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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sugarin' Time

Sugaring 1880s style 
 While it is not, this could be a Coffin boy collecting
sap for sugaring operation in Archertown in the 1950s.

Family patriarch Jerry Pease of Pease's Scenic Valley Farm in
East Orford boils sap on a wood-fired rig in the annual
tradition begun by his great grandfather and described in Toni
Pease's recent publication:  Maple Sugar and Me: 150 Years of the Pease
Family Maple Sugaring in New Hampshire. (Courtesy Wes Lavin)

While the 150-year tradition of sugaring at Pease's Scenic Valley Farm
will continue in 2014 with about one-half of the 1,200 taps still
hung with buckets, the recent snowstorms will delay scenes such as
the one shown in this 2012 "early spring" photograph. (Courtesy Wes Lavin)

Spring of 2014 is much different from 2012 with deep snow and cooler temperatures
delaying the beginning of the sugaring season.  Wes Lavin returned to the Pease's sugar house
to take this photo.

Using oxen, sap is gathered at the Chandler Pond Farm in South Wheelock, VT.  This 600-acre family farm is operated by my nephew Rob Martin and his wife Tamara using organic practices.

“In the maple groves of Warren, and on all the hill-sides around the quiet valley, sugar fires were smoking, for it was charming sugar weather; bland and sunny overhead, frosty under foot, the sap racing up from the roots every morning and running back at night for fear of a freeze.”

William Little, History of Warren, 1870


     It’s time for making maple. Area sugar makers are participating in a tradition that reaches back hundreds of years. Many local sugar makers in both Vermont and New Hampshire will host open houses during the weekend of March 22-23. Guests will be treated to a taste of maple and a sample of the hard work that it takes to make it.


     This column repeats stories about this tradition, familiar to many, new to some. The sources are Maple Sugar: From Sap to Syrup by Tim Herd, articles from earlier editions of this newspaper, local town histories, websites devoted to the maple industry and interviews with local producers. 


     I first read the Native American legend of the origin of maple syrup from the side of a 1950s gallon syrup can. It was one of the various legends passed down from native peoples of eastern North America. One says the Creator (called by different names by different tribes) gave the people the sweetness of the maple tree. Lest they get fat and lazy if the gift came too often and was too pure, the maple sap was only useful during a short time of the year and required considerable work to obtain. Another legend tells of its accidental discovery when a native woman cooked a piece of venison in the maple sap. 


     Whether gained by gift or accident, Native Americans were well aware of the sap of the maple tree gathered during the “Maple Moon.” They used it to sweeten food and fermented the sap into alcohol.  When European settlers arrived the natives introduced them to this sweet harvest of spring. 


     Early spring warm temperatures caused the sap of the maple to rise from the roots to nourish new growth. Freezing temperatures reverse this process. The rapidity with which winter transitions into spring determines the length of the sap run and varies from year to year. The sap gathered early generally produces a milder flavored product. The quality of the product is also determined by the methods used by the producers. 


     At first, trees were tapped using wooden spiles made from hollowed softwood twigs with sap collected in wooden troughs. Small pieces of the sumac bush were often used until metal spouts were invented.  Gathered using shoulder yokes, the sap was boiled down in large iron kettles hung from poles out of doors. Within several years of the settlement of area towns, residents were following these procedures for making maple sugar.  


     There is a tale of early sugar makers in Corinth described in Zadock Thompson’s 1824 Gazetteer of Vermont. In the early spring of 1777, three men from Newbury trekked 12 miles through the snow to the wilderness of unsettled Corinth, becoming the first white inhabitants of the town. Each carried a heavy kettle along with the necessary provisions to spend several weeks making maple sugar. The authors of the 1964 History of Corinth, Vermont refute this myth and suggest that if the sugar makers had made that trip they would have been met by a number of well-established settlers.   


     Maple sugar had its place in the economic and political issues of the day. In the 1790s there was a “Maple Sugar Bubble” as some national leaders hoped that it could become an alternative to the cane sugar produced by slave labor on British plantations in the Caribbean. It was reported that one Dutch company purchased 23,000 acres in Vermont and attempted to hire locals to make sugar. Leaders such as Thomas Jefferson attempted to create maple groves in Virginia. Both plans failed.


      Abolitionists continued to urge the use of maple sugar in place of cane sugar, which was “boiled down by the heat of misery.” The 1844 Vermont Almanac urged readers to “Stick to the maple; and so long as the maple forest stand, suffer not your cup to be sweetened by the blood of slaves!”


