When Jeremy Whipple was 10 years old, his uncles, Robert and Richard Hayward, took him and his cousins down to the sugar shack on the Mashantucket Pequot reservation to show them how to make maple syrup. Uncle Richard “Skip” Hayward, the Tribal chairman at the time, launched and ran the operation for nearly a decade. He made a little money for the Tribe, selling bottles of the sweet stuff at the pizza parlor on the reservation. But mostly, making syrup was intended to be a cultural activity that brought Tribal families together.
After Mashantucket Pequot High Stakes Bingo opened in 1986, and Foxwoods Resort and Casino was launched in 1992, the Pequot Tribe turned its attention to further developing what is widely respected today as one of the largest, most successful resort casinos in North America. Making maple syrup was no longer on the radar, an activity from a bygone era. And the sugar shack fell into shambles.
But that sweet childhood memory of tapping trees and turning sap into delicious maple syrup stuck with Jeremy, now 36 and the transportation and project manager in the tribe’s Public Works Department. “I never lost interest in it,” he says.
So in 2010, Jeremy brought the sugar shack back to life with the help of his sister-in-law, Crystal Whipple, Tribal vice chairwoman and chair of the Historical Cultural Preservation Committee, where Jeremy also serves. “We started raising money, doing pancake breakfasts and selling T-shirts,” Jeremy recalls their early efforts to resurrect the sugar shack. “We raised about $7,000, which was enough to build a new foundation and floor.”
Jeremy’s vision was to use the sugar shack as a “cultural education tool” to teach children in the community, from pre-school to high school, about the longstanding tradition of making maple syrup using the natural resources on the reservation. “I started teaching the kids how to tap the maple trees and put up the buckets,” like his uncles taught him so many years ago.
At the same time, the Tribe saw long-term revenue potential. “The bigger picture, as we saw it, was how can we make the sugar shack a profit center eventually for the Tribe and not lose the cultural aspect of bringing the community together?” shares Crystal.
Today, thanks in large part to Jeremy’s driving force, equipment grants from the government, and support from the Tribe — “We support Jeremy wholeheartedly,” says Crystal — the sugar shack is back. It’s a humming, buzzing, thriving syrup-making operation on nine acres of Tribal land, pumping out about 150 gallons of delicious Mashantucket Maple Syrup every year. “We have 4,000 taps right now in maple trees surrounding the sugar shack. But we hope to go to 10,000 taps soon,” says Jeremy of plans to expand sap extraction to trees growing on 19 acres of a golf course on Tribally owned land.
The determined entrepreneur has faced many challenges in reviving the sugar shack ― namely, updating decades-old equipment. A $50,000 grant from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and a generous $30,000 contribution from the Pequot Tribe helped purchase a new filter press, an evaporator, two 1,200-gallon tanks, one 800-gallon tank, new tubing and tapping equipment, and his pride and joy — a reverse osmosis machine.
“It cuts cooking time from eight hours to two hours. So, we can make 10 gallons of maple syrup every two hours now,” Jeremy says, thrilled by the increased production.
So, how does Mashantucket Maple Syrup taste? “Oh, it is unbelievable! It’s not like Aunt Jemima.” Crystal explains that it is light, not heavy like store-bought syrups.
As of now, the Tribe sells the syrup at the Pequot Outpost, a gas station and convenience store on the reservation. Prices range from $8 for a 4 oz. bottle to $25 for a 16 oz. bottle. It is also used at one of Foxwoods’ many restaurants. Plans are to sell the syrup off the reservation sometime in 2019, likely at local grocery stores. And Jeremy envisions making maple candy and maple cream in a few years as well, to “create even more economic opportunity for the Tribe.”
“I think what Jeremy has built here is really beautiful,” Crystal applauds the sugar shack revival. “The younger generations absolutely love it. They get to see from start to finish how to produce maple syrup and it really gives them a sense of pride about their culture.” She adds that the Tribal Council will continue to support the revitalization of the sugar shack “so that our family and greater community can continue to enjoy a cultural pastime that we all value.”
And preserving the Pequot culture is what Jeremy is so passionate about. “It means a lot to me, but it means even more to the kids because they will have something to pass on, just like I am passing on this tradition to them, and like my uncles passed on to me.”