**This story was originally posted on Second Wave Media and is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series. The first crop of the season in Michigan is about to be harvested and representatives with the Athens Youth Council are encouraging anyone interested in volunteering to join them this weekend at the Sap Shanty.
The Shanty, located at 310 West South Street, Athens, will serve as the gathering point for volunteers who will tap trees in the village of Athens beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday. The night before, volunteers will get together to assemble the bags and holders that will be attached to trees to collect the sap.
“Maple syrup is known as the first crop of the season,” says John “J.R.” Brunner, Syrup Chairman and Chairman of the Athens Youth Council. “We need warm sunny days and a freeze every night and that will keep the sap flowing. A few more factors go into making the sugar content. There is a little science involved.
“It is a pretty state-of-the-art process.”
The Syrup event has been going on since 1950. It was started by a group of men, two of whom were Boy Scout leaders who wanted to raise money to fund their troop activities. Their troop was chartered by the Athens Youth Council which is where the connection originated.
“Tapping maple trees and getting syrup was their thing,” Brunner says. “It grew to the point that we decided to put the money towards other youth activities as opposed to just the Boy Scouts.”
Each year the maple syrup produced and sold through the sap gathering effort raises between $17,000 and $18,000. The syrup, which comes in gallon, half-gallon, quart, pint, half-pint and sampler sizes is available for purchase in Athens at the Sap Shanty and the Copper Kettle restaurant and at Knowles Barbershop in East Leroy.
Proceeds have been used to provide four scholarships of up to $1,000 each which are given to graduating seniors at Athens High School. Brunner said some years they have four students, and, in some years, they’ve had two students who have received $2,000 each.
Other beneficiaries of the funds raised include local Little League softball and baseball programs, and the high school for a program which sends students to the State Capitol in Lansing where they participate in a student government program.
Brunner says funds also have been used to purchase new athletic equipment for the high school as well as a press box and bleachers for its football field.
“With the exception of the scholarships, none of the money goes to one person or one organization,” he says.
The AYC is an all-volunteer organization with 12 board members and a standing list of about 60 volunteers who come together from the end of February to the beginning of April to collect the sap and produce the maple syrup. Brunner says these volunteers come from Athens, as well as Battle Creek and other surrounding communities.
When their work is done, they disband until the following year.
Brunner says he stays involved because he likes to give back to the community.
“You’re able to do a lot of good in a short amount of time,” he says. “It’s not like you have to be at a meeting. It’s a nice quick in and out and we’re done, and we raise a good amount of funds at a great time of year.
“People are tired of being cooped up. At some point, we’ll be picking up sap in our shirtsleeves. So, there’s always that to look forward to.”
To volunteer, contact Brunner here.