Bruce Gillian of Leader Evaporator recently presented his “Boiling 101” presentation at the Eastern Ontario Maple Workshop this past November. At one point he asked everyone to stand up because he was going to recognize someone in the room but didn’t know who it would be. He started by asking who has not made any syrup yet or has boiled for their first time. Several hands went up, he congratulated them, then asked them to sit down. He then asked who had been boiling for 5 years or less, congratulated them, then asked them to sit down, and then asked again about 10 years. At this point a third of the room was sitting. He continued on in five year increments until at the 45 year mark only two gentlemen were still standing. Five years continued to be added until finally at the 60 year mark the second to last producer finally sat down. Determined to finish the exercise Bruce added 5 more years… 65… 70… “Okay sir. How long have you been boiling?” Cecil Cass of Eastern Ontario with a big grin on his face answered with “75 years and still going.”
Cecil Cass is now 86 years old and has personally been making maple syrup for three quarters of a century. Starting as a young boy he helped out his father after school and on the weekends during the Second World War years but maple has actually been made on the farm since the Cass family first immigrated to Canada back in 1798, a short 15 years after the end of the American Revolution. The farm name Cassbrae was chosen for the property in 1958 after their own family name and is a Scottish term for “hillside along a river” – which is a perfect designation for this remarkable farm standing up hill on Cassburn Road and overlooking the Ottawa River. The farm now spans seven generations and 1000 acres and celebrated its bicentennial in 1998, the year of the devastating ice storm in Eastern Ontario & Quebec. Cecil’s farm is mostly cash crops today but with a good interest in heifers, fire wood, and maple syrup after buying up most of the local smaller farms as other farmers retired or families moved on. Not one to shy away from new maple technology Cecil was the first to embrace developments like oil fired evaporators and reverse osmosis to cut the amount of labour involved. In both cases he was the first within the region to own and operate each new technology and has recently upgraded to a new high concentrate RO. He fully admits that had the new high efficiency wood evaporators been invented years ago he would have skipped right over oil to wood fired gasification.
Currently running about 3300 taps with 1200 of them still on buckets due to the nature of the bush most sales are farm gate with some bulk to local producers and a family member selling in the nearby City of Ottawa. His first pipeline was installed about 20 years ago but was ravaged by squirrels the first few years well beyond the damage levels caused to today’s type of tubing. Cecil is helped by three other family members during the maple season along with a few local part time young people as needed. The Ice storm of 1998 destroyed most of his tubing installation and severely damaged the maple forest but in those days lime was allowed to be spread by airplane and Cecil had already had his bush limed at the same time as his neighbouring agricultural fields. After the ice storm his bush filled with new maple growth setting him ahead of the curve on regeneration.
One of the original members of the Eastern Ontario Maple Syrup Producers’ Association (one of eleven chapters within the Ontario Producers Association), Cecil has been president of the Local three times in the past five decades and is still an active member of the board of directors some 50+ years later in addition to continuing to serve on a half dozen other agriculturally based boards. “It’s a changing times in agriculture and I always like change. There are many new technologies coming out in maple these days making things better, faster, or more cost effective” Cecil tells me. “Toughest time was just after the war bottling in old wine bottles and 5 or 10 gallon cans after food rations had finally been lifted. We used to seal the bottles with wax and seems no one got sick and the syrup kept alright”. Cecil still has today food ration coupons from the mid-forties for sugar. For those don’t know many main food staples were rationed in Canada between 1942 and 1947 in an effort to support the troops and European civilians during, and for a time after, the Second World War and sugar was one of the first to be rationed due to its use in shells and bombs. Even maple syrup was rationed at one point but most farms had their own stash down in the root cellar. “In the early years it was hard times with a tremendous amount of snow to get through. Often the horses had to be taken off the sleigh and walked through the snow just to make a trail to pull the sleigh because the snow was too deep. Syrup prices were so low then too. Those were hard times.” Asked if he will ever retire he simply responds “All depends on our health. You never know. Things can change quick. I always believed in working with people and working for people. That got me a long piece. I am always quiet and would never scrap with them. You got to give in a little bit.”
In 2013 Cecil and his family were honoured by the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers’ Association at their annual Sumer Tour by being presented the Ontario Maple Syrup Award. On behalf of the Eastern Local of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers’ Association we wish Cecil and his family many more years of sugaring to come and thank him for his continuing 50 years of service to our group.