     Cane sugar was expensive and many families used maple sugar as a sweetener. In 1814 it was reported that a producer with 360 trees “could make a ton of sugar and sixty gallons of molasses” for a profit of $325 per season. By 1818 maple sugar sold for about half the price of imported cane sugar and did not become equal in price until 1880. Hardened and with a long shelf life, maple sugar became a cash crop, exported to markets in eastern cities. In the 1850s Vermont produced over six million pounds of maple sugar annually.


     Then a series of inventions transformed sugar making.  Metal sap spouts and evaporating pans were patented. The shallower flat-bottomed pans offered quicker evaporation and higher quality control.  In 1875 metal sap buckets with lids began to replace wooden buckets.


      In 1884 G. H. Grimm of Ohio patented the sugar evaporator. The company became a major supplier of sugar making equipment and in 1890 relocated to Rutland. In 1888 the Leader Evaporator Co. of Enosburg Falls was established and became the dominant U.S. supplier of maple making equipment. 


     Most maple producers were farmers who used the downtime between seasons to tap. Often on snowshoes they collected the sap using a drawing tub mounted on a sled pulled by oxen or horses. The sap was then hauled to the sugarhouse and boiled down on a wood-burning arch, using fuel harvested from the place. Having a number of strong sons or handymen was especially helpful.  As one Lyme elder stated “the sap run does not wait for man’s convenience.”


     Until the tin syrup can came into use in the 1860s, relatively little syrup was made as there was no way to store it for an extended time. Once syrup could be made as a commercial product, many farmers found it to be more profitable than sugar. Between 1890 and 1920 the amount of sugar produced in both Vermont and New Hampshire dropped significantly and the amount of syrup increased by over 300 percent.


     The United Opinion reported in April 1897 that the season had been more successful than any in recent memory and “nearly forty tons of sugar and syrup have been shipped from here.” Some of that sugar was shipped in boxes manufactured at Page’s Box Shop in East Corinth.


     One factor that endangered the sugar maples was the demand for open fields and the ready cash that lumber provided. While some farmers took measures to protect healthy maples, other cut them away in areas suitable for other crops. In 1885 one Vermonter observed, tongue in cheek, there was such a shortage of sugar maples that producers had to turn to raspberry bushes for syrup. In 1922 Hazel Abbott of Cabot expressed concern for the destruction of both trees and traditions in the published poem “The Maples Not For Sale.” Storms, such as the Hurricane of 1938, damaged some sugar groves beyond restoration. Reports of the possible impact of invasive species are among the current concerns of many sugar makers.  


     The 1913 Vermont Commissioner of Agriculture Report mentioned that Corinth producers led the county by tapping 43,505 trees resulting in 90,685 pounds of sugar. Fairlee was at the lower end of the county with only 2,880 trees tapped and 5,470 pounds of sugar made. 


      One of the most anticipated events of the sugaring season was the “sugaring off” party with its sugar on snow.  Sometimes referred to as “leather britches,” this treat would be served with raised donuts, pickles and warm beverages. If held at the sugar house, it might also include hard boiled eggs, cooked in the rolling sap of the evaporator. Some made maple sap beer from the final run.   


     Both Vermont and New Hampshire have state maple organizations. The Vermont Sugar Makers Association, formed in 1893, is one of the nation’s oldest agricultural organizations. The New Hampshire Maple Producers Association was organized in 1943.  Both are active in helping to establish and recognize high standards, and improved techniques in the industry. It is these organizations that are promoting the open house weekend mentioned above. UVM’s Proctor Maple Research Center at Underhill continues to explore new methods of sugaring and uses for the resulting products. 


      After a disappointing early spring season in 2012, New Hampshire produced 124,000 gallons in 2013. Vermont led the nation with 1,320,000 gallons.  Producers face competition from other states and Canada as well as so-called “maple-flavored” products and even fake maple syrup.  Changes in the grading system, instituted to give consumers more helpful information, have created some concern among more traditional producers.


     Changes in the climate have also encouraged many producers to begin sugaring before Town Meeting rather than after.  Records from 1938 to 1959 written on the wall of the Munn sugar house on Wild Hill in West Fairlee show that first runs were later with a record last run of April 28, 1939.

Since this article was published I had a chance to review five farm pocket notebooks rescued from the abandoned sugarhouse of the Harry Franklin family on Indian Pond Road in Orford.  I was told that the Franklin sugarbush was the sweetest one around. The records carefully chronicle the dates of first and last runs, the amount of syrup “taken up” each day, the amount of time Harry spend boiling on the large and small rigs and who came to help or just observe the process from 1957 to 1988.

