How Do You Know It’s Spring? Maple Syrup!
by Nan Clark of Chesterfield, MA
Once upon a time, I asked my country cousin, Murray Clapp, “Why do you make maple syrup?” He shrugged and said positively, “How would you know it’s spring if you didn’t make maple syrup?”
There are at least 58 sugarhouses in Massachusetts according to the Maple Producers Association. The executive director, Tom McCrumm, has this to say: “The sugar maple has a well developed ability to efficiently compartmentalize wounds it sustains from tapping, storm damage, and other injuries. The amount of sap typically removed for maple syrup processing does not adversely affect the tree’s health or ability to produce leaves for photosynthesis. Sugar makers tend to be very concerned about the health of their trees and generally wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize them.
“Sugaring has been part of the history and culture of New England for over 300 years, offering some proof to the longevity of the sugar maple tree and to the lack of damage as a result of centuries of annual tapping.”
From an article published 100 years ago in the Daily Hampshire Gazette comes this far-reaching piece: “Ross, the grocer, has received orders for maple sugar to go to Chicago, Philadelphia, and Paris. They come from college students who, while living here, bought a certain man’s make of sugar at Ross’s and are now willing to pay a fancy price to get a good thing.”
One hundred years later maple sugar is still a good thing. Growing up in Western Massachusetts I always new it was spring when my parents took my sisters and me to the Hilltowns to breathe the maple scented air, watch the sugaring process and taste the unique, sweet syrup.
I’ll begin here in my home town with John Bisbee who was eager to relate his experience as he puttered about his rustic sugarhouse.
“I started when I was nine years old. Helped a friend about four years older than I, Gilman Smith. We set 50 old wooden buckets and boiled down in an old flat pan in my Grandmother Bisbee’s backyard fireplace. Eventually Gilman grew out of it and I kind of took it over on that scale for several years. It was hard work. I borrowed a neighbor’s wagon and used two 40 quart milk cans, filled them with sap and pulled them up the hill to where I boiled the sap. No rules. No nothin’. Just dirt, leaves, moths and what-have-you. I strained it but it was some godawful stuff. My family pretty much tolerated it. When I started making better syrup, I realized how bad that first stuff was. Black! I did this till I was about 15 and slowly got better at it. I’m 54 now.
“In those days part of my family ran Bisbee Brothers Lumber Company and also a dairy farm. I was part of both as a kid and milked cows, too. I never really hung around home. I feel privileged to have grown up that way. My dad was in politics and he was gone a lot. I was raised by about 15 employees in the lumber business and they all treated me like a son. It was probably the best time of my life.
“I worked on the farm and was given a calf, raised it up and sold it to my grandfather for a “beefer.” This started the financial aspect of my life. I joined 4-H and started showing cows. 4-H is a great experience for kids. I learned a lot about cattle and was good at buying the best ones. I began to make money and also learned to save it, so at age ten I had a substantial savings account from money I earned at the lumber company and from selling cows. I worked on the farm from 5:30 till 7:00 AM just in time to catch the school bus. Then after school, I worked at the Bisbee store.
“In 1964 I was a sophomore in high school and had a couple thousand dollars saved, which in those days was a lot. I knew that this property where I live right now had a good little sugar orchard on it. It was owned by my dad and my Uncle Russell. They gave me permission to build a sugarhouse and sugar the area. My mother’s dad, Andrew Thomson, actually built the sugarhouse. He was a clever old bird. It took all summer even with my help – 24 x 25 feet.
“I bought a used evaporator 3 x 10 and was going to set buckets. However, Linwood Lesure talked me into using tubing. He was a great man for sugaring, very innovative, always willing to try something new. It was a wise move because I wanted to set 500 taps and I didn’t have enough buckets. Also tubing was best financially. So, away I went with tubing – like a drunken spider the first year! I had it all criss-crossed. A mess. The sap went by gravity feed right to the sugarhouse.
“In high school years I made quite a lot of syrup and got in trouble because I kept falling asleep in class. While everybody else was playing sports, I was sugaring. In my senior year I arranged my schedule so that I had study hall in the afternoon and could get most of my homework done. Then I would fall asleep and get sent to the principal’s office. Still, I made 200 gallons of syrup, good syrup, and that was a lot for an 18 year old kid working alone. Finally, I told the principal what I was doing. He was angry that I hadn’t told him right away because he would have let me go home to my sugarbush. I had been in my sugarhouse till nearly 2 in the morning.
“I sugared that way till I graduated from high school and soon after that I went into the army – Vietnam War. I am not ashamed that I was in Vietnam for a year. It taught me a lot, to appreciate what you got and what you’re able to do. A lot of people feel that things ought to be given to ‘em. Actually, you ought to earn it. When I came home, I didn’t care if the sun came up or not. I got married to Mary Lou and she probably saved my life. We’ve been married over 30 years and have two kids, Scott and Lisa, and two grandsons, age 8 and 5. Alden and Thomas love this sugarhouse!”
