WESTVILLE — Anyone walking into the small shed deep within Forest Glen Preserve would immediately expect to smell smoke, as white, translucent clouds roll off the metal table.
Instead, a sweet aroma greets visitors — the sweet smell of pancakes.
It’s the atmosphere Jerry Leahy works in for about a month each year as one of four Forest Glen employees who handle the daily task of creating the park’s maple syrup.
“There’s nothing that smells like it,” said Leahy, standing over a shallow pan filled with rolling, bubbling tree sap.
Set up in a shed dubbed the Sugar Bush, Leahy and others work throughout February and March turning sap from hundreds of sugar maple trees to the dark-colored syrup people enjoy on pancakes and waffles. Buckets hanging from taps in sugar maple trees throughout the park collect the sap.
The process is more than just another job for the Forest Glen personnel, who have turned the process into an educational opportunity for local schoolchildren. Buses bring kids ranging from first through eighth grade out to the site, where they observe the work from beginning to end and get to taste the final product.
Young or old, the process is a little confounding for first-timers who are used to getting their syrup in plastic bottles at the grocery store.
“People who have never seen it go ‘What are those buckets on those trees?’” Leahy said, laughing. “I say, ‘We’re milking the trees.’ I mean, they have no idea what that’s about.”
A process that dates back to the early Native Americans has become a long-standing tradition for Forest Glen Preserve personnel, so much so that the park is the third biggest producer of natural maple syrup in central Illinois. Funk’s Grove in Shirley, southwest of Bloomington-Normal, is the top producer.