Maple Fest 2000
by Nan Clark of Chesterfield, MA
Welcome to Roaring Brook Farm during the Chester Hill Maple Fest 2000. It’s a clear, chilly March day, especially up here on Skyline Trail, one of the most scenic but breezy areas in Western Massachusetts. Chester Hill Association has many fine things planned for us: an all-you-can-eat Pancake Breakfast is being served from 9-4 at the First Congregational Church of Chester, Mass. I hope you brought your appetite because this is a scrumptious meal complete with fresh 100% maple syrup from local sugar houses. In the Old Schoolhouse we’ll see wool-spinners, artists and crafts people. We can pet the tiny twin Jacob Sheep lambs owned by Tom and Pam Brisson at Stoney Acre Farm. Blacksmith Brian Emery, with good help from his six year old son, Forrest, is demonstrating his talents with a portable forge. And there is catchy music in the frosty air. If we let ourselves keep time to the beat we’ll think we are warmer! At 3 pm we’ll take our chances in a raffle drawing for a basket of Chester Hill products, a wine-tasting party and gifts from many local businesses.
First, though, we’re visiting nearby Roaring Brook Farm Sugar House. This picturesque New England farm has a view that won’t quit and has been in the Meacham family for three generations so far. Today’s early spring sunshine labors in vain to give us the illusion of warmth and it’s good we’re bundled up against winters last sharp breezes. Not much snow underfoot, indeed, but we know for sure that winter has been here. We also know this is spring-around-the-corner day because our senses are tantalized by the aroma of maple in the air and the sight of steam billowing from the sugar house.
Let’s meet the Meachams. Here are Mark and Mary Ann with their children, Amanda 5 and Matthew 4, standing proudly in front of the family sugar house. Mark says he learned to gather and boil sap from his grandfather, Welcome Meacham. Mark’s dad, Ed, also knows his way around the sugar bush. He’s here today helping feed the fire and draw off the finished product. Mary Ann, who helps with every phase of this tasty tradition, offers us a small cup of warm syrup. Oh, yum! The men say they have 730 taps in their sugar bush which is mostly pipeline. All of this is taken down each year and thoroughly cleaned. They tell us it normally takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup; however, this season the sap is not so sweet and, therefore, it’s taking 50 to 60 gallons of sap for one gallon of syrup! Imagine! We want to know why, of course. They say it could be caused by the drought the previous summer or maybe the mild winter or maybe no one knows. I guess we can choose whatever theory makes sense to us.
Years ago all sap was gathered from the buckets on the trees and poured into wooden tanks on sleds pulled by oxen or horses. Nowadays many farms use tractors; however, there are still quite a few places where animals are preferred. To honor that tradition the Meachams have invited members of the Western Mass. 4-H Ox Teamsters Association to be on hand for the day. Those who could come are here with their steers and carts giving rides around the farm. As we sink into the hay cushion in our cart we get the feeling of warmth even though we see not only our breath in the breeze but also the breath of each yoked animal.
Let’s meet our teamsters and their well-trained steers. From Goshen, Mass. here is Philip Judd with a nicely matched pair of red-and-white Holsteins. “Tom” and “Luke” are 3½ years old which means in another six months they’ll be called oxen. On another cart we see “Dick” and “Dime,” 2½ year old Holsteins whose black-and-white markings are also well matched. This team is owned by Josh Sampson from Worthington, Mass. Lady teamsters are perfectly capable and often seen in the ox world. Today our lady teamster is Heather Gregoire from Ludlow, Mass. Her team of twin Dutch Belt/Lineback cross are 2½ year old “Heath” and “Greg.” It takes us a few minutes to realize that their names come from hers! All these teamsters are 15 and have raised and trained their steers from calves with lots of patience and repetition. Today we envy these animals their wooly winter coats, but they will soon start shedding. By summer they’ll all be well-groomed and competing at fairs. As an added attraction, Heather’s brother, Eric, has brought his two month old red Durham calves. Though only ten, Eric is already patiently teaching “Red” and “Shady” (his first pair) all the voice commands they need to know in order to grow into a handy ox team.
By now the steers are more than ready to get this cart moving. With a simple voice command from the teamster – Here we go! These teams of docile, intelligent giants are so powerful and so willing. This farm is so picture-perfect. This New England sky is so brightly blue. This sparkling spring air is so redolent with maple aroma. This Meacham family is so happy to have us all here. On a scale of 1-10 this March day surely rates a 10 plus!
Roaring Brook Farm on Skyline Trail in Chester, Massachusetts, is always open for visitors when the maple sap is running. The Meachams are happy to help you learn about the sugaring process, especially when the sap is boiling (weather permitting). I guarantee you’ll be pleased with the people and teased by the taste of their syrup. For a day of maple delight – just follow your nose!