John is the 5th generation of the Bisbee family to do sugaring in Chesterfield. He says, “My mother says the reason I have the interest is because she was helping my dad gather sap in the spring when she was pregnant with me. I was born in July. My son, Scott, comes in and helps, but his job and family keep him so busy he doesn’t have the time. If this business eventually goes to Scott and his boys, that will make seven generations.”
John has always worked for himself or others but never where he could acquire retirement benefits. He depends on his wife’s good benefits, but he does have health care.
“In the early 1980’s I worked with Lawton’s horses for one year, both for logging and for gathering sap. Now with tubing I don’t need the help of animals. Still have fond memories as a kid when horses were used in my family for haying as well. Once, a friend and I decided to use horses to help us scatter the buckets and covers throughout the sugarbush. We loaded everything on the wagon and took off. Something spooked the horses and they took off. They scattered those buckets all right! Their ears went back and they were gone. The only reason they stopped is because they tried to go on opposite sides of a tree.”
Here John relates a little sugaring history I found very interesting.
“I think it was in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s when people began using sleds with tanks on them to haul the sap. Before that, there would be two or three arches in the sugar orchard. They were made of flat stone with stone chimneys – like fireplaces. Sap buckets were gathered by hand when they were full, taken to an arch fire and the sap was boiled down in just a flat pan – 3 x 10. It was made into sugar, not syrup; blocks of sugar to sell. Folks who bought these blocks could then break it up, put it in water and turn it into syrup. At that time, the sugar orchard was divided into sections. As the sap in one section was all boiled down, the fire was put out and the workers moved to another section, pan and all. The remnants of some of these arches still exist all over New England and are a couple hundred years old. Three are close by and hunters find them.”
As John stokes the fire under his tantalizing, sweetening sap he continues his story:
“The art of making good syrup is to have good, clean, fresh sap and a consistent boil. People often ask how I can tell if it’s a good year. I say, ‘Ask your neighbor when it’s all over!’ I see no effect on this year’s syrup from the drought conditions in New England (2002). Up here in the Hilltowns we have a different type of soil than in the valley or in Connecticut. But Connecticut is not maple country – only 200 feet above sea level. Elevation is so important. In the valley, sugarers import a lot of Hilltown sap, mostly because we have the freezes and a little longer season. The whole thing is the weather. It needs to freeze up at night and warm up during the day. The ideal sugar orchard is south and southwest slope.
“On a nine or ten inch tree you want to put one tap breast high. I think you can add a tap for every four inches of tree growth. Being a cheap Yankee – if I’m going to cut a tree anyway, then I tap it. The tap holes heal in a year on a healthy tree.”
In 2001 there was no drought in New England. John figures he got five feet of snow just in the month of March in his sugar orchard. Tremendously hard work to sugar. “We were tapping in more than three feet of snow with a crust on it. The kind where you take two steps and then plunge through. It was brutal! I made about 200 gallons and should have made a lot more. In just over a week this year (2002) I’ve made 200 gallons.”
At this time John has 15 acres and 2500 taps – he’s pretty equipped also. “I got a good tractor that I can turn into a miniature skidder. I got a good wood-splitter and a mini fork-lift. I split the wood right into these racks and don’t touch it again ‘till it goes into the fire box. The racks hold not quite a half cord. A couple of my friends help me from time to time, God bless ‘em. They give me a chance to sit down!
“I use 40” long split cordwood – pine, hemlock and a mixture of low grade hardwood. For our stove in the house I use good hardwood. Somebody clearing a building lot might bring me the soft wood. In a good year I burn 40-50 cord here in the sugarhouse. Takes about four cord of hardwood to heat our house – depending on the severity of the winter. I also use a propane heater in the kitchen and in the sugarhouse. Maybe, when I get older’ I’ll use more propane so I won’t need to cut so much wood.
“This is my third year with an automatic draw-off. (John points to a little black box.) It’s a computer. In the syrup pan there’s a probe and when the syrup gets to the right temp for drawing off, the probe sends a signal to the valve which it opens and closes. Then I get the syrup out of the evaporator and finish it off in a finisher that’s fired by propane. With a hydrometer I make a density test and get it right on the money – syrup! If it crystallizes at the bottom of the can that’s because it was a little bit heavy. Most people know that is not a problem. Setting the can in warm water will melt those crystals and they taste just fine. Thirty gallons of syrup should weigh 330 pounds.
“I made this finisher and it’s on my wife’s fish aquarium stand. My son Scott got the propane burners for me from broken hot water heaters. Also I made half of the filter press from an old dealer valve milking machine for milking cows. Underneath is a genuine filter press for the maple business. Buying the whole thing costs $2000, but with my homemade part, I spent only $700 for this filter press. My setup will strain five gallons in 3 or 4 minutes. I used felt for years and have had this filter press for only five years. This gives off crystal clear syrup.”
