Sugaring in the Last Century

April 17, 2014

Dana Howard stands before 40 cords of firewood outside of the family sugarhouse on Thayer Brook Road in this 1994 photograph. (Herald File / Bob Eddy)

When the broad back of winter begins to break during the February thaw, my thoughts invariably turn toward sugaring.

In my mind’s eye, I see a Johnson Woolen Mill clad fellow hunched in snow up against a tree, the brace with the quarter-inch bit turning sap-moist maple pulp out of the bark, spout driven, buckets hung, tops affixed. There is conversation and laughter back in the warmth of the sugarhouse as sap, gathered now into a large storage tank, siphons slowly into the first trough of the pan. All along the labyrinthine channels, the sweet smell ferociously boils until, at the end, it suspends the glass bulb at the magical height.

Then, it’s all whoosh into the felted cone, down through to the pail, and off to the barrel where it will cool until the day of decanting into pints and quarts and half’s and gallons.

Throughout it all, the fire is minded; fresh fuel culled from the diminishing pile, pitched through iron doors opened gingerly with a stick of kindling or leather gloves the size of catchers’ mitts.

At the back, a cat stretches, children play around a rope descended from a rafter, someone fiddles with the radio, and mother unpacks a basket with stew, rolls, apple butter, three quarts of milk, apple pie, and cheese.

Much Has Changed

Over the past two decades, technological advances have changed the face of sugaring. Buckets have given way to piping, fire tending is gone, as great stacks of cordwood are replaced by oil. The bubble and steam of the evaporator pans have disappeared beneath stainless steel hoods, with fans carrying moisture up and out without so much as a hint of the cloud that used to billow above the arch.

It’s not uncommon to find reverse osmosis machines, computerized sugar analysis and automated drawing off of the syrup.

While we know that such modernization is necessary and good, there remains nostalgia for Vermont as it was. It seems this affection for simpler times is almost universal! While we respect and admire our neighbor who brings his operation into the 21st century with tens of thousands of dollars in upgrades, at the same time we treasure the memories of eggs cracked in the boiling sap, and of two or three friends in an ancient shack with a deck of cards, a Coleman lantern, and maybe a bottle of applejack to see them through a long night of boiling.

Sugaring Remembered

In early March 1994, I headed up Thayer Brook Road to the Howard’s to see how things were shaping up for their season. Dale and Brian were busy up at the mill just above the farmhouse, but Dana, the proud head of a family that knew uncommonly well how to care for the land, happily pulled on his boots and walked up to the sugarhouse to show me around.

Everything was readied for the first run. Four hundred taps on pipeline were already in place, and the sons, quiet, broad-shouldered, and hard-working, like their dad, were about to hang another 200 buckets the following day. I made arrangements to swing by when things warmed up that week, but before walking back to my car, asked Mr. Howard if I might take his portrait.

This photograph is one of several from that day. Flanked by the sugarhouse and 40 cords of pine, Mr. Howard surveys the valley below and out of the camera’s view with the bearing of a general. At the time, I was struck by the great physical presence of this man, in his 80s standing as proud and sure as a giant maple, rooted securely in that unforgiving Braintree soil.

Now, 20 years later, I see something more in this image. I follow his gaze out and away from the camera’s view, the angle and direction defined by the massive stack of wood at his back, and I wonder what it is that he is thinking about, as he stands before this young photographer in this time of changing season, as winter gives way to the rush of spring.

Perhaps because I’m now older myself, I imagine him remembering his parents and grandparents before him. In his quiet reflection here, I see them gathered in an earlier time, in a small sugarhouse. Warmed by the arch and the conversation, I see parents smiling as children carry wood in from the pile, making, as children do, a game of every action. Soon the pickles and donuts will be set on the table alongside bowls of snow awaiting the sweet drizzle of maple.

In this photograph, I see Dana Howard remembering such things and, with him, I remember as well.

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