CHATHAM TWP. — It used to be that you knew it was Chatham VFW Sugar Bush time when you saw sap buckets hanging from every maple tree in town — including the telephone poles as a joke.
Now, you can tell it’s time for the annual all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast when you see out-of-towners lined up hours before the VFW hall’s doors open, waiting gladly in the cold and sometimes rain, for a taste of tradition.
Because when you sit down to a plate of pancakes and sausage here, you’re getting not just a meal, but a chance to experience the way things used to be — and still are — in communities like Chatham.
Rich Natterer and Ardra Klaehn pour hot maple liquid into forms. The funnels and some of the forms date back to the Packard family, who originated the pancake breakfast on its Chatham Township farm in 1939. (John Gladden / Gazette)
The pancake flour? Ground from wheat at a local mill. The maple syrup? Locally produced. The plates and silverware? Real, not plastic. The servers? Local volunteers. The money they raise? Supports the community.
In other words, it’s homemade. For the 1,800 or so diners who come every weekend in March to enjoy it, the breakfast is an annual rite of spring.
The tradition traces its roots back to Ernie and Sadie Packard, who began offering pancake dinners at their township farm in 1939.
“Thirty-five cents a meal,” said Bob Arters, who helped the Packards as a boy. “Any of us who lived here in the ’40s and ’50s walked up to the sugar bush to help collect sap.”
The Packards tapped some 8,000 trees and made up to 1,900 gallons of maple syrup, collecting sap in the woods with a mud sled and mules.
“Ernie was just a skinny, hard-working guy,” said Arters. “Sadie was an easygoing lady who just cooked and cooked and cooked.”
She had to, considering the Packards hosted nearly 600 hungry pancake eaters every weekend. The dinners were part of their farm income, as was the maple syrup, which sold for $1.50 per gallon in 1939. Today, it runs about $45 per gallon.
In 1962 when the Packards were ready to retire, Chatham VFW Post 6892 took over the dinners as a community fundraiser. It was an immense job for post members and their families — and it still is.
In addition to tapping every maple tree in town — and the telephone poles for publicity — they butchered up to eight hogs per weekend to make sausage. Future Farmers of America students from Cloverleaf High School tapped trees in Guilford Township and hauled the sap to Chatham for boiling. School groups from all over came for pancakes and a tour of the maple sugaring process.
When there was a big run of sap, workers like Arters stayed up all night to finish it into maple syrup, cooking a few hardboiled eggs in the sweet, bubbling sap for their meals.
“Then they’d go to work the next day!” said Loretta Arters, Bob’s wife.
The pancake mix comes from the same place it always has — the nearby Old Mill, where the VFW post’s commander, Norman Bistline, carries on the family tradition of making stone-ground flour.
By the early 1980s, the pancake breakfast had grown to the point where organizers turned to local producers for the maple syrup and sausage.
But it’s still a homemade affair. Virtually every group in the community lends a hand — from the church to the historical society to the fire department. Every weekend 40 to 50 volunteers turn out to help serve.
“The community helps or we wouldn’t be able to do it,” said Jeff Klaehn, the post’s quartermaster.
The VFW also sells Amish cheeses, pancake mix, syrup, maple candy and more. The money it raises through the pancake breakfast is returned to the community in support of youth sports, 4-H, veterans and those in need. The groups who help with the event bring in baked goods to sell to support their own community projects.
“Everything that comes in goes right back out,” Klaehn said.
Including plenty of satisfied pancake eaters.
“Nobody leaves hungry,” he added.
Contact John Gladden at email@example.com.