According to John, metal cans are a lot more expensive than plastic. And after 50 or 60 years they still can’t make a metal can that doesn’t leak or rust. Or you lift up a gallon can and the metal handle breaks off. “We can put a man on the moon but can’t make a leak-proof metal can! For years, plastic was notorious for darkening the syrup. The best company for making plastic jugs is right up here in Turners Falls, Massachusetts – Sugar Hill. Also makes ketchup bottles. They put a vapor barrier in the outside of the plastic jug and it works, keeps the syrup from darkening. The jug itself is easier to handle and easier to open. “There is a lot of upkeep and maintenance on the machines here. This is a stainless steel evaporator. Everything has to be cleaned when the season’s over. I drain this pan and clean it with the same thing used to clean dairy equipment. I boil that detergent in the pan, cool it and then start scrubbing. The tubing, I back-flush with water and a little Clorox. Takes about a week or more to wash the tubing. You have to go to every tree, pop the spout out, then blast the tubing with a lot of pressure. I do that right after sugaring. There’s no sap left after cleaning, so the bears just want to mess with it – not to get sap!
“You want a totally closed system so no air gets sucked in. Tubing creates a natural vacuum, designed to pull slightly on a tap hole. Freezing up doesn’t hurt the tubing. The tree itself creates pressure, sometimes enough to blow the ice right out of the tubing.”
Each year John has to replace some equipment or tubing. Chipmunks are his worst problem. “One year they destroyed about 800 plastic spouts and I never found 200 of them. Bears do their damage in the summer, biting holes in the tubing just for fun. A bunch of us guys have an archery club and we practice here on 3D targets. The bears love to chew on those targets, which are shaped like bears. I think the bears may be looking for mates the way they attack these bearlike targets!” John will tell you there are two types of people that do sugaring. One is the maple producer and the other is the sugar maker. “I consider myself a sugar maker. A producer is somebody who just makes a lot of syrup, not caring about the other aspects of it. For him, quality is more important than quantity. I would rather make quality syrup and I will not make dark syrup. It’s more costly to make – more wood, more labor and it sells for less money. Around here there are some good sugar makers who are also maple producers.”
In 1964 John belonged to the Berkshire Pioneer Maple Association which later became the Massachusetts Association of Maple Producers with headquarters in Ashfield. “I firmly believe in this group even though I don’t totally agree with everything they do. Seems like they always want to get state or federal money and I don’t like that. We butt heads sometimes because I don’t agree with getting free money. I say, ‘Keep the government out of this.’ Look at the dairymen. They don’t even have a choice about what they get for their own product. Something wrong with that. This is too hard work to have George W. Bush or Mitt Romney tell me what I can charge for it.
“So far the government has let us alone because we’re a small industry. If you run a restaurant with your sugarbush then you are subject to inspections from local boards of health. When Jay Healy was in the Department of Agriculture here he was a big help to us. He is sorely missed by many. Mass. Maple is a good organization and I still belong. I’m just not into the politics of it.”
Big time marketing is not for John; however, he does mail syrup away now and then. He has no trouble selling syrup right here. Some goes to local restaurants that buy three, four, or even ten gallons at a time. He says you can take a gallon of syrup and turn it into 70 or 80 dollars by making it into candy. Years ago he bought candy making equipment but just doesn’t have time to make the candy or the maple cream.
“I’m not a very patient person but I try to get involved in town issues. I have a lot of common sense and I eat up the controversy of town politics. I really believe in Town Meetings. I’m in charge of Memorial Day celebrations but I do not belong to any veterans’ organizations. To be honest with you, they were our worst critics when we came home from Vietnam. Far worse than the Hippies!”
These days John enjoys giving sugar eats and birthday celebrations for private parties. He really likes having groups of school kids visit his sugarhouse. “My favorites are the younger ones because they are really interested. Some of the older ones just want to mess around.”
Once a group of exchange students came from other countries. They didn’t speak English very well which was an interesting challenge for John to explain sugaring to them.
“I’ve given out dozens of sap buckets through the years, mostly to kids and dads who want to tap a tree. Now I’m running out of the old buckets. I’m proud of my heritage in sugar making, but boy, you’ve gotta like it. If it ain’t in your heart, you’re just beating yourself up for nothing. Getting into it brand new, without any equipment or knowledge, is so costly. I recommend new comers cut their teeth on someone’s old equipment.”
If you had it to do all over again, would you do it?
“Oh, you bet. To be honest, there ain’t a whole helluva lot I’ve done in my life that I wouldn’t do again – try again. It’s my journey. I learned the hard way. Makes you tough. Working alone in the woods, logging, taught me a lot. I love to hunt and I don’t think twice about hunting alone. And I fish. My family eats what I bring home. When I was a kid, Chesterfield was a small little town of about 500 people. Deer week, the first week of December, the whole place shut down because everybody went hunting. Bisbee Brothers shut the sawmill down. Bakers store closed. Some different now!
“With sugaring, every year something happens – unusual, funny, not so funny. This year we’re all waiting for something to happen because I haven’t messed up yet. I used to take the smoke stack down every year. One year I climbed up to replace the stack and had it over my head, reaching up on a snowy day, and the wind blew me right off the roof of the sugarhouse and down into the snow. That was kinda rough so I went in the house for a while!
“There’s lots of ways to get hurt. You have to be careful with the fire, wear special gloves and boots. If you wear a wide-mouth boot and get an ember down in it, you don’t take long to get the boot off! (Laughter.)
