Route 66 Series: Funk’s Maple Sirup (That’s No Typo)
We weren’t that far down the Route 66 when I saw the entry in our guide book. “Funk’s Maple Sirup.” I giggled to myself, thinking it must be a typo. But as I read a bit more about this lovely-sounding place, I realized two things. One – the spelling was intentional, a small nod to the woman who preserved her heavenly maple farmland for generations to come. Two – this place had homemade maple candy for sale.
My husband whipped the car off the main highway and onto a windy road far back in the trees. I confess I grew apprehensive when we passed an isolated, abandoned, and very creepy-looking country store – the perfect place for a horror movie to unfold. Just how badly did I want to try maple candy for the first time? Pretty darn bad I guess, since we kept on going.
Luckily, within a few moments, we safely pulled into a small grove with gorgeous shade-trees, brightly-colored rocking chairs, a pretty little shop with a wooden porch, and windows slapped everywhere with Route 66 stickers. It had the appearance of an antique post card come to life, a scene that beckoned from a whole other era. Maybe because it has been there for a century and a half. The first Funk family members found their way to this beautiful grove well before the Civil War (and you guys know how much I looooove talking about the Civil War).
Isaac Funk, the pioneer patriarch of the future Sirup dynasty, settled down with his young family at the grove sometime in 1824. It’s easy to see why he picked the place, especially thinking in 1800s terms. The soil is fantastic, there’s plenty of bubbling streams nearby, and enough timber to build a house and keep it warm during the winter. However, Funk the First didn’t have sticky, brown goodness on his mind when he plopped his stakes into the ground. He had already made a name for himself in herding livestock. Such a name that he eventually served in the Illinois Senate, where he met and made friends with this tall, gangly fellow named Lincoln. As it happened, that stovepipe hat became a force to reckoned with, and when Lincoln ran for the White House, Isaac Funk was one of his biggest supporters.
While Isaac worked at the Senate, his sons took over the farm and began experimenting with the delightful sap dripping from the nearby maple trees. They had no intentions of selling it yet, but they certainly enjoyed cooking it up and using it as sweetener on their food. It wasn’t until Isaac’s youngest son, Isaac II, took over the farm in 1860 that syrup production became a major part of Funk’s Grove operations.
Unfortunately, around the same time, people lost interest in syrup because of some little skirmish known as the Civil War. Funk boys across the grove put their sugar aspirations on hold, donning the Union blue for a long and bloody four years. It is quite fortunate, considering the horrific nature of that conflict, that no Funk sons lost their lives in the fighting. When it was over, they returned to their peaceful little grove and went right back to syrup as if nothing had even pulled them away.
Perhaps after such a bitter four years, everyone was in the mood for something sweet. When the Funks started selling pure maple syrup from their porch in the late 1800s, it took off like a shot. By 1891, they had enough money for Isaac II’s son Arthur to open the first commercial maple syrup farm on the grove. He also modernized the syrup-cooking process, trading in the wooden taps for metal ones and erecting an official cooking house on the site. When Arthur’s brother Lawrence took over in 1896, Funk’s Maple Grove could pump out over 1,000 buckets of syrup.
The Funk boys did a pretty bang up job making the grove a landmark, but it was actually Hazel Funk Holmes, a cousin of Arthur and Lawrence, who made the place a permanent fixture when she took over in the 1920s. Since she lived out east, she rented the Grove to professional farmers, who took the syrup products to the next level. She had a new sugar house constructed, and she also implemented more modernization in the harvesting and cooking processes. After she was done, Funk’s Grove syrup farmers were pumping 240 GALLONS of syrup from those trees every year.
With Hazel’s help and many others, Funk’s Maple Syrup became a staple sweetener, just in time for Route 66 to finish construction right near the property. Still not finished carving the Funk legacy, Hazel ensured the place would live forever in her will, when she deeded the property to a trust that would protect it from development and land grabbers – keeping the maples and their sweet syrup safe for generations to come. As a final flourish, she also insisted that henceforth, Funk “Sirup” would be spelled with an “i,” to set them apart from all the cheap knock offs that had begun to flood the market.
Yes, things were looking pretty good for Funk’s Grove, until war came knocking again in the 1940s. This time it was World War II (Civil War and WWII talk in one post – lucky me!). With the war came rationing, and sugar taxes sky rocketed. Funk’s Maple Grove suffered as a result, especially when more Funk boys left the farm to join the fight.
