by Pauline E. Burnes, PLA

In Short Tract, NY, you’ll find Cartwright’s Maple Tree Inn, owned and operated by the Cartwright family. It’s open this year between Feb. 8 and April 10. The Cartwright family serves all you can eat buckwheat pancakes and pure maple syrup produced on the property. State forests and wildlife areas provide a rural atmosphere in the heart of Allegany County. On a slow day, the Cartwrights serve 300 customers. On a busier day, the number visiting the restaurant can reach 1,000.

Founded in 1963 by dairy owners Ronald and Virginia Cartwright, the original version of the restaurant was built by Ron, who planned a way to market their maple products locally. When Ron was hammering in shingles, curious neighbor Milton Roof stopped and asked what Ron was building. Ron’s replied, “I’m building a pancake house, and people will come from all over the world to eat here!” Milton enjoyed telling neighbors about Ron’s fantastic claim.

It was a lofty goal, but 60 years later Ron’s prophecy has become reality. Visitors have come from Germany and Japan. The original pancake house seated 15 people with one grill, a lunch counter with chairs and two booths. Over the years, the Maple Tree Inn has been remodeled and expanded to add more seating, grills, a covered walkway and expanded parking lot. All of the buildings, minus the waiting area for customers, were built by the Cartwright family.

The maple production story started when Jacob Closser, Ron’s great-great-grandfather, began producing maple syrup in the 1850s with seven small evaporators. The maple syrup was made into sugar cakes and peddled nearby.

In 1913, Austin Cartwright, Ron’s grandfather, bought the farm and sugarbush to continue the family tradition of producing quality maple syrup. In 1933, Austin and his wife Grace took on an added challenge. Ron’s father Lavergne Cartwright died suddenly from a heart attack at the age of 28. Only months after giving birth, Lavergne’s 28-year-old wife Margaret died. This left four orphaned grandchildren all under the age of seven. Ron, his brother Clarence and his two sisters Eileen and Norma went to live with Austin and Grace. Grandfather Austin, along with the young lads Ronald and Clarence, maintained a small sugar shack on the farm which burned in 1937. They then built another one which the brothers continued to operate after their grandfather died in 1961. As fate would have it, that shack also burned in 1962.

Keeping a family tradition alive

Will Emmons checks the reverse osmosis equipment for sap sugar content with a refractometer. Photo by Pauline E. Burnes

Undaunted by these setbacks, Ron still wanted to continue producing maple syrup. Ron and Virginia, whom he married in 1949, decided to build another sugar shack in 1963. However, this one was going to be different. They discussed the visionary idea of building a restaurant where they could serve pancakes just like the ones Ron’s grandmother used to make. In addition to using the pure maple syrup at the pancake house, they could market their syrup and products to the public instead of selling it in bulk. Thus, the Maple Tree Inn was born.

Since the restaurant began, there has never been a shortage of helping hands. Ron and Virginia had six children: Dale, Brenda, Dewight, Kenny, LaVergne and Rhonda. Life was kept hectic with running the restaurant, managing a large dairy farm and attending school activities.

LaVergne Cartwright retired from the dairy business three years ago, but not from maple production and the Maple Tree Inn. Rhonda and LaVergne’s wife Deneise work non-stop flipping pancakes and serving tables. LaVergne makes the maple sugar candy, maple crème and maple-coated peanuts and does other duties as assigned. Customers can buy syrup, candy and other Maple Tree Inn products at the checkout counter. The maple syrup and other products are sold during the year by telephone orders. One of the unique features of the restaurant is the ability for customers and their children to go downstairs and view the maple syrup production operation.

Ron’s nephew Will Emmons, an electrician by trade, is instrumental in overseeing the production of the maple syrup. Will and other family members place over 10,000 taps in the trees each year. Installing taps starts around Jan. 1. Many miles of sap lines in the woods need to be checked on a regular basis throughout the year for damage from various causes including deer, downed trees, fallen limbs and rodents.

A high vacuum system is used on sap lines which need a minimum grade of 2%. More grade is better, allowing the sap to flow from the maple trees through the lines to a pump house, where it then goes to a tanker truck. The truck transports the sap to the main processing building, which is connected to the Maple Tree Inn. The sap is sent from the truck by line to two 4,500-gallon stainless steel holding tanks.

The sap is filtered and goes through a reverse osmosis process. When the reverse osmosis phase is complete, the sap goes to a 2,100-gallon stainless steel holding tank from which it is sent to an evaporator. The Cartwrights use fuel oil as a heat source for the stainless steel evaporator, which has a pre-heater to warm the sap prior to boiling, uses less fuel and runs more efficiently in the final phase of producing maple syrup.

Although there are many challenges to producing maple syrup and running a seasonal restaurant, the Cartwright family plans to continue the family tradition established with the founding of Cartwright’s Maple Tree Inn in 1963. Just as maple trees have branches and roots, all branches of the Cartwright family tree and multiple generations are rooted in this unique way to market their high quality maple products.