“Two of my cousins sugared for a few years. Most of the women who sugar are part of a husband and wife team. A lot of new people are setting 100-500 taps, but that’s a small operation that yields about 20 gallons a year. More of a hobby. Probably giving their kids a great experience and teaching them how to work.
“I believe that I make the best maple syrup in the world. Just ask me!”
Heading northwest a few country miles, I came to the Windy Hill Sugar House in Worthington, Massachusetts. This popular place is owned and operated by the Mollison family, which has sugared for several generations. I spoke with Janet Mollison who sugars as part of a husband- and-wife team. She is also on the board of directors of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. The Mollison family has been a member since its inception. I am told that now the organization has a full time coordinator who does marketing and press releases. Out of Vermont there is a book titled ‘Sweet Maple’, which contains sugaring lore, information, and delicious recipes.
Janet grew up in nearby Huntington, Massachusetts, where she sugared with her dad, Walter Steins. “I am the oldest of seven and we all grew up sugaring. Only two of us still sugar. When I worked in the city I always came back home to sugar. Some folks thought I was nuts! I can’t imagine not doing it. You sniff the air, you feel the wind, it’s a nice day in February, and all you can think of is, ‘God, this is perfect!’ Where else would I want to be? However, when it’s cold and I have a boot full of snow, then I’m not so sure.” (laughing)
When Janet Steins married John Mollison she was welcomed gladly into the family because she already knew how to boil sap and used the same kind of evaporator.
“I probably would feel neglectful in the spring if I didn’t sugar. I am that connected to the soil and to the agricultural heritage. Howard Mollison is my father-in-law, John is my husband and they work well together sugaring. My brother, John Steins, also sugars in Huntington.”
Howard Mollison, who recently died, sugared all his 79 years. With his wife, Leah, he sugared in the 1950’s. They tried to cut a deal with Howard’s dad to take over his sugaring operation. Howard told his dad, ‘You gave me the farm and it’s worth a whole lot more money than the sugarhouse.’ His dad replied, ‘I’m afraid you and Leah are going to burn the front pan.’ Sure enough—one night they almost burnt the front pan. Leah and Howard picked up the pan and ran outside with it.” (laughter)
Howard and Leah had three children, Jerry, Joan, and John (Janet’s husband). All of them sugared. Steins and Mollisons helped each other out over the years. If one had a faulty pan, the other would boil for him in a good, normal, neighborly way.
“This sugarhouse was built in 1947, built of old barn boards and still pretty much original. In 1960 the wood shed was added plus the maple restaurant which was thought to be a good way to market some syrup.”
When they started the restaurant, Leah had a very basic menu: homemade pancakes, waffles, French toast and sausage. Her oldest son, Jerry, took over the cooking when Leah couldn’t do it anymore and he manages the restaurant now. He learned well from his mother and grandmother, a real family endeavor.
“Jerry’s wife, Betty, and daughter, Leona, help in the restaurant. Leona is the fourth generation here and we hope it will go on. Jerry has changed the menu to meet the changing tastes of the American public. People are looking for foods that are not so fatty. And not everybody wants pancakes and syrup.”
I just had a ham dinner here with your delicious Maple Mustard. Oh, was that good!
“You notice that we are bottling in glass, different sizes. We’re trying to respond to what the public is looking for. Probably glass is better than metal because glass doesn’t pick up or give any taste. The metal cans are not made the way they were 30 years ago and it’s much easier to pick up a metallic taste from the cans now.
“Most of the sugarers have gone to plastic because it doesn’t rust, is totally recyclable, easier to open and pour from and has a safety seal on the cap. If you buy syrup in a plastic jug and you want to keep it for a really long time, put it in your freezer when you get home. It will get more solid but it won’t freeze hard. Before you want to use it, put it in your fridge. Plastic jugs now are coated with something to keep out ultraviolet lights. That solves the problem of darkening.
“All the syrup we market retail out of here is Grade A. Either Grade A Light Amber, Grade A Medium Amber or Grade A Dark Amber. The Light Amber compares to the old Fancy. Medium Amber is a wonderful table grade. You can see it. You can use it in your cooking because it has a little bit more pronounced flavor. Dark Amber is especially great for kids because they can see it when they pour it on their pancakes. It is also good for cooking baked beans, applesauce, maple mustard, maple carrots, maple parsnips—all these dinners you want to have a little maple flavor.
“I have a luxurious position. I can have all grades in my refrigerator at the same time! The other night I brought home some fresh Light Amber in memory of my dad. He always got vanilla ice cream to go with the first draught of syrup. As kids we’d go trucking down to the sugarhouse, mom would bring down bowls and spoons and we’d all have ice cream topped with hot syrup fresh from the evaporator. That was a real treat for us when we were growing up. A tradition I like to keep. So I brought it home for my nieces and nephews.
“The amount of wood we use depends on the production. We’ll probably burn ten bundles of slabs which we get from Sarafins, a local lumber company. We buy their slabs, they have local lumber, we make local syrup. It’s an inter-connectiveness of agriculture in western Massachusetts. Very important!
