Tapping the trees: Hamilton Co. Parks & Rec celebrates Bray Family Homestead history with maple syrup

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By Sadie Hunter

Natural food resources are all around us, but the availability of an easy-to-get resource is often unrealized in cold, winter months.

Each year, staff from Hamilton Co. Parks & Recreation uses their skills in the outdoors to literally tap into nature for a sweet treat – maple syrup – within properties and parks owned by the department, particularly its newest park, Bray Family Homestead at 4528 Sheridan Rd. in Noblesville.

Hundreds of gallons of sap from maple trees are collected in the prime season, from late winter to March, or when temperatures drop below freezing at night and rise above freezing during the day.

Dan Popiela, a naturalist for the parks and rec department, who was hired nearly eight years ago for natural resource interpretation, has been tapping sugar maple trees since he started his job.

In an area known as Sugar Grove within the park, guests of the annual Maple Syrup Program, this year on March 5, will learn each step in the syrup-making process in a guided tour through Sugar Grove. The tour will show how to tap into the trees, then how the sap is boiled down to syrup inside the Sugar Shack. In the final stops of the tour, guests will learn about the history of the Bray family on the homestead, as well as Native American ties to tapping the trees in the Hamilton Co. area, with a final stop at the Sugar Shop, where maple products will be available for sale.

The Bray family, who owned the land for 160 years, tapped trees for their own personal use.

“There’s a lot of value behind (making syrup), you know, just your local history, knowing who the people were and how they used to live,” Popiela said. “It also ties in the value behind trees. We all talk about how we get the fresh air from the trees, and they shade our houses, but it’s a food source. This is something that you can do yourself. It shows why it’s important to take care of our resources.”

Present-day members of the Bray family donated the 92-acre park to the county in 2007. Now, the park is still in development, with future plans of trail systems, overlooks and feeding areas, currently boasting its wildflowers, new community gardens and, of course, maple syrup resources.

“Up until the arrival of the pioneers, it was really difficult to make maple syrup because (Native Americans) didn’t have the big, iron kettles, just bark baskets and clay pottery,” Popiela said.

It is believed that Native Americans knew when to tap the trees for sap by watching the holes made by woodpeckers.

“Another thing that really promoted maple sugar was it was very patriotic during the Revolutionary War. (They thought), ‘Let’s buy American-made sugar and not the European cane sugar.’ Then, then Civil War, it was the free man’s sugar. Up until the 1860s, maybe 1870s, maple sugar was cheaper than cane sugar,” he said. “Today, it’s just a couple of dollars for a five-pound bag of sugar, and you don’t event find maple sugar in the store. It’s like 10 bucks for just a bottle of maple syrup. Back then, it was the other way around.”

Popiela said there are many other uses for maple sap other than syrup for pancakes, including sugar, maple cream, barbeque sauce, cotton candy, jelly and more, adding that one of his favorite uses for syrup is to put it over vanilla ice cream.

“That’s what I like about the sugar shop. We actually print off some recipes that people can take home. Any recipe that calls for sugar, you put maple sugar in it, and it just, I think, changes the flavor and makes it a more enjoyable (dessert),” he said. “It’s all natural, and it’s an American-made product – well, North American.”

To register for the free Maple Syrup Program from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 5, email cool.naturecenter@hamiltoncounty.in.gov, or call 774-2500. For more, visit myhamiltoncountyparks.com.

 

HISTORY OF THE BRAY FAMILY HOMESTEAD

  • 1815 – As Quakers, and committed to the abolishment of slavery, the Bray family moves north from North Carolina.
  • 1816 – Indiana is admitted into the Union as a state.
  • 1836 – The Bray family settles in Hamilton Co.
  • 1841 – Henry Bray settles on the property where the park is established today.
  • 2007 – Current Bray family members donate the Bray Family Homestead Park to Hamilton Co.

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