by William Coolidge III of Altona, New York
My grandfather, Will Coolidge, was a thrifty, practical, native Adirondacker who, among his other occupations, was also a producer of maple syrup. At one time or another during his life (all 78 years of which was spent on the land he loved – the farm where he was born, in Jay, NY), he was a taxi driver, dairy farmer, potato grower, mailman and trapper. But the thing I remember him for the most is making maple syrup. And while he went about this demanding and honorable business, he was also passing down little pearls of wisdom to me, his eldest grandson.
I can still hear Gramp saying, “Due to circumstances beyond his control, a man might not have too much in this life, but he’s got his word. Don’t ever go back on your word, Bill. A man’s word is his bond. If you tell someone you’re going to have 5 pounds of maple sugar ready for them on Thursday, you darn well better have it for them. If ya don’t, they’ll never trust ya or believe ya again.” I notice today that most people are pretty free about giving their word, but not many of them are so quick to keep it. If the occasion ever arises for you to do any business with me, and I give you my word on something, you can take it to the bank. And we can both thank my grandfather for that.
Gramp always said, “If a thing’s worth doin’, it’s worth doin’ right. Don’t ever take shortcuts in life, and that goes for making maple syrup, as well. Don’t try to cut corners when you’re boiling, by drawin’ off too soon, or you’ll be turnin’ out an inferior product. Pretty soon, word’ll get around, and ya won’t sell any syrup at all.”
I hear a lot of people nowadays, when talking about doing anything, maple sugarin’ included, say, “If you count the time involved, you aren’t making any money.” Do they count their time when they’re playing tennis or softball, or fishing, hunting, bowling, or playing pool in the local bar? I doubt it. And, as my grandfather used to say, “Your time ain’t worth nothin’ if you’re not doin’ somethin’ with it.” When March rolls around and the snow begins to melt, and those thawing days and freezing nights arrive in the North Country, what better way to spend your time than producing a nice batch of pure, Adirondack maple syrup?
Another thing Gramp always told me was “Be patient and gentle with animals. Let ‘em know what ya want ‘em to do, and 99% of the time, they’re more’n happy to do it.” Whenever we hitched up the team to the old wooden sled, or “jumper,” whether it be to tap out or to gather a load of sap, Grandfather spoke firmly and clearly to the horses, with the tone of authority in his voice. Oh sure, I saw him lose his temper a time or two, when things weren’t going well and the buckets were running over onto the ground. Or that time we ended up with a whole tankful of sap on the sugarhouse floor because someone had forgotten to close a valve on the holding tank… He’d raise his voice maybe, and cuss a little, too, but I never saw him strike an animal in anger.
Probably one of the most important things Gramp taught me was perseverance and good old-fashioned “stick-to-it-iveness.” On those days when everything was going wrong, when covers were blown off the sap buckets by the wind, and couldn’t be found; when a mouse or red squirrel had gotten into the bucket and drowned, forcing you to throw out a whole bucketful of otherwise perfectly good sap, and then have to scrub that bucket out with a bleach and water solution; and when the horses wouldn’t stand still but would keep inching ahead with the jumper, I never saw him give up or want to quit. After a long day of boiling, and taking his turn on the gathering rig so one of us could stay at the sugarhouse and dry out our wet clothes in front of the big arch, I’ve seen him go home, feed the hogs, milk the cows, eat supper and then can syrup half the night, only to get up at daybreak and do it all over again. Because that’s what needed to be done… and no amount of complainin’ or feelin’ sorry for himself was gonna get it done – only dogged perseverance and will power can accomplish that.
And lastly, Gramp always admonished me to “do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.” “I don’t care if you’re digging post holes, baling hay, gathering sap or cutting wood,” he’d say, “if a man’s payin’ you for 8 hours, give him 8 hours worth of work. Always be honest in your dealings with other folks. Don’t try to cheat ‘em. If a man gets a reputation for honesty, he can do business on just that and a handshake.”
These are some of the teachings, the little bits of wisdom, the ‘guidelines to live by,’ if you will, that my grandfather passed down to me. Hopefully, today, I am a better person because of them. As you probably gathered from reading these lines, I loved my grandfather, and as a young boy growing up, the sun rose and set with him. He was a good and gentle man, and not allergic to hard work. Somewhat set in his ways perhaps, but if they were good ways, then so be it. We need more folks like him today.
“Grandfather’s Teachings” also appear in William Coolidge’s latest collection of stories, Cowpokes & Country Folks, published in 2005 by Studley Printing & Publishing of Plattsburgh, NY