“People ask what we do on a year like this (2002) when there’s no snow on the ground. I say, ‘Tap lower!’ (much laughter) Last year we had to climb snowdrifts in order to tap. Not much else is different. This year the amount of syrup seems to be comparable. It isn’t the amount of snow that makes the difference. What matters is the amount of moisture in the ground and the ground level. It’s more to do with the cold nights and warm days. Needs to get down to about 25 degrees at night, freeze harder, and then warm up to 40 without the cold wind. Cold wind will shut off the sap.
“We check our trees all the year round, looking at the health of the tops and the number of tap holes on the trees. In the summer, we take walks in the sugarbush to see if there are problems. We tap conservatively and have gone to the smaller spouts because they heal faster and better. The Health Spout seems to work very, very well. Like my dad, we used buckets but started switching to tubing when we stopped having a fistful of neighborhood kids who wanted to collect sap.
“This setup is all gravity feed. We start up high and go down. Originally we used a sight level to make sure that we were going in the right direction. This is not as simple as when we put four or five buckets in a tree, but also we don’t have to pick up covers that run off, buckets that are in the road, or have to find people to do the collecting.
“The most pesky animals that get into our tubing are squirrels. They like to chew on it. Once in a while we find a main line or something has been pulled down because bears decide to stroll through. Then we spend some time fixing things and putting up new lines. During the season we try to get out a couple of times to make sure there are no leakers and nothing’s pulled apart. Now we have 700-800 taps. At one time Howard was putting out 3000 taps, so we’re way down. Some of our older trees are not tapped at all, some are not as accessible, some are taking a little break.”
Who will carry on this family tradition is hard to say. Leona is very interested in the restaurant. Her young nephews are more interested in the outdoor part. Hopefully, when they get older, they will want to take over.
“While we’ve had the restaurant we have also had something else for people to enjoy. At one time, we had a team of horses here to give wagon rides. Right now our young neighbor, Josh Sampson, taps some trees at his place, collects and brings the sap to us to boil in with ours. Josh is a 4-H ox teamster so it was logical to have him bring his team of four-year-old Holsteins here to give ox cart rides. People like to see these fine animals. There are still folks in the Hilltowns who collect sap with oxen or horses. Both Jerry and John had teams once and collected with them. The ox yoke that hangs in the sugarhouse was used on Jerry’s team. Oxen are in our history, and the ox cart rides are fun for all ages.”
Some of you readers may recall seeing Josh Sampson and his oxen in a few of my previous stories. He is one of the competitors in the Challenge. Josh raised and trained ‘Dick’ and ‘Dime’ from calves. He logs with them at home and also gives cart rides and shows them at many fairs and parades. They each weigh 2000 lbs.
Josh got started as a young teamster with the help of the Hine family who live nearby and are all ox teamsters. He uses mostly voice commands to direct his willing team. Today ‘Dick’ and ‘Dime’ are wearing breechin’s that Josh bought from some Amish craftsmen in Pennsylvania. This type of harness keeps the weight of the cart from pushing onto the team’s heads, especially on the downhill. Breechin’s act something like brakes because the cattle learn to set back into them when needed. I predict that Josh and his oxen have an exciting future. A welcome attraction at this sugarhouse.
Before I left on my ride in the ox cart, Janet shared this bit of whimsy.
“Here is the difference between New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts sugar makers, back when they were all collecting in pails. The New York sugar maker opened the pail and found a little critter swimming around in there. He looked around, took the critter out and dumped the sap in the gathering tank.
“The Vermont sugar maker found a critter in his pail. Being a bit on the Yankee side, he held the critter up, scraped the sap off it before letting it go, and then dumped the sap into the gathering tank.
“In Massachusetts we were taught that if we found stray things in our sap, we should dump the sap out on the ground. We are very careful to do that!” (much laughter)
Traveling northeast to Ashfield, I came to Gray’s Sugarhouse where the Gray family has been producing maple syrup since 1866. Brothers Frank and Charles built the current sugarhouse in 1934 to replace a smaller one built by their father, William H. Gray. The boiling was done over a wood-fired burner until 1961. At that time, William F. (Willie) Gray took over the operation from his uncle and replaced the original burner with an oil-fired one (still in use).
Willie’s folks made maple sugar in the house originally, and his wife, Marian, learned to make the sugar from Willie’s mother. Marian went to the sugarhouse only when help with customers was needed. In response to weekend visitors, the family started offering Sugar-On-Snow as a way to sample the freshly made syrup. The addition of a restaurant was the customer’s idea. According to Marian, “It sort of evolved. One spring Willie said he had some lumber up in the barn and he made some tables. There were some trees up the road that he cut up into stumps for seats. Carpet from the bedroom floor was cut into circles for padded seat covers. Willie made three long trestle tables held up with three stumps and surrounded by 48 stump seats. We added an old kitchen range and three pancake griddles. At first, we made just pancakes and Sugar-On-Snow but soon added sausage. Next came fried dough, which was a great favorite. At the Ashfield Festival on Columbus Day weekend, we have sold as many as 2000 fried dough! As soon as corn fritters were introduced, they eventually stole the spotlight from fried dough.”
