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“Every human being should do everything they can in the sphere of their influence to help humanity.” That’s the motto that Sugar Shack owner Gail Black lives by. And it’s because her friends lived by it too, that the Sugar Shack was opened 23 years ago.
Guarded by fields of grapevines in front, and the cliffs above Lake Erie behind, the Sugar Shack is a cozy country store with 31 different kinds of fruit syrup. “If it’s a fruit and I discover it growing here, I make a syrup,” Gail explained.
She’s got strawberry and apple, pumpkin and cherry. But those are just the basics. She makes mint pear syrup, wild currant raspberry, and blueberry butter, with a hint of cinnamon. Classic and creative, Gail had been making syrup in her home for years before the idea to sell it was even brought up.
The story goes back a long ways to how Gail ended up at her farm on Route 5 above Lake Erie. She bought the farm for $9000 after an escape from an abusive relationship, and she and her son moved in. Gail was a grape farmer; in her spare time she used her grandmother’s recipes, along with a bit of experimentation, to make a couple different kinds of syrup for her family.
Gail’s fiery, yet warm personality has won the hearts of the thousands of visitors who stop by the Sugar Shack each year. “They’re driving down the NY State Thruway, they see my attraction sign, and they get off,” Gail explained. Each year she keeps a map to mark where the visitors come from. Travellers place a star sticker over their home state or country. Twenty-three of these maps hang on the wall, flaunting stars from all over the world. “Just in the last two weeks,” Gail pointed out, “I got these stars from Perm and Korea.”
Books of letters from newly made friends and recurrent visitors show the impact Gail has made in her customer’s lives. She doesn’t just sell them her syrup, she befriends them. She gives them a tour of the farm, teaches them how her products are made, gets to know them, and leaves a spark of inspiration in their lives.
Yet none of this would have been, save for a hard-fought battle against a paper mill in 1993. The company wanted to build a mill just up the street from Gail’s little farm. The fumes and waste from the factory would have contaminated the lake and wiped out all the grape farms within a 10-mile radius. Gail fought them with everything she had, and after four years, the fight was over and the grape farms were left in peace. But Gail was not.
“After this was all over, I was out there throwing wood in that little wood fired evaporator, madder than the dickens, just taking out my temper on that,” Gail recalled. The struggle had left her hardened and angry.
“One of the people who helped with the project walked in the door,” she said. And he gave her a profound piece of advice: “You need to get over being mad and move forward, and do something else.”
Gail was not pleased with him. She didn’t want to hear any of what he had to say. That is, until she got a good look at herself, and realized what she had become. “I went stomping in the house, and I saw my face in the mirror. I was the meanest most awful looking old woman that you can imagine staring back out of that mirror.”
Maybe what her neighbor had to say was worth listening to. She called him up and invited him back over. Then she went searching her basement for something to serve him. “The sun was coming in the window…and it happened to hit a bottle of strawberry syrup. It looked like a highlighted word in a sentence,” Gail said. She brought it up and served it to him on a bowl of ice cream.
Her neighbor was thrilled with the syrup. Immediately he decided that Gail needed to hold classes and teach people how to make it. Gail, in her grumpy mood, mockingly told him she would rather sell it.
She meant it all as a joke. Gail was not interested in selling her syrup. But her neighbor did not give up. He continued to come by and encourage her, until she gave in just to get him off her back.
He came in to the little shack in her backyard, and said “‘Clean this place up! Make some syrup! Nail up some shelves! Put it in here and put a sign by the road!’ It was like a one sentence business plan,” Gail mused.
Finally, she took a scrap piece of wood, painted “Fruit Syrup, Free Tasting,” on it, and set it by the road. She had not yet returned to the house before her first customer pulled in the driveway.
“In that one visit, I gave a tasting, I gave him a tour…I showed him a bucket on a tree and how it was made, he bought product, and he asked me for tourist information…That is the basis of what I have done for 23 years for thousands and thousands and thousands of people.”
Vinewood Acres Sugar Shack is located at 7904 on Route 5 in Westfield. It is open 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily, or by appointment. For more information, call 716-326-3351.