Calvin Gilbertson, the grandson of Bernt Gilbertson, described to me how his grandfather, who came to Canada from Norway as a boy, started Gilbertson Maple Products, back in 1936. “My grandfather would tap the trees and use buckets to catch the sap. He would bring it back to the sugar shack and boil it down to make syrup. He soon saw an opportunity to expand and market his product.
Local neighbours would come out and want to purchase the syrup and see the operation, so my grandmother Rose, would welcome them into their home and serve pancakes and home baking.” Gilbertson’s Maple Products was born. “This went on for several years before the family decided they should have a separate building for the sugar shack/pancake house because the crowds of friends and local community members were getting too big for their home.”
Three and four generations later, the Gilbertson family has a modern processing facility and attached pancake house. It’s a significant tourist destination on St. Joseph Island, which is on the north shore of Lake Huron and about 30 minutes east of Sault Ste. Marie.
Calvin, along with his brother Brent and their children, has further expanded the Gilbertson Maple product business and is now the largest maple syrup producer in Algoma and one of the biggest in Ontario. With forty thousand taps that span over five hundred acres. “It takes many hands to tap and maintain the maple sugar bush and operations. We begin work in January of each year and work until the end of the season, in May,” said Calvin. “While we are operating in peak season, there are over thirty-five employees working in the bush, at the sugar shack, in the store and in the pancake house.”
Using modern technology and efficient techniques, the Gilbertson's have gone from buckets to pipelines, metal spiles to plastic and moving the mainline pipes from above to underground. Instead of relying on gravity flow, to vacuum systems, thermometers to refractometers and from wood boiling to steam in two large stainless-steel evaporators.
The sap lines are carefully mapped out over the five hundred acres with hundreds of kilometres of tubing. Each group of lines is outfitted with smart technology where if a line breaks or is chewed through by a squirrel, the spot can be monitored and tracked automatically, then a staff member can head out and repair the problem right away instead of losing precious time and of course, sap. “We are always updating and looking for ways to be efficient in our production facility”, said Calvin.
“While much of our maple products are sold through our in-house operations, most of the syrup we make is sold in bulk to maple distributors worldwide”, explained Calvin.
For the 2022 season, the pancake house will not be open, but the adjoining retail store will be, as well as a variety of maple products available online and sold through area retailers including No Frills, Pino’s and Rome’s Independent Grocers in the Sault. Some of the value-added items available include Maple Syrup in a variety of sized containers and grades, along with maple candy and butter, as well as a line of “Maple Signature” gourmet maple products for BBQ season.
Calvin told me they really miss having the crowds of visitors out to the sugar bush, giving tours, experiencing the walking trails, enjoying the pancakes and other menu items in their beautiful post and beam-built dining room. “We are looking forward to opening our on-site store, and hopefully the pancake house next season.”
Despite the challenges of the maple syrup business, from a recent wind storm knocking over 1000 trees to Covid-19 restrictions, the Gilbertson's are persevering to keep the family tradition alive and thriving.
Maple syrup Recipes
If you’re looking for some new recipes for your maple syrup, check out a nice list on Gilbertson's Maple Products website.