I always had your corn fritters – so delicious with warm maple syrup! Marian has kept the books for this enterprise all these years and still works out of the home as a bookkeeper. In her well-worn record book she has put stars on the special weekends.
“The most we ever had in one year is 7527 customers. This covers six weekends of two days each. The most in one weekend is 1543 and the most in one day is 833. This doesn’t even begin to include all the maple products we mail away for customers.”
In the beginning, the restaurant was run completely by family members. However, as an expansion was added, there was much more work which required many more people cooking, and serving. Marian relates, “Then came my friend Jean and her daughter and granddaughter and then her other daughter, etc. We had a whole family that way. Then came my hairdresser and her daughter and then some schoolteachers. It was just too busy to be only Grays.
“We opened at 8:30 AM. Oddly, some people would say, ‘I don’t want to wait in line so I’ll get there at 7:00 AM and be the first one when it opens. Somehow this didn’t seem like waiting in line.
Willie adds, “The line would be way out to the bridge. One guy brought a chair and a newspaper and just kept shuffling along as the line snaked its way toward the sugarhouse. Still, nobody complained about waiting.”
If you preferred a shorter line you could arrive about 3:00 PM for late lunch. Still, there was always some length of line until the restaurant closed at 4:00 PM. In that line, there were interesting conversations, old Yankee stories and such. It was like a weekend newspaper while friends and strangers enjoyed anticipating a fabulous meal while they inhaled the maple aroma.
Eventually, in the alcove where the line began, a heater was installed plus a few log benches for the weary and many pictures of the sugaring technique were hung on the rustic walls.
An addition to the restaurant was made at one time because Marian felt she needed more space. She not only got the space but also two more tables and more stump seats. The accommodations jumped from 48 to 72! It was done by simply adding onto the roofline so nobody knew what had been done until they got inside and saw five tables instead of three. Originally there were 16 seats to a table but that was now cut down to 13 to give folks more elbow room. In spite of any changes, people kept coming, until finally a couple of men were hired to handle parking.
The evaporator room is now just beyond the inside windows which allow eaters to watch the boiling. Willie welcomes curious visitors in that room of the tantalizing aroma. He loves to describe the process and answer questions. Folks are also welcome to wander among the maple trees where they see buckets and pipeline collecting the sap. Willie does all the boiling and now has help from his grandson who is 24. There are also three great-grandsons who might be interested someday.
For those who get the call-of-nature, there is an old-fashioned privy, which sets over a chemical toilet that gets pumped out every year. It offers separate seating for men and women and is kept very clean. One woman hesitated as long as she could and finally had to use that ‘objectionable outhouse’. She was amazed that it was clean and odor free.
When the restaurant opened 42 years ago, the Grays also opened a small rustic building nearby where local craftspeople could display and sell their unique goods. It was entirely run by the crafters and warmed by a wood stove. The artists received all the profits.
Do folks like the Gray’s syrup? Marian tells of one pregnant lady who went into labor while waiting in line. When her water broke, she left her husband in line, went to the privy briefly, came back in line, soon was seated and ate her breakfast before going home to birth her baby. She later introduced the Grays to the daughter who had been born that day. So, you bet this is good syrup!
Marian makes all the sugar and candy. “I learned to make the sugar from Willie’s mother and got the recipe for maple cream out of a book. Besides the syrup, the best seller is the maple cream, which keeps very well. (So yummy on toast or an English muffin.)
“If you ever find a little mold on top of your syrup, it does not hurt the syrup. Just skim it off, bring the syrup to a boil, add a little milk if you wish, and this brings the syrup right back to perfection. For some reason this mold is called ‘mother’ by some folks although it is not the same as the ‘mother’ sometimes found in fermenting cider.”
According to Willie, “The term ‘mothering’ probably comes from the idea that something is really working.” Both being mothers, Marian and I took that as a compliment!
In 2002 the restaurant served its last customers after 40 years of sweet service. The whole family, the extended family, as well as the crafters, needed time off. However, only the eatery was closed. Willie continues sugaring and you can order or stop by each season for syrup, maple creams and various kinds of maple candy. The rustic dining room has been converted into a busy candy kitchen and packaging area where one can become giddy with maple fragrance.
“We have to keep all the restaurant equipment in place and pay taxes on it. We hope some of the great-grandchildren will want to run it again someday, though probably not so extravagant as before. If so, that would make 6 generations of sugar makers in this family. If we took everything out, then nobody could start it up again because of all the new regulations. The sugarhouse would be too close to the road and to the brook behind it. For now, the whole operation is legal because it is ‘grandfathered’, a term for many old-time buildings and acreage in Massachusetts.”
Without a doubt, the Gray’s syrup has traveled farther than most. One frequent visitor to the sugarhouse was an astronaut, Daniel T. Barry, MD, PHD, Mission Specialist on the Space Shuttle Discovery. Grays proudly display a framed document with these words: “This maple syrup was flown from Gray’s Sugar Farm aboard the U.S. Space Shuttle Discovery on the first docking mission to the International Space Station on May 27 – June 6, 1999.” Willie and Marian now have the two small bottles of their syrup that went on this journey. While on the flight, Dr. Barry had some of this syrup on his pancakes.
