Maple syrup and music are a family affair

The Paul family of Ontonagon County.

Story and photos by Mary Shegan
The air around the Paul family home in Trout Creek sizzles and crackles with excitement and anticipation when the sap starts to run in the spring, and when the family is ready to board the bus for Branson.
The Paul family, Tracey, Jesse and their five children, make their living producing and selling maple syrup and performing Bluegrass and Gospel music.
The Pauls moved to Ontonagon County in the western Upper Peninsula during 2015. They loved their home in Florida and were involved in many community activities, but Tracey and Jesse became concerned, because everyone seemed to be scattering in different directions. Valuing their family solidarity above all else, they began their search for business opportunities that would include the entire family.
Intrigued by the maple syrup business, Jesse read everything he could find about the industry. Tracey hoped to find a place where they could raise healthy, organic products.
Because parts of the U.P. of Michigan have large stands of maple trees and affordable farm land, the family decided to make a trip to check out the area. In January of 2014, the family of seven made a trial run to Ontonagon County to see if they could tolerate the snow and cold.
“We figured if we could handle the weather in January, we could handle the rest,” Jesse said.
In May of 2015, after many family meetings and extensive research, Tracey and Jesse loaded up the children, Austin, Daltin, Priscilla, Bethany, and Mitchell, for a permanent move to Michigan. Although searching for the right property took several months, they finally found what they were looking for in the southern part of Ontonagon County.
During the time they were searching for property, the Pauls introduced themselves to people in every community they visited. They hoped they would be accepted in the rural community, and they hoped that many of those acquaintances would become friends.
While in Bruce Crossing, they visited The Settler’s Depot Gallery, a local art and craft cooperative which happened to be preparing for a community festival. The Pauls learned that The Depot Gallery was recruiting musicians to fill the afternoon entertainment slot.
Depot Gallery members were delighted to find out that the family was musically inclined and that they would soon be moving to the county. The Pauls were immediately invited to perform at the festival to promote nonprofit organizations.
Following their very first public performance before a large crowd, the local Fourth of July Committee booked the fledgling Paul Family Singers to perform during the Bruce Crossing celebration the following week.
As soon as the Paul family was settled in their new home on South Agate Road, three miles west of Trout Creek, they prepared for tapping trees the next spring. First, they cleaned underbrush and cut dead trees. Next, they laid miles of lateral line that would connect to their pumping station. Finally, they built and outfitted the pumping station and hauled in huge tanks to hold the sap.
During the evenings, they practiced their music, sometimes singing on the back porch. The family didn’t realize it, but neighbors who lived over a mile away could hear them singing. As word spread, the Pauls were invited to sing at church services, senior centers and local events.
“Never in our wildest imagination did we think that performing for the Depot Gallery event in 2015 would lead to where we are now,” Jesse said. “In 2018 we performed 80 concerts around the country. We have 100 shows booked for 2019.”
Like the seasons in the Upper Peninsula, the Paul family’s two professions constantly overlap.
Both professions are complicated and extremely time consuming. “The work is never done,” Jesse explains. “From October until the middle of May, the majority of our time is spent caring for our trees, harvesting sap, and making maple syrup. From the end of May into September, the majority of the time is spent traveling, practicing, and singing.”
Producing maple syrup from sap is a difficult and extremely stressful process. “We are completely at the mercy of the weather,” Jesse explains. “I monitor several weather reports to help plan our days.”
When it rains or when the temperature drops below zero, the family works on learning and rehearsing new songs. When they are satisfied with the sound, they record it in their home studio.
Good weather means long hours in the woods. Tracey and Jesse maintain radio contact so they can plan when they will return to the house for meals.
Most evenings after dinner, except when they’ve been cooking sap all day and are exhausted, family time consists of impromptu practice sessions.
As soon as Jesse picks up his acoustic guitar and settles on the sofa, there are suggestions about which song to try. One by one, they pick up their instruments. Tracey plays the upright bass. Austin on the dobro and Daltin with the banjo often accompany Priscilla singing. Her instrument of choice is the fiddle. Bethany, in addition to adding her unique touch to the vocals, plays the mandolin.
Mitchell, age 6, is known for adding the cuteness factor to the group, but he has his eye on his Dad’s acoustic guitar.
In 2016, their first year, the Pauls harvested about 81,000 gallons of sap from 3750 taps (or spiles), which cooked down to about 1625 gallons of syrup. “We estimate that we will get one gallon of syrup for every 50 gallons of sap,” Jesse explains.
The family business has grown since that first season to 10,000 taps. “Each season we try to visit each tree three to four times,” Austin, age 21, explains. “Checking taps, checking for leaks, and maintaining over 50 miles of lines, means that Dad, my brother Daltin, and I are walking about ten miles a day. For three weeks during the run, sleep is precious. We have to take turns.”

(Top) Tracey, Priscilla, Mitchell, and Bethany Paul stand in front of wood pile that they will help haul to the stove. (Below) Austin and Jesse Paul are shown setting lines for tapping thousands of gallons of sap. The total length of line used in the project will extend over 50 miles.

As in the music business, every member of the family is involved in the maple syrup business. Even the youngest two, Bethany, age 9, and Mitchell, help by running errands and help moving the wood that will keep the fire burning at an even temperature. As the primary cooker, Jesse oversees the cooking operation, but he is teaching everyone the system so they can step in when needed.
In addition to keeping pertinent records, ordering supplies, grading the syrup, preparing meals and doing endless batches of laundry, Tracey also helps restock the wood pile. Every seven to nine minutes the huge wood stove under the cooking pan has to be stoked. Approximately 20 cords of wood will be burned during the six-week cooking season.
Austin is already involved with all phases of the business, from tapping to cooking and bottling. He described their system of checking and rechecking every aspect of the operation. “No one gets upset when someone checks after them. That’s how we avoid problems.”
Daltin, 19, has a natural aptitude for everything mechanical. In addition to working in the woods, he maintains the equipment and checks the pumping stations that move the sap from the trees through the lines and underground to the collection tanks. “On one gusher day that started about noon we moved 20,000 gallons through the lines in 12 hours.”
Priscilla, or Cilla as her brothers call her, age 16, fills in wherever she is needed. Whether it is climbing the ladder to check sap levels in the tank, keeping statistics, hauling wood, helping in the house or keeping an eye on Bethany and Mitchell, she does it with a smile.
Toward the end of the sap run, the rows of 50 gallon barrels filled with syrup ready to be bottled are cause for celebration and smiles all around, but there are still many jobs to be done. All of the equipment has to be thoroughly cleaned and stored. Ten thousand spiles have to be removed from the trees so the tap holes can heal. Syrup must be bottled and delivered. A portion of the syrup has to be cooked down to sugar.
Usually by early May, the family starts to focus on their upcoming concert tour. This year, 2019, preparations are going to be rushed. There won’t be any rest between their maple syrup season and boarding the bus for their first concert in Florence, Wisconsin on May 26th. Then they travel south to Branson, Missouri.
Over the Memorial Day Weekend they are scheduled to perform at the 25th annual Bluegrass Contest in Branson. This year they have also been booked to play at the Bluegrass and Barbecue Festival at Silver Dollar City in Branson.
When they board the bus and the motor starts the atmosphere will be electric with anticipation.
To follow the family on their travels, visit the Paul Family on Facebook or check out thesugarbushfamily.com or PaulFamily-Sugarbush.net.

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