One recent Saturday morning, Scott came by the sugarhouse with his granddaughter, Tena, to pick up a couple of gallons of Golden Delicate (formerly Fancy) syrup, the grade his family selects year after year. Scott sat down on the gold bench and reminisced while Tena silently scrambled on and off his lap. “Would you be willing to write down all you’ve just told us?” asked the animated blog editor.
Guest blogger Scott Dorwart writes:
My first experience as a Vermont maple sugar maker was when I was a teenager living in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. I was far from my hometown in Western New York, enrolled at a private boarding school located near the small village of East Burke. Even in my limited experience at the time, this seemed like the proverbial “middle of nowhere”. But we did have a mountain with a ski area, and that made all the difference.
In 1972, the school had only existed for two years, and was pioneering the concept of the “sports academy” where high school aged athletes in winter sports like skiing could practice every day and do school work around it. I was part of the first student body of about 30 kids who, like myself, reveled in the intense rigor and demands of the training program there, but enjoyed the loose, unstructured academics. Like I said, it was 1972, and the culture at large was going through something with “institutional structure”.
In the spring of ’72 when the competition season was over for many of us, my roommate, Tim, and I would explore the woods around the school in our spare time, looking for a release from the exhaustion of a long winter of travel and racing. One day we were surprised to find an old shack only a few hundred yards from the campus. It was empty and falling down, but we knew it had been a sugar house. We decided right then, we were going to be sugar makers.
We proposed our plan as a “science project” to the head master, and soon the whole mountain was buzzing about this. All the old timers working at the ski area were excitedly offering advice and encouragement. To understand this level of enthusiasm in the locals, some history may be helpful.
At that time, my youth did not allow me to fully realize the changes that were slowly transforming the rural landscape in that part of Vermont. It did not seem odd to me that almost all the workers at the ski area were old retired farmers with names like Aldous Gorham, Ford Hubbard, John McHargue, and Warren Hartwell. Or that the countryside around the ski mountain was rife with abandoned farms, empty houses, falling down barns, and rotting sugar houses. I think, in retrospect, what we were witness to, was the final lingering vestiges of a vanishing culture. Depression era farms languished through the 1940s and 50s until families died out or walked away. By 1972, new money from “away” was just beginning to trickle in, and one could still see the evidence of an agrarian subsistence culture that was once prevalent, but lived only in the memory of the aging survivors like Aldous Gorham, loading the lifts at the ski area after retiring from farming.
With the help of these mountain men, we located no fewer than seven abandoned sugar houses just in the few square miles around the base of the mountain. It turned out that the owner of the ski area, a one Douglas Kitchel, also owned much of the land around it too, including the abandoned farmsteads. With Mr. Kitchel’s permission, we salvaged what we could from near-by shacks; in one we found a 4 by 13 foot wood fired evaporator, complete with brick lined arch, back flue pan, front flat pan with baffles, all untouched for at least 20 years. At another site we found 500 buckets. We salvaged storage tanks, gathering tanks, taps, lids, buckets, even found 6 cord of split maple firewood in one shed that had collapsed on to the woodpile, keeping it dry for decades. Imagine finding anything like this anywhere today! We had no idea.
We soon had our sugar house set up and went about tapping and hanging buckets. The sugarbush around our shack was pristine, and took about 500 taps. The dirt road past the school had 2 miles of massive, large crowned trees lining both sides of the road, that took another 500 taps. We got the other kids in the school to provide labor with some of it, but I remember doing 14 hour days getting the operation going.
Gathering the sap along the road was no problem with the gathering tank on the back of Tim’s 1952 ford pickup and the buckets hanging close by. But the 20 acre sugarbush was another issue. When we tapped, there was still a huge snowpack in the woods and getting through there with the gathering tank was a problem. But wouldn’t you guess, the ski area operations manager comes down and tells us we can borrow one of his grooming snowcats to gather with. Well, Tim just about flipped over this, and watching him, all of 18 years old, chugging through the woods in a Thiakol snow cat with all the kids bringing in the buckets, it was something!
When we started boiling, all the “mountain men” came down to offer advice. I think they were impressed with our initiative, and maybe amused at our naivety. But I am sure that for many of these guys, our efforts connected them to something in their past that they longed to get back to. We got through our first run without too much crisis, and got some nice fancy grade to show for it.
We had to go to town to buy accessories like filters, cans, and some tools we needed like a thermometer and a hydrometer. But mostly it was the community that provided the knowledge and encouragement to bring this tradition back to its ritual place in the seasonal rhythm of the old farm.
It was a steep learning curve that first year. But after a few days of near disasters, we learned the intricate dance of the sugarmaker: keeping the fire stoked, managing the sap flow into the back pan, watching the foam in the front pan as it begins to ‘collapse’ into pock-marks just as syrup is at finished density. We would filter it into 10 gallon milk cans and carry these back to the school kitchen for canning on the big stove there.
But what we couldn’t have known was that the weather conditions that spring were preternaturally ideal. The sap kept running and running clear for weeks. In the end, we made over 400 gallons of fancy grade and began to think this business was idiot-proof. We were heroes that first year, and felt we had started something that would be carried forward at the school as a tradition for years. Although we sold some of the syrup to cover the cost of our store purchases, (retail for a gallon of fancy in 1972, $11) we ended up giving most of it to the ski area manager in exchange for all the help (and the snow cat), so the ski area could sell it in their gift shop during their summer season.
It wasn’t until the following spring in 1973, in our second season as sugarmakers that Tim and I found out how heart-breaking this business can be. We started out with all our resources and improvements, hung our 1000 taps and buckets, and had all our fuel wood on hand. But the weather that spring was just as bad as it can get for the sugarmaker. No snowpack in the woods, lots of rain, no freezing nights; we got squat that year. We cleaned up our mess, graduated from school, and moved on to college, bequeathing our enterprise to the next class of Burke Mountain Academy students. I guess the spring of ’72 was just the proverbial beginners luck!
The sugaring operation did end up continuing for a few years after we left it. But the next year, the acreage with the sugarhouse and the maple bush were sold to a developer for a housing subdivision. I returned in the late summer that year to check up on the equipment and watched as the chainsaws began to topple the ancient maples that we so tenderly cared for. The sugaring equipment had been moved out of the sugarhouse before it was bulldozed and taken down the road to a new location. But it was never the same. The destruction of the sugarbush broke my heart, and I never did find out what ultimately happened to the arch, pans, buckets and tanks.
It has been 50 years to the month now, but my emotions remain tender around my memory of the destruction. I have returned to visit the school many times since then, even having my daughter graduate from there in 2006. There are no more old timers working the lifts, no old barns, farmsteads, hayfields growing out, very little evidence of the past agrarian landscape that we saw then. I am feeling a little now like those old mountain men I knew, witnessing, like them, the passing of an era with the resigned melancholy of the inevitable.
March 29, 2022