 Ruby Franklin, my wife’s aunt, made what she called “boy and girl” raised donuts.  The “boy” donuts were shaped like crullers.  Sons Lewis and Walter were the most frequent helpers, but during at least one very snowy March, brother-in-law Bill Pierson shoved through snow so deep to make paths for the the horses. The records indicated that the amount of syrup produced varied during those years from a low of 96 gals to a high of 207.

Several people have shared sugaring stories with me since reading the article.  One of the best involves two boys who were gathering sap, but not fast enough for their father who was boiling.  They apparently got the bad end of their father’s temper over their lack of speed.  “I fix father.” one of the boys said and promptly took the gathering tub to a local brook and filled it with new “sap” and delivered it to the sugarhouse. He didn’t divulge that youthful prank until his father was 83 or so.       
    My great grandparents, Lyman Moore Tuttle Randall or Ida (Rice) Randall made and sold maple products at a roadside stand in the West River town of Newfane around 1930.  My grandfather Elroy Nelson Coffin began selling maple products from his farm in Guilford in the 1930s, a tradition carried on by three of his children for decades.  My Dad and two of his siblings each operated Vermont roadside gift shops selling maple products along with other Vermont souvenirs. My Aunt Florence Henry and Uncle Elroy Coffin were major syrup producers and marketers in the Brattleboro area.  


     As a child I helped my family sugar in the Archertown section of Orford.  We tromped through deep snow, knocked the ice from overflowing sap buckets and hauled the sap to the sugarhouse at our nearby farm.  I learned how to read a hydrometer and know when it was time to draw off the finished syrup into a heavy felt filter. My wife Carolyn also helped in her family’s sugaring on the Martin farm in Fairlee.  She says that even now just going into the steamy interior of an operating sugar house brings back good memories.


     Since those times sugaring has undergone major transformations. Most producers now use plastic sap-gathering pipelines left in the woods year-round, vacuum collection system, reverse osmosis for concentrating sugar content before boiling, sap pre-heaters and oil-fueled evaporators.  


     There are many sugar makers in our area, some of whom continue traditions established by family members over the decades. One of the most impressive operations is the Limlaw Family Maple Farm with its state-of-the-art operation. Located in West Topsham it is operated by Bruce and Ruth Limlaw.  They reportedly made 4,300 gallons of syrup in 2013 and have 13,000 taps ready for 2014.


     Paul and Betty Messer of Orford’s Sunday Mountain Maple Farm have been involved since Paul operated the FFA sugar house at Orford High School in 1956. Betty helped to keep the fires stoked.

They operated the Sunday Mountain operation from the yard of their home, starting first with a more traditional operation. They have introduced many of the new techniques mentioned above, had 3,200 taps and produced 776 gallons of syrup in 2013. Twice they have received the New Hampshire Producers’ Carlisle Trophy for the state’s best syrup, an award given for outstanding taste, color and clarity.


     The Messers also manager the Dr. Blaisdell Maple Museum at the North Haverhill Fair. They tell me that they have decided to retire from sugaring and are in the process of selling their remaining supply of syrup. When asked what advice they would give to a young person interested in sugaring, they said “go slow and steady.”  The day I called, Paul was helping set up the operation at Thomson’s Mt. Cube Farm and, I suspect, from what Betty said, that retirement may be only partial.  


     A more traditional operation can be found at Pease’s Scenic Valley Farm in East Orford.  Family patriarch Jerry Pease recently told me that there are currently four generations of the family continuing a tradition started by his great-grandfather and continued by his grandfather and father. His wife Toni has recently published a book entitled Maple Sugar and Me: 150 Years of the Pease Family Maple Sugaring in New Hampshire. Jerry said they have about 1,200 taps, with half still hung with buckets and produced 175 gallons of syrup and a small amount of sugar. They boil on a wood-fired arch in a sugarhouse hung with antique tools. He admitted that, at 82, he has had to give up the heavy work, but does, with some pride, hold “a heavy-looking on, advice-giving, story-telling role.”        


     I am proud to say that no artificial “maple” syrup has ever adorned my table. Like many, I prefer the stronger flavor of what use to be called “Grade B.” When my daughters were young, we had a small backyard operation for a couple of years using an old wood-burning end stove. The limited product was not high grade, but could not have been sweeter. So, I am sure, are the memories of anyone who had the luck to participate in this “sweet good-bye” to winter.


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