One of these was Stephen Funk, son of former owner Lawrence and his wife. Stephen became a fighter pilot in the war, and when he came home, thankfully alive and in one piece, he and his wife Glaida took over Funk’s Grove. They had five children and turned the place into a power house for that brown goo we all love. Through the 1950s and 60s, Stephen brought the grove up to speed for the thriving, post-war era. He dispensed with the cumbersome above-ground sap evaporating equipment and had the first underground cistern installed. He also converted all the wood-burning heating stoves to oil, which smoothened and quickened the pace of production. But despite all the modernization, one thing never changed. He still sold every bottle of sirup directly off their charming, old-fashioned back porch.
Things went sweeter than syrup for a good few years, but then another fight started brewing, this time with the forces of development. When construction began on Interstate 55 in the 1970s, it created a big stir in the Funk household. The proposed route would cut right through their precious timber. Not to mention Route 66 had become a vital lifeline for customers. The Funks once again donned their fighting gear, and successfully petitioned to keep the new interstate out of their gorgeous maples. Once they won that battle, they rallied their advertising forces to get hurried, interstate travelers into their Grove, tempting them with a dip of sirup and some maple candy.
Although the Interstate did take a hefty load of their business away, their advertising efforts paid off and brought some traffic from the busy I-55. Not a ton, but enough to keep the sap buckets hanging and the syrup cooking. In 1988, Stephen Funk retired, leaving the business to his children. They still run the place today, where a Route 66 revival has brought them all kinds of new and curious customers. And still, even in these harried, crazy times, you can buy that fresh “sirup” right off their cozy porch. But you can also purchase it at their website, as long as supplies for the season last. Which is no-doubt a God send in these times of Covid.
So what did I learn at Funk’s Maple Grove, other than the colorful history of dedicated Funks catering to decades’ worth of sugar cravings? Well, for one thing, I learned the delights of Maple Candy. I had actually never tried it before I stopped there. I only got four pieces, but don’t you worry –that was plenty for a sugar high that kept me bouncing off the walls all day.
The other thing I learned is quite simple. In these terribly turbulent times, where it seems like everything is changing, it felt nice to see something that hadn’t changed all that much since 1824. Sure, the process of making Sirup has been modernized for convenience and safety. The buildings have had their fair share of repairs and upkeep. But the sales portion hasn’t changed at all. Funks still hand you bottles of Sirup the same way they always have, on their homey front porch with a friendly smile. The whole thing made me slow down and appreciate the little things a bit more. Like what a friendly “sirup” maker and a piece of maple candy can do for you.
As this was one of our first stops on the 66, we weren’t that familiar with the laid back routine yet, but I got my first taste of it on the porch at Funk’s Grove. Sitting in one of those brightly colored rocking chairs, I took a deep breath of the fresh air. I felt something wash over me. A calm and a stillness. I took a minute to admire the way the golden sunlight beamed into the maple trees. I watched a few happy customers walk out of the shop with their own candy and sirup. It was then that I remembered we weren’t in a hurry. We could slow down and really take it in. “We’re here,” I said to myself. “We’re on the Route 66. We’re doing this. Enjoy it.”
Not a bad lesson to apply to life, either. With everything going on, it’s quite easy to forget to stop and take a breath. Count the little blessings, no matter how hard they are to find sometimes. Enjoy the sun beaming through the trees, stop and smell the maple sirup, and don’t forget to smile. We’re here. We’re doing this. And we’ll find our way down the road.
Route 66 Road Trip
Visit to Funk’s Grove, Illinois
The Illustrated Route 66 Historical Atlas – J. Hinckley
Route 66: The Mother Road – M. Wallis
All photos by M.B. Henry, except my husband snapped the final one for me – Fall Leaves photos were taken off site. Click Here for more Route 66 photos, and Here for more fall colors. Happy fall ya’all.
AND A SPECIAL WRITING ANNOUNCEMENT: After a crazy querying journey of many ups and downs, I’ve signed with a literary agent (Lindsay Guzzardo at Martin Literary Management)! This is very exciting news, and means I am one big step closer to getting my book(s) out there in the world for you to read. I will keep you updated as things develop. For those of you out there querying agents – NEVER give up! It will happen when you LEAST suspect it… 🙂