The syrup was flowing, the pancakes were sizzling, and the sun was shining on the 51st Elmira Maple Syrup Festival last Saturday. Despite a chilly start to the morning, clear blue skies invited some 68,000 people to the world’s largest one-day syrup fest, which has become an annual outing for many.“It’s not just a festival, it’s now a tradition,” chairperson Drew McGovern said. “I have three kids and they’re all in their 30s now. Getting home for sap day is a big, big deal. Sap day, you have to come home.”
He said the morning started off slow because of the negative double digits, but once the sun came out the people came with it.
“By 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, the way I tell is I stand and I look down at the mall and if the only thing I can see is heads, I’m happy,” McGovern said. “It was like that until 3 o’clock.”
The EMSF committee met this week to follow up after the festival and he said they’re calling it a success. There was a definite increase in attendance compared to last year’s festival, where they saw between 55,000 and 60,000 people. The record is 80,000. They determine the attendance based on a system.
“It’s to do with parking and it’s also to do with, we collect some of the money from the vendors and the mall and then we look at how many pancake breakfasts were sold,” McGovern said. “It’s a system we’ve worked out over the years. Obviously it would be great if we could tell everyone to freeze and then run around and count everyone, but we don’t think they would be too happy about that.”
He said someone mentioned they could use a drone and take a high resolution photo of the downtown, but that wouldn’t account for people coming in and out during the day, or the additional people at the WMC.
They watch the hay wagons which start bringing in people from the parking lots at 7 a.m., and they can see how long people stay by when the wagons fill up with people heading back out of town.
“I think it’s like a three-hour, four-hour thing,” McGovern said. “I don’t think people come at 7 and they’re still puttering around at 4 in the afternoon. If they have children, that’s too long of a day for having them outside.”
They’d like to see lots of people coming when it opens at 7, but that didn’t happen this year. He guesses they probably lost a couple thousand people there just from the two-hour cold spell.
As for volunteers, they had 2,000 show up from across the region to help keep the festival running smoothly.
“We have a variety of different church groups that come out every year and help us flip pancakes,” McGovern said. “A lot of the groups are service groups as well as churches. They’re all volunteering their time.”
He said the festival creates a means for those groups to make money too. When they collect the money from the service groups, it’s amazing how much money they’re bringing in, he added. For some of them it’s their main means of fundraising for the whole year.
“For example, the Ventures do a fantastic job for us,” McGovern said. “They’re out at 2 o’clock in the morning helping us lay the road out for the vendors. They’re with us the whole day, picking up garbage. They’re with us at the end of the day, helping us clean up. We want to make sure no one’s ever going to come back and say ‘the festival’s great, but what a mess they leave behind them.”
The pancake mile was a new event this year and he thinks it’ll become an annual event, so others can break this year’s record. The male and female winners received a bottle of maple syrup as their prize.
Pancake-wise, they didn’t sell out as in previous years, but that’s not because there wasn’t a steady line. They now keep a large enough stock of supplies to feed everyone. There was a steady stream of hungry people lining up for the plate-sized pancakes from 7 a.m. up until 2 p.m. He said after that most people don’t have an appetite for pancakes. They estimate they fed between 9,000 and 10,000 people.
“I think our one is probably one of the first ones,” McGovern said. “It’s kind of a celebration of spring. People have been in their houses and as you know it’s been a horrible, cold winter. All of a sudden the sun came out and people they just want to get out for the day.”
With five decades in the books, McGovern muses on why their festival remains a fixture in so many people’s lives, when there are others in southern Ontario they could go to.
“I think people are quite happy to just sit back and relax and get on with their lives after our festival is done.”