Mischicot — In the course of 150 years, a family’s story changes. That rule applies to the Siehr family, who came to Manitowoc County to run a dairy farm but whose mission evolved into something a little sweeter than milk as the farm passed through generations.
Today, the Siehrs run Hilltop Maple Syrup Camp, where they produce the tasty golden liquid as a hobby for their friends, family and neighbors.
In August, current owners Michael and Sandra received designation as a Sesquicentennial (150-year-old) Wisconsin Farm from the Wisconsin State Fair.
From the beginning
The Siehr family’s story begins May 9, 1866, when Henry Siehr, son of a German immigrant, purchased forested property outside Mishicot. He was the earliest settler to the road now named after the family.
Henry worked hard to clear and begin farming the land before he started milking a few dairy cows to provide for the family that would come to tend the farm property for 150 more years. Michael and Sandra now live across the road from where the original house was built by Henry.
The Siehr farmstead changed a little when Henry’s son Nicholas and his wife Magdalena purchased a 60-acre piece of the family land from Henry in 1893. They started up their own adventure across the road, building the current house, granary, stable and barn.
Over time, Nicholas purchased more property to eventually own 100 acres, while his brother worked the property where the original Siehr house was.
Nicholas worked until he was operating a small dairy farm with about 35-40 cows. He and Magdalena owned pigs and chickens, grew a large vegetable garden and tended to an apple orchard.
“They canned just about everything, and stored everything else,” Michael Siehr, current farm owner, said. “They only had to go to the store about once a month for basic supplies.”
Michael recently cut down the last of the Mcintosh apple trees, likely planted by his great grandfather.
“It’s a comfort knowing all of the history on the farm didn’t happen on its own,” Michael said. “It came from a lot of hard work.”
Nicholas was known to dig his own field trenches to lay drainage tile by hand. The family also split wood with a two-man saw and bundled it to sell at churches and taverns to make a few extra dollars.
Work starts to change
However, the work started to change on the Siehr farm during when the family started to tap trees and run sap for making maple syrup for themselves.
Nicholas’s son Clarence and his wife Loretta Siehr purchased the land on Sept. 13, 1934. Clarence was the one to start the maple syrup business in 1945, Hilltop Maple Syrup Camp. This was a way for the farm to diversify, and so continued a family tradition that would last for years to come.
Clarence saw to it that the syrup system would expand, more trees would be tapped and the whole family would stay involved in production.
While milking their herd of cows year-round, every spring would bring about syrup season. At the most, the Siehrs collected sap from 1,000 taps. Michael and his older siblings John and Mary Ann each helped their parents make maple syrup, collecting the sap with a horse and sleigh and cutting wood to fire the evaporators.
“I always remember riding on our wagon through the woods and only hearing the clang of the horses and the swish of the snow,” Michael said. “I rode on the back of the wagon and tracked my boots through the path as we rode along.”
In 1964, the Siehrs sold their cows when Michael joined the Navy. The family cash cropped for more than a decade and are now renting the farmland to neighboring farmers.
After Michael came home from his time in the Navy in 1966, he had been working at a metal shop where he learned about stainless steel. He had the opportunity to create new stainless steel pans to cook the maple syrup in.
Syrup legacy continues
Michael, the great grandson of Henry, and Sandra took over the property on Dec. 16, 1977, and have been carrying on the longheld maple syrup legacy ever since.
After Clarence sold the land, he kept 1 acre in the woods where he lived.
“He would always help with syrup season, and he would be the one to monitor the woods,” Michael said.
Clarence passed away at age 88 in the 1990s.
As the season starts to come around, Michael watches three different weather satellites to get the best estimation about when to start tapping. In contrast, when he sees the mayflowers start to pop, that means it’s time to take the collection bags down.
“It’s all about getting out in the spring, because you can truly experience the season starting,” Michael said. “In the beginning, there is total silence, and by the time sap is collected, the birds are moving in and the flowers are starting to bloom.”
Michael and Sandra’s children, Sarah, Gabriel and Laura, took on the task of helping their parents in the woods when they were younger. Now grown and living outside of Manitowoc, they make it a point to come home during collection season, and they are always promoting their parents' business.
“They know when it’s the busy time, and if they can, they are here,” Sandra said. “They know what to do in the woods.”
Now, they average 750 taps each season, and consider it a hobby. The weather-dependent activity fills up the Siehrs' spring, and since they each work full-time jobs off the farm, they typically save their vacation for the early part of the year.
Since the Siehrs have more than 70 years of maple syrup-making experience, they find themselves giving tips to others who are getting into the hobby.
“We have been adapting our system year after year, and we have a few tips to offer,” Sandra said. “We’re always happy to help.”
Maple syrup has found its way into the Siehrs' kitchen as well. Sandra uses the natural sweetener as a substitute for sugar and in a number of recipes. One of the family's favorite treats are maple syrup sundaes.
“It’s natural, it’s not refined and not bleached, so I like to use it in a lot of regular recipes,” Sandra said.
Their syrup is sold either directly from their home or is sold at some local markets, including Manitowoc Piggly Wiggly, Konop Meats, Krohn Dairy Products and The Hearty Olive.
As for the farm turning 150 years old, the Siehrs are proud to still be running what their ancestors started. From milking dairy cows to growing crops and making syrup, this farm is a quintessential description of Wisconsin agriculture: diverse.
As Sandra noted, “It’s very special for us to meet this milestone.”