give the shapes you want.” As temptation called, I made my way back to the boiling room to sniff the law-calorie maple steam, where Ken Gowen explained the grades of maple syrup and their differences.

Virtually all the maple syrup that Gowen and Cilley produce is sold at their own sugar houses. “There’s no money in wholesaling,” says Gowen.

If you would like to make your own maple sugar circuit, you can figure on about one more week of sugaring. Seeing and learning about things maple can be interesting and en-joyable. Just remember to bring a sweet tooth.


All Published

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