The sweet taste of nostalgia
Funk's Grove Sirup Camp is tucked in a grove of towering trees just off a quiet stretch of old Route 66 near Bloomington. At the end of a curved dirt lane sits a modest shingled home and a low-slung brown sap house, which spouts large clouds of steam during the late winter production season. Ancient gnarled oaks, slender saplings, and majestic maples give the place an almost mystical feeling. A small red building provides a burst of color in the sea of gray bark and green leaves. A simple sign with black painted letters spells out "Funk's Grove."
This is where the Funk family has been making the sweet liquid they call "sirup" for generations. The fact that it's one of the few places in the Midwest where pure maple syrup is produced commercially--coupled with its location on the famed "Mother Road"--has made it a popular stopping place for school groups, tour buses, and Route 66 enthusiasts.
Mike Funk and his wife, Debby, now operate the family business, which they took over after Funk's parents, Stephen and Glaida, retired. The business has a long history, starting in 1824, when pioneer Isaac Funk settled among a rich patch of maple trees and discovered the art of making maple syrup and maple sugar. Issac's grandson Arthur opened the first commercial syrup camp at Funk's Grove in 1891, selling the sweet stuff for $1 a gallon. He passed the business on to his brother, and then to Mike Funk's parents.
The woods where the camp is located are owned by the trust fund of a nature-loving relative, Hazel Funk Holmes (Issac's granddaughter), who intended a walk through the camp to be an educational experience. She ensured in her will that the trees will be preserved and maple syrup will continue to be produced as long as feasible. (She was also the person who insisted "sirup" was the preferred spelling. A large, handmade sign explaining why the business prefers that spelling is posted in the gift shop, demonstrating the family's respect for Holmes' vision.)
"Funk's Grove is actually a township," says Debby Funk. "There once was a town with a post office and a few businesses, but as Bloomington grew the town dried up. Funk's Grove now has a church, a cemetery, and Sugar Grove Nature Center, which gives visitors a chance to see how the land once looked when settlers arrived."
The area boasts an 845-acre woodland area, which includes three nature preserves. The cold weather crop season only lasts four to six weeks, beginning in February or March. During that time the Funks gather between 40,000 and 60,000 gallons of maple sugar from the stand of trees, which yields between 800 and 1,200 gallons of syrup. During this time, busloads of visitors tour the site and see how maple syrup is made inside the brown sap house, where the watery substance collected from the trees turns into the thick, sweet substance.
By the time the warmer weather makes the buds on the maples swell, the season is over. The buckets and bags come down, spouts are pulled off, and the camp receives a good spring cleaning. But just as this process ends, the summer travel season begins, bringing tourists from all over the country, who stop in for a history lesson and, of course, syrup. The gift shop sells bottles of light and dark syrup, in jars and jugs and log-cabin cans. There's also maple candy, maple cream, and Funk's Grove honey, as well as nature books, cookbooks, T-shirts, and plenty of Route 66 memorabilia.
"During the summer months, we get groups on motorcycles or antique cars doing the Route 66 trip from Chicago to California," says Debby. "It's fun."
The business, designated a Registered Natural Landmark by the National Park Services, has become a regular stop for many who can't get enough of the sticky stuff. A world map posted in the gift shop is marked by customers from Australia and Africa, Japan and Germany, attesting to the far-reaching popularity of the place.
Usually by the end of August, the sign at the end of the road will be slashed with the words "sold out." But until then visitors wind their way up the wooded lane looking for a bit of nostalgia and something sweet for their morning pancakes.
Funk's Grove Sirup Camp is located at 5257 Old Route 66 in Shirley (309-874-3360). Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. The store is usually open from March through August, or until the supply is sold out.
Other spots to visit in Funk's Grove:
Funk Prairie Home. Built in 1863-65 by LaFayette Funk, the home consists of 13 rooms of original furnishings.
Rock and Mineral Museum. The museum houses a portion of LaFayette Funk II's extensive collection of rare specimens. Tours available by appointment.
Irish Railroad Workers' Memorial. Erected in 2000, the memorial honors the site of a mass grave where a group of mostly Irish railroad laborers were buried some 150 years ago. They died while laying a rail line from Springfield to Bloomington in the 1850s. A marble Celtic cross bears the following inscription in English and Gaelic: "These immigrants from Ireland were driven from the land of their birth by famine and disease. They arrived sick and penniless, and took hard and dangerous jobs building the Chicago & Alton Railroad. Known but to God, they rest here in individual anonymity--far from the old homes of their hearts--yet forever short of the new homes of their hopes.''
Funk's Grove Route 66 Sugar Cookies
1 cup margarine
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup powdered sugar
3/4 cup corn oil
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups flour
Cream margarine and sugars together. Add corn oil, maple syrup, and eggs, and cream well. Sift together the soda, cream of tartar, salt, and flour. Knead dry ingredients into creamed mixture to form dough. Chill dough for 1 hour. Drop dough by teaspoonful on cookie sheet and press with glass dipped in sugar to flatten. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 12 minutes or until browned.
Preparation time: 1 hour, 20 minutes, including hour chill time for the dough
Cooking time: 12 minutes per batch
Yield: 7 dozen cookies.
Source: Marian Clark's The Route 66 Cookbook: Comfort Food from the Mother Road.