Would Willie do the sugaring all over again. “You bet! It was great early on when our four boys were helping me. Today I would have to find the help and that would be hard. It takes two to gather the sap. I do remember helping my uncle who gathered with horses, but I have never used animals. More than half of my sugarbush is in tubing now. I have about 1800 taps, but I’ve had as much as 3600. One year we made 1800 gallons of syrup!”
Willie used to raise Holsteins for milking and now is starting to breed Herefords. He has four cows and four yearling calves for sale.
Along his journey, in his spare time, Willie learned to play guitar, piano and harmonica. I was treated to a piano/harmonica concert that was delightful.
Last, but definitely not least, on my sugaring safari is Steve’s Sugar Shack in Westhampton. Massachusetts. Unlike the three previous stories, this one does not begin with a long-standing family tradition. Steve Holt, a 40-year-old logger, landscaper and tree warden, learned the art of sugaring from his neighbor 28 years ago.
“I began by watching Harley Lemery after school. I watched him boil until one day I decided I could do this. He gave me seven taps. I came home and set my seven taps and eventually started boiling sap. I was 12. My operation began with a makeshift sugarhouse of six cinder blocks, a grate on top and a kitchen pan.”
According to Steve’s wife, Julie, “When he first started boiling sap in an old wash tub he wondered why it wasn’t turning into syrup. Turns out he was putting a cover on it so it would heat faster. The condensation just kept going back into the sap. Once he figured that out, the process went much faster.” (laughter)
Following the cinder block operation, Steve built a sugarhouse on North Road when he was 15, a photo of which hangs on the pine walls of his current sugarhouse built three years ago.
“Each year my adventure got a little bigger and in 2002 we actually opened our new sugarhouse with a restaurant serving the public on spring weekends. My brother-in-law is one of the cooks and I hired another. This is pretty much a family affair: my mom, Mary, greets people and takes their orders; my two girls, Tiffany and Stephanie are teenage waitresses along with two of their friends. I also have help from my brother, Michael, and my sisters, Debbie and Mary Lou.
“Ever since I was an early adult this has been a dream of mine. I wanted to have a place that people could come to, that was easy to get to, and I knew a restaurant would draw a crowd. When I built this sugarhouse, everybody in town wanted to be part of it. No matter what phase I was at, people would stop by to help with everything from putting in the main beams for the postand- beam to hanging the sheetrock in the kitchen. If there was a light on, the people came. A real New England feeling. You don’t have the same thing if you open up a business in an industrial park.”
The whole Holt family is very active in the Westhampton community – in church and school and now the sugarhouse.
“I have about 100 buckets and 650 taps on tubing. My wife Julie does all the gathering. She does all the work while I do all the fun stuff in the sugarhouse. Her choice!” (laughter) Julie says, “I do the gathering with a truck and a pump. I just put the pump into the pipeline tank and pump it onto the truck. There are some buckets I have to haul but not many. I love this work. The only hard part is jumping in and out of the truck, so I usually bring someone along to be in the truck so I can stay on the ground.”
Steve takes care of the sugarhouse and the boiling. He boils right in the same room where the folks are eating breakfast. They can see the process and smell the fragrant aroma. The sugarhouse was built on two levels for a safety feature. The boiling is done on the upper level away from any children who might be running around. You have to climb up several stairs to get to the hot ovens. Steve keeps a close eye on those who climb up to watch him at the boiling pans.
Steve fires with wood – about 8 cord and he has storage capacity for 12 cord. He wants to always be ready for that extra good season when it comes. Because he’s a logger, getting wood is no problem. The sugarhouse is more of a hobby for him.
“With what I have invested in the building, this will be a hobby for a lot of years. My wife sometimes asks how many more checks we’re gonna keep writing; but now we seem to be turning a corner on our investment.”
From tapping the trees to cutting and hauling the wood, to boiling the sap, maple sugaring is time and energy consuming.
“Each year the tap holes must be drilled in a different spot. The hole heals itself. It’s sort of like getting a cut and a scab. After a while there’s no mark at all.”
Steve is also a member of the town’s Conservation Commission. He loves the land and says that maple harvesting is a way of maintaining that connection. “It’s a part of nature – a kind of farming thing – a lot of hard work and you end up with a finished product. I’m trying to keep a tradition alive.
“There were a lot of ‘Wows!’ this morning, when people watched the sap boiling. Some folks are surprised to learn that the craft is so precise – at a certain temperature, the syrup can be candy, at another it is syrup. When this Vermont-made evaporator gets really, really hot, there’s a red glowing circle.
“This year’s season is going quite well, but it’s going to end early because it’s been unseasonably warm. Once the trees put out their buds, the season’s all over. You need cold nights and warm days. Every season is different and unique. This year we’ve had three good runs and nothing in between. Last year we had 11 or 12 little runs.
“I think the Maple Association is very informative and keeps us up to date on things we should know so that our product is safe for consumption. Everything in our sugarhouse now is food-grade stainless steel. I also have a television here where I show an educational video from the Association about making maple syrup.”
