When I saw Floyd Caplan’s delightful paintings of sugarhouses and other lovely rural scenes while walking the corridors of Whitney Center, I was reminded of my days as a schoolkid helping to gather maple sap. That was on our family farm in Conway, Massachusetts, about thirteen miles south of the Vermont border in the foothills of the Berkshires, just west of Interstate 91.
A sugarhouse, incidentally, is the wooden building in which sap from maple trees is boiled down to form maple syrup, and drained into gallon cans for home use or sale to others. This maple syrup may then be further evaporated to make maple sugar.
For many New England family farmers, maple sugaring was the job that ushered in spring and readied us for the mainly summer projects of planting and harvesting. The twice-a-day milking of cows went on year-round, needless to say, roughly at 6-to-8 a.m. and 6-to-8 p.m.
Sugaring was a late-winter-into-spring project because the maple sap flowed most fully when trees froze a bit every night and thawed in the early morning, sending upward the liquid nutrients that had been stored in their roots since the preceding autumn. As weather got too warm, the trees would gradually squeeze shut the man-made openings that let sap leak out, and the sugaring season would end.
Maple sugaring entailed several steps:
First, one had to “tap” the trees (at two to four places per tree, depending on its size) by drilling one-to-two inch holes through the bark at about tummy height. Then one would tap a metal spigot into each hole and hang a large (three-gallon?) can on it to catch the sap as it dripped out.
Second, starting a day or two after the tapping, one hitched up a team of horses to haul the gathering tank (approximately 4’x4’x3′ deep and mounted on a sled or wagon, depending on the snowfall) along the wood-roads to collect the sap.
Third, one then had the team haul the full tank to the unloading spot beside the sugarhouse. From there the sap was drained by a 10-20 foot pipe into a cloth strainer atop the big storage tank.
Fourth, in the sugarhouse, the boiler operator kept the fire in the “arch”—a long rectangular firebox—well supplied with firewood to heat the two large (3’x6′) evaporator pans through which the sap moved as it gradually thickened into syrup. He stirred the warm sap to keep it evaporating evenly, and, as portions of it reached the proper viscosity, drained them off for transfer to gallon cans.
Then, of course, there were the associated tasks of creating and maintaining the
wood-roads; and hauling out, splitting to size, and storing the firewood in the sugar-
house woodshed. And after the sugaring season had ended, one had to collect the buckets and spigots and clean them up for storage along with the other equipment.
Being a schoolkid at the time, I was involved only in weekend sugaring as needed. In essence that meant getting into work clothes and assisting Dad’s hired man, who harnessed, hitched up, and drove our team of horses, Ned and Nancy—Ned, the nervous, bossy powerhouse and Nancy, the gentle, obedient powerhouse.
After Ned and Nancy had pulled the tank-carrying sled out into the woods to a spot near the first trees, the two of us would grab our (five-gallon?) gathering cans and walk to nearby trees. Each of us would lift a bucket off its spigot hook, pour the sap into our can, and return the bucket to its hook. We’d repeat those steps until our cans were full and then carry them to the wagon or sled, where we’d hoist them up and dump their contents into the strainer atop the gathering tank. We’d then walk to the next tree and repeat, with the horses being driven from spot to spot along the wood-road as was most convenient for us. Where the wood-road went uphill or downhill at an unusually sharp angle, we’d grip wagon posts and push or hold back as needed.
When the gathering tank was about full, we’d head for the sugarhouse to empty it into the storage tank. As we approached, we could see smoke from the arch fire drifting away from the tall chimney atop the roof, and steam from the evaporators blowing out of the rooftop vent.
While waiting for the gathering tank to drain, I’d usually step into the sugarhouse to watch Dad as he stirred the nearly boiling sap, carefully filled the gallon cans for market, and handled other parts of the job.
The work was great exercise, and by noontime and again by suppertime, we’d be ready to eat piggishly. Yummy! Perhaps even maple syrup on pancakes—super-yummy!
By: Conrad Totman
(published in Whitney Word-Vol. 33, No. 1-February 2017)
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