By Scott Hall
Pleasant Hill Outdoor Camp was once a private farm in northeast Ohio with some unusually steep, forested hills at the south shores of Pleasant Hill Lake. It was gifted to the nearby Presbyterian churches (Wooster Presbytery) in the 1950s, and provided numerous children with memorable summer camping experiences through the 1980s.
The camp alumni remember swimming in the lake as well as roaming the beautiful hillsides of large trees that included numerous maples.
As the camp fell on hard times in the 1990s, there was a strong interest in selling the property, but a small core of alumni negotiated a leasing agreement to run the camp as an independent, non-profit, non-denominational, Christian summer camp.
The effort to reestablish the camp after years of decline took creative thinking from multiple sources. It required an experienced camp director as well as capital funds, volunteers, donors, and, of course, a revitalized constituency.
A very mature forest offered selective cutting opportunities that could raise significant capital funds while maintaining the camp’s natural appeal. An abundance of maple trees offered another unique and special opportunity--the production and sale of pure maple syrup as a camp product to help support operations.
With this natural resource available, Dick Wiles and his wife, Betty Jo, new and energetic members of the Board of Trustees, started attending maple-syrup schools sponsored by Ohio State University Extension to learn how to produce a quality product.
Dick observed how other producers capitalized on hillsides and plastic piping to connect the tree taps to an evaporator at the bottom of the hill. They also learned how to achieve a quality product by carefully controlling heat to avoid scorching, how to minimize bacteria growth in the lines, and how to filter and grade the final product.
When it came to equipment, Dick knew that the camp could not yet support the purchase of a stainless-steel evaporator system, especially when his ideas for large-scale maple-syrup production were still somewhat overwhelming. But when they shared their ideas with friends to build an evaporator for the camp, they soon found scrap stainless-steel materials and skilled welders to build their own wood-fired, continuous-flow evaporator system.
And Dick soon discovered that a few of these enthusiastic builders happened to be camp alumni, who wanted to see their old camp thrive again!
A relatively small investment in taps and piping kept the project going in the first year. Tapping trees in February soon became a yearly outing for some families and emerging alumni. Installing two plastic taps per tree, using battery-powered drills, mallets, and tough fingers to connect the cold piping, was a great family activity shared by kids and parents on winter outings.
Trudging through the snow was not as easy for Dick and Betty Jo, however, until someone found and donated an old John Deere Gator to their mission.
As the first couple of years passed, Dick and his growing team of volunteers learned that a vacuum pump could keep the lines cleaner and greatly improve sap flow during freezing weather. Soon after, a local dairy farmer and alumnus of the camp donated a large vacuum pump that Dick could modify to keep the lines clear, and also pull more sap from the trees!
A Numbers Game
Maple-syrup production and camp marketing are both “numbers games.” It can take numerous contacts to generate a single sale; similarly, it takes about 45 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of finished syrup.
Each gallon can be bottled into units of 8 pints, or 4 quarts, etc. It was discovered early on that each delicious bottle could also have a label or hang tag with the camp logo, address, and website. So each unit of syrup sold like a brochure for Christian camping at Pleasant Hill.
Because of the syrup’s quality, customers not only kept coming back for more, but spread the word about the syrup and the camp to friends and family. Interestingly, the camp eventually developed a fine reputation, not only for quality maple syrup, but also for quality programs and staff members.
As both programs continued to grow, more volunteers and alumni began to buy into the camp. Eventually, enough alumni and donors came on board to fund and build a permanent home for a “sugar barn.” Using onsite timber and the assistance of some Amish barn craftsmen, more than 30 volunteers joined in on a barn-raising for the maple-syrup program!
Soon after, one alumnus who heard about the project emerged and donated all of the necessary funds to build a large wood shed, which was constructed by the same Amish crew.
Spring 2011 was the highest production year ever, with over 300 gallons of syrup from about 300 trees, generating significant income. While a small amount of the production is used by the camp’s kitchen and food service, large quantities are sold to some of the Presbyterian congregants and other alumni who have had long-term connections to the camp.
Some camp volunteers over the years have even developed a customer and distribution base through the area’s Farmer’s Market. This type of market has proven to be real opportunities for summer camping interest and promotion. Quantities large and small, bought by our customers for gifts each holiday, are yet other potential customers for Christian camping at Pleasant Hill, and end users are exposed to the website address, where more can be learned about the camps.
What began as an idea to supply the camp with a few extra operating dollars has blossomed into much more, serving as a rallying point for many alumni who have rediscovered their love for the camp and the memories of summer days gone by. The camp’s director and staff have worked hard to reestablish this proud program.
Each bottle of syrup serves an important and unique role in revitalizing the camp’s heritage. We sometimes just refer to it as “liquid gold.”
Scott Hall is the executive director Pleasant Hill Outdoor Camp in Perrysville, Ohio. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.