Steve’s Sugar Shack is his long time dream-come-true. It is Westhampton’s first sugaring operation to serve food, cozy and inviting with a country feel – pine walls and hemlock beams. Seating is a comfortable old-fashioned way with folks at long tables. This helps promote friendly conversation. “Last year we did a special breakfast for everyone who helped me build this shack – tons of people! I borrowed the long tables from the church and it worked so well that I decided to use that same kind. In here folks are meeting new people and enjoying great conversations. Some folks stay an hour talking about their sugaring memories and what they did as kids. We’re located right in the center of town, which is perfect.”
The Holts sell syrup, candy, cream and sugar. Steve makes it all. “I do the candy and maple cream at night after dark – every Friday night so it’s fresh for the weekend in the restaurant. I make six or seven pounds of sugar and three or four pounds of cream. Candy sells better than the cream because the cream isn’t so well known. Those who have had it look forward to it. Better on toast than butter! All pure maple sugar – just straight sap boiled into this product.
“Not much snow this year. Last year we had snow four feet deep and it was one of the worst seasons I’ve had. It was the hardest to set up and it was too short. Not a high yield. This year we have drought conditions, no frost, not much snow and I have made 20% more syrup already, and still boiling. It’s because we are still getting cold nights and warm days. I say, ‘You cannot predict Mother Nature.’ People often ask at the start of the season how I think it’s going. I tell them, ‘I’ll let you know the first of April when I’ll have a better grasp on it.’ (laughter)
“We won’t be open this year on Easter weekend because Julie and I are both involved at church with the Sunrise breakfast. We can’t be in both places at once, so the sugarhouse closes for this season tomorrow. We run both breakfasts and some folks suggested we invite the whole church to the sugarhouse!”
Steve’s Sugar Shack serves pancakes, French toast, with either bacon or sausage plus orange juice, hot chocolate or coffee. Next year they will add other items. “One of the reasons I built this shack is because Westhampton has eight sugarhouses currently running, but all are like my old one – out behind the house on a muddy path! Here we are high and dry and accessible for the handicapped, including the bathroom. I made it big enough so we could have 30 kids in here and still be safe. The boiling is visible to all.”
Steve’s Sugar Shack is truly a modern sugarhouse using old-fashioned methods. The floor is cement and in one area there are quite a few handprints that were put there the day the cement was poured. I’m told these prints belong to all members of the Holt family – all the energetic people who are helping make this a very friendly and tasty enterprise. I predict it is the start of a Holt family tradition.
NEW ENGLAND SUGAR EAT
Pan of snow
Saltines or plain donuts
A real New England Sugar Eat can easily be prepared at home. Put the desired amount of syrup in a sauce pan and boil slowly to a temperature of 230 degrees to 232 degrees. Test, by spreading a spoonful on the pan of snow. The syrup should stay on the surface. If done, transfer syrup to a pitcher and pour small amount over the snow. Lift from snow with fork. The syrup should be chewy. After satisfying your desire for sweets, eat a sour pickle or two and then repeat the process until pitcher is empty.
2 cups maple syrup
Pinch of salt
½ cup of top milk
½ cup chopped nuts
Combine syrup, salt and milk. Boil to 238 degrees without stirring. Remove from heat, and cool to lukewarm (110 degrees). Beat until creamy, add nuts and turn into greased pan. Cut into squares.
Make a custard with 1 cup pure maple syrup, 2/3 cup of milk, yolk of 4 eggs. Whip 1 pint of cream and thoroughly mix with custard. Place in freezer without dash, or in refrigerator, until proper consistency: Party fare!
MAPLE SUGAR CAKES
1 cup pure maple syrup
2 quart sauce pan
Boil syrup over direct heat without stirring until it reaches 232 degrees or forms a soft ball in cold water. Cool to 180 degrees without stirring, then stir until gloss begins to disappear. Pour at once into 8 x 8 pan, make drops on wax paper, or pour in sugar molds. To obtain a very fine grain, cool to 110 degrees before stirring.
AUNT DOT’S MAPLE SYRUP PIE
Bake one 9-inch pie shell. Put 1 cup maple syrup, 1 cup hot water, and butter (the size of a walnut) into a saucepan. Put 2 tablespoons cornstarch and enough water to make a thin paste, into a bowl. Add yolk of 1 egg and beat well. Bring syrup mixture to a boil and pour cornstarch mixture into it while it’s boiling. Cook only until it is clear and pour into baked pie shell. Beat white of 1 egg with 1 tablespoon of maple syrup. When stiff, drop in lumps over pie top and just brown. Serve cold. It’s not too sweet, but delicious. Best of all, it’s quick and easy!
OTHER SUGGESTED USES FOR MAPLE SYRUP
On: Pancakes, Waffles, French Toast, Bread Pudding, Hot Biscuits, Grapefruit, Cereals, Corn Bread. In: Candy, Cookies, Puddings, Baked Beans, Apple Sauce, Salad Dressing. Also – try a teaspoonful or two in your favorite drink. Use maple syrup just as it comes from the can, as a sauce on vanilla ice cream.