By CYNTHIA DRUMMOND / Sun Staff Writer
Tom Buck had been preparing for this for weeks. Over 100 people from several states and provinces in Canada were about to arrive at his Ashaway home to tour his maple syrup production operation, known locally as “Uncle Buck’s Sugar House.”
The tour was one of the activities organized for the joint annual meetings of the North American Maple Syrup Council and the International Maple Syrup Institute. Ninety percent of the world’s maple syrup is produced by members of one or both organizations. The convention, which attracted about 300 delegates, was held in Mystic Monday through Thursday.
Buck, who is a member of the Hopkinton Town Council but not running for reelection, is also the force behind the creation of the Rhode Island maple syrup producers’ association, which will hold its inaugural meeting Nov. 17.
“Six weeks,” Buck said of the time it took to prepare for this day. “I started to get things cleaned up and tried to get things put together with the old cars. I’m flattered to have this caliber of sugar makers come to my little old sugar house. Yeah, it’s a big deal to me.”
The tour was also a big deal for Jean Heinemann, who was across the street at the Seventh Day Adventist parish house, overseeing lunch preparations for the visitors. Heinemann, who joined the Ashaway Grange 57 years ago, is its oldest member, and no stranger to organizing big community suppers. But this time she would have to seat the guests in shifts, and besides, the buses were late and the huge pot of clam chowder that she had made for the occasion was starting to cool.
As she stood outside waiting with the other volunteers, she described the menu.
“We have Rhode Island chowder and then they’re having sandwiches, roast beef, turkey and seafood salad. They were supposed to be here at 11:30,” she said.
When the three large buses finally arrived an hour later, some of the visitors were invited to eat lunch while the rest walked over to the sugar house. Buck’s three antique cars sat outside, and a woman made fresh kettle corn to hand out to the guests, who hailed from as far away as Iowa and Ontario, Canada.
George Riordan and his wife. Jeanne-Mance. came from Pokeshaw, New Brunswick, Canada, and were having their first taste of Rhode Island chowder, which they pronounced delicious. The Riordans have been making syrup for 30 years, and this was the first time they had attended the NAMSC conference.
“New Brunswick is hosting the conference next year. I’m on the committee, so I thought I’d come down and have a look,” George said.
Robert Dubos of Chaplin, Conn., was one of the conference hosts.
“Because of where we’re located, they’re not a lot of sugar houses nearby and Uncle Buck invited us here,” he explained before turning his attention to Heinemann’s chowder and taking a big taste.
“This is what I grew up with,” he said with a smile.
Richard Norman is president of the International Maple Syrup Institute, one of the two groups that organized the convention. He says the market for maple products is growing, especially outside North America, and producers are expanding their operations to meet the demand.
“Basically, in the U.S. there’s a lot of expansion. A lot of people are upgrading. Even in Rhode Island, there’s a lot of them that are trying to upgrade, put out more taps. With the equipment today, you can do that with the same amount of work. The world market is growing,” he said.
On this last day of the convention, the guests had had their fill of technical sessions and business, and it was time to relax and enjoy the fall day.
“Thank you all for coming to my sugar house,” Buck told them as they crowded inside to look at his operation.
Buck explained that he had been making syrup since 1996, and that he had gotten creative when it came to new equipment.
“There’s a lot of Swamp Yankee ingenuity in this house. That’s an old paint mixer,” he said, pointing to a machine that he now uses to make maple candy.
As Buck continued to give tours and welcome guests, Heinemann was finally serving the last lunch shift.
“We didn’t expect to be rushed like this, but we kept up with it,” she said. “ Nobody’s had to wait for too long. This is the biggest one we’ve ever had at one time. I love to do it. I really do.”
JILL CONNOR / SunPhotos
Tom Buck, far right, owner of Uncle Buck’s Rhode Island Maple Syrup in Ashaway, entertains visitors Thursday.