Princeton — For the diet-conscious, pouring real maple syrup on a stack of golden brown pancakes is a guilty pleasure. For Skillman resident Michael “Mike” Bernard Jr., it’s also an occasion to savor some sweet family memories, memories that were almost lost to the mists of time.
Bernard is the author of Sharetapper’s Son — A Memoir (Princeton University Press), the story of his quest to discover and document the unusual occupation of, as Bernard himself describes it, “the father I almost never knew I had.” The book is scheduled to debut in select bookstores in the Princeton area the first week of August.
To help launch the book’s publication, Mr. Bernard will read passages from Sharetapper’s Son — A Memoir and sign copies at a “Meet the Author” event sponsored by U.S.1. Details of the date, time and location were being finalized as this edition of U.S.1 went to press, and will be published in our next issue.
A Growing Curiosity
About three years ago, Bernard, 70, began to doggedly pursue a lifelong curiosity about his family history, particularly about his father, Mike Sr., who had separated from his wife, Tabitha, when Mike Jr. was a teenager in Hopewell. His father was rarely mentioned at family gatherings, and questions posed to relatives about his father were met with an uncomfortable silence.
“The reluctance on anyone’s part to talk about my father only made me more determined to find out his story,” Mike Jr. said. “I expected to one day learn that he had worked in a factory or a mill, a typical working-class hero like so many men in New Jersey at that time. That made my eventual discovery about his occupation surprising, even shocking.”
A Surprising, Even Shocking, Discovery
A revealing one-on-one conversation with an aunt about his father paid off in a way that was completely unexpected. “I had a feeling that Aunt Peg had the answers I had been looking for, and frankly I had made the trip to her home in West Windsor hoping that, away from any pressure from the rest of the family, she might be willing to share what she knew.”
Not only did she fill in many details about family life when Bernard’s father was around; a musty album of photos that Aunt Peg unearthed from an old trunk turned out to be a window on an occupation that up until that time had been completely unknown to Mike Jr. Unknown, in fact, to most everyone in the Garden State.
“Turns out my father had been a sharetapper,” Bernard said, “one of the last of a dying breed of men — and a few women — who for a time were the underpinnings of the then-booming maple syrup industry in Central New Jersey.”
A Lost Art
He went on to explain that, according to his aunt, sharetappers were something like a hybrid of sharecroppers and migrant workers, individuals and loosely organized teams of people highly skilled in the art of tapping maple trees, who extracted the maximum amount of sap in the shortest possible time and moved on.
“I had never heard of ‘sharetappers’ before,” Bernard said. “A Google search turned up a handful of hits, but all referred to itinerant rubber tree tappers in Malaysia.”
Coffee, a Nickname and Tall Tales
As evidenced by the photos, captions, and correspondence in his Aunt’s album, Bernard’s father plied his trade in the first-growth maple groves of the Sourlands that once stretched continuously from Lambertville to Mount Airy.
“Apparently the Glenmoor Diner at the old Penn’s Neck Circle just outside Princeton was a popular place for dad and his fellow sharetappers to congregate, swap tall tree tapping tales, and take advantage of the ‘bottomless’ ten cent cup of coffee the diner offered in those days,” he said.
It also turned out that his father was something of a legend among his peers, Bernard related. “Dad was given the name ‘Two-Tap’, because of a highly productive technique he developed for double tapping a maple tree,” he explained.
Apparently no one was able to able to replicate his special technique. “For a number of years he had more work than he could handle,” Bernard said, “and he was pretty stubborn and refused to share his tree tapping secret. I guess that’s where my stubbornness comes from.”
A Tap Too Far
Bernard’s aunt related a story, perhaps apocryphal, about his father from his sharetapper days that has quietly circulated among family members for years. According to the story, one morning it was Mike Sr.’s misfortune to double-tap a mammoth maple that, as fate would have it, had been a hair’s breadth from the bursting point.
The pressure released from this sturdy deciduous specimen sent the tap hurtling toward Mike Senior at a phenomenal pace. Fortunately for ‘Two-Tap’, the missile missed him completely, although his left ear was said to have suffered severe wind burn from the speed and proximity of its passing.
Less fortunately, so the story goes, the tap passed through several thousand other maples in a similar condition before coming to rest, causing copious jets of sap to spray in every direction, completely flooding a little valley below.
“Today, I suspect that most of the nature lovers who walk along Amwell Lake in this still-bucolic part of the state are completely unaware of the horrific turn of events that earned it the name ‘Sticky Lake’ among the locals once upon a time,” Bernard chuckled.
End of an Era
The era of the sharetapper ended around 1970, according to Bernard’s research, as, sadly, did the whereabouts of his father. “Innovations in digital sap extraction technology obviated the need for sharetappers,” said Dr. Samuel A. Pritchett, curator of the Maple Sugaring Archive in the Special Collections division of the Firestone Library at Princeton University, and a contributor to Bernard’s book.
“Most drifted to other trades, often in other states,” Dr. Pritchett continued. “In the course of writing his memoir, I’m pleased that Mr. Bernard’s book will also serve to bring these unsung heroes of the New Jersey maple syrup industry to the attention of the general public.”
“Unearthing the stories and photos of my dad have made every minute that I’ve put into researching this book worthwhile,” Bernard said, “and each time I pour some New Jersey Grade A on a waffle, I feel that I know him just a little bit better.”
George Point is a freelance writer based in Lawrenceville and a frequent contributor to the Summer Fiction issue.