A young boy learns how to tap a tree for sap at the Indian Creek Nature Center. Participants can learn about how maple syrup is made at the 30th Maple Syrup Festival in Cedar Rapids. (photo/Indian Creek Nature Center.)

A young boy learns how to tap a tree for sap at the Indian Creek Nature Center. Participants can learn about how maple syrup is made at the 30th Maple Syrup Festival in Cedar Rapids. (photo/Indian Creek Nature Center.)

CEDAR RAPIDS – Organizers hoped to attract 15 to 20 people when the Indian Creek Nature Center first offered a maple syrup workshop. More than 50 people attended that initial demonstration in 1979.

Several years later, Rich Patterson was seeking a replacement for one of the Nature Center’s major fundraisers when he hit upon the idea of a maple syrup festival.

“I really wanted to get rid of the Haunted Halloween Hikes because we were scaring people in the woods, rather than encouraging them to go in the woods,” said Patterson,  the center’s executive director. “(The Halloween hikes) were rough on staff and the land, and they weren’t educational.”

But the hikes made money.  Patterson said the idea of a maple syrup festival was more mission- and family-oriented and could also bring in income.

Patterson’s wife, Marion, came from a syruping family in New Hampshire.  Her father, Les Fellows, had been a commercial producer and acted as a resource and first sugarmaker for the Nature Center.

Juan Reynolds, owner of Reynolds Sugar Bush in Aniwa, Wisc., also served as a resource. Reynolds trekked to Cedar Rapids to lead a syruping workshop and the Nature Center bought syruping supplies from his company.

“Our system was simple,” Patterson said of the workshops that preceded the festival. They tapped a few trees with some spiles Fellows gave to Patterson.

“Our boiler was a Coleman Stove sitting on an old hayrack by the barn, and our container was a big pot,” he said. “Although the equipment was crude, attendance was so strong that we repeated the program each late winter, and attendance kept rising.”

With that success, the Nature Center’s board embraced the idea of the Maple Syrup Festival.  Members Ken DeKock, Bob Vancura, Maud Moore and Dave Kubicek helped plan and conduct the first event.

Vancura funded construction of a large stainless steel boiler.

“We propped it on cinder blocks south of the barn in the open air,” Patterson said.

Organizers also rented two large propane griddles and set them up in the south end of the auditorium.

“We struggled to cook fast enough, and the auditorium filled with the smoke of cooking sausage and pancakes,” Patterson said.

Les and Yvonne Fellows flew out from New Hampshire to help with the first festival.

Although in declining health, Les Fellows stayed at the boiler through the day and talked with hundreds of people as he tended the fire and boiling sap.

About 450 people attended that first festival.

“We had no clue how many people would attend and had no experience with food service for big crowds,” Patterson said, but fast-forward 30 years and the festival has grown into a popular and often-imitated venture.

Those first few years, the festival was only on Saturdays, but attendance grew so steeply that it expanded to a two-day event in 1986.

This year’s Maple Syrup Festival will be Saturday, March 2 and Sunday, March 3, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Patterson said between 1,600 and 2,200 people typically attend, depending on the weather. A pancake breakfast with real maple syrup is served, along with special activities.

Besides the Maple Syrup Festival’s 30th anniversary, the center also is marking its 40th year in Cedar Rapids in 2013. On Jan. 18, 1973, articles of incorporation were signed to legally create the organization as a non-profit.

With no staff, no budget, no program and no facility, the Indian Creek Nature Center has since grown to host more than 40,000 visitors annually at its site at 6665 Otis Rd. SE, in Cedar Rapids, with a staff of 12.

Syruping also has grown. Patterson said many county conservation boards followed the Nature Center’s lead and now hold syrup festivals.

In honor of the 30th anniversary, anyone celebrating their 30th birthday or 30th wedding anniversary this year will be admitted to the Maple Syrup Festival for free.

For others, advance tickets are available at $8 for adults and $4 for children 3-12. Tickets at the door are $10 for adults, $5 for children 3-12, children under 3 get in free.

Find more details here.

See information about the Indian Creek Nature Center at its website.