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A Remembered Moment In A Vanished World: Weybridge Vermont (1948)
Tuesday April 7, 2009
By Bob Johnson
The Chinook wind came in late February that year, softening the snow drifts and suggesting that spring might come again after all. Dad was ready. Two thousand galvanized metal sap buckets, covers and spouts had been carefully washed down in the milk house in the same vats we used every day to clean the milking machines. Several cords of dry, fast-burning wood had been stacked by the sugar house.
Our 450 acre dairy farm spread out near the north end of Snake Mountain in the tiny town of Weybridge. About 150 acres were forested and rose steeply behind our house, out-buildings and barn. The sugar bush occupied the west end of this wood lot.
Just getting ready for sugaring was a major task. Our two draft horses were hitched to a wooden sled with steel-shoed wooden runners. It was loaded with buckets and hauled up through the deep snow on the network of wood roads on the mountain. Dad and I and the hired man, my Uncle George Morcombe, walked along side and scattered buckets throughout the sugar bush so they would be convenient during tapping. With 2000 buckets to distribute, numerous sled loads had to be hauled. Without the horses the task would have been impossible.
Another cold snap pushed the temperature down again; it was not yet time to tap. That year it would be delayed until after Town Meeting, which was just as well since that was a major event that no one wanted to miss. Sugaring would have interfered because when sap needs collecting or boiling it is the next to the highest priority. The highest priority in any season on a dairy farm is milking the cows morning and night.
The day after Town Meeting, Dad looked carefully at the early morning sky, tested the wind direction, noted the temperature and announced, “Today we tap.” He never needed the radio weather report. His was usually more accurate.
Timing was everything. Tap too soon and the spout holes dry up. Tap too late and you may miss the first and best run of the season.
I was allowed to skip school because I was very much needed for this project. Not that I would miss anything in school anyway. I had more or less mastered the curriculum for all eight grades by the time I was ten. I’m not bragging, there wasn’t much curriculum to master at Weybridge school # 2. It wasn’t that difficult if you listened in while the grades ahead of you did their recitations. I usually spent my time as a “teacher’s helper” working with the younger children, doing their flash cards, hearing their recitations.
After breakfast we started. One person would drill a hole in the tree with a ∏ inch bit brace. It had to be in live wood, not in an old tap hole. The hole was a couple of inches long and tilted slightly so the sap would run out easier. The second person would drive the spout and the third would hang the bucket and slide a lid on. The lid was supposed to keep rain, snow and insects from getting into the sap. It did fairly well with rain and snow but the insects, who loved the sweet sap, drowned themselves by the thousands and had to be strained out before the boiling. We jokingly said that they added flavor. Every so often we would switch jobs. It went fast once you developed the right rhythm.
We started with the trees that lined the mountain road for nearly a half mile. My grandfather had planted them back in the 1870s. Then we moved up into the sugar bush on the mountain. Eighteen inches of snow in the woods made for tough going but the three of us could still manage over 100 taps per hour. Some trees got one bucket, bigger ones got two and the great old monarchs of the woods got as many as three. At days end we were half done. It was finished on the second day. A freezing night and a warm, sunny day brought on the first big sap run. Dad’s weather forecast was “right on the money.”
Freezing nights and warm, sunny days send the sap surging up from the roots of the maples. During a good run the buckets may fill to overflowing in a few hours. The large galvanized tank was mounted on the sled and once again the horses would lurch into their harness and move along to the next stop.
The sugar house was located on a relatively flat section near the lower end of the maples with the rest of the sugar bush rising steeply up the flank of the mountain. A metal pipe extended from the large sap storage tank several hundred yards up through the trees to a smaller tank. This made collection of the sap a little easier and quicker, a much appreciated fact for those of us who had to walk through the deep, slushy snow from tree to tree carrying large metal buckets. When a couple of five gallon buckets were filled we struggled back and poured them into the horse drawn tank. When that tank was filled it was hauled to the stationary tank and emptied. Gravity propelled the sap to the tank at the sugar house. This operation was repeated every day during the sugaring season. The quantities were immense. In a good year we would make about 500 gallons of syrup and it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of the sweet stuff. Do the math and you will get an idea of how many buckets of sap had to be hand-carried from the trees to accumulate 20,000 gallons. It was a great way to stay in shape—or pop a disc in your back.
Dad did not participate in collecting sap. That was because he had a nearly full-time job, night and day managing the boiling. He had that job because he was the only one of us who knew how to do it. If it was done incorrectly you would end up with either sappy syrup, maple tar or a burned up evaporator and sugar house. He always did it correctly.
I remember how great it felt when the first syrup was completed and poured into the ten gallon galvanized milk cans that were the temporary storage containers. Later they would be emptied into the one gallon cans for sale. Some of the syrup would also be cooked down further after the season was over and converted into sugar.
Drinking warm syrup dipped directly out of the evaporator was a gourmet taste treat that I had enjoyed since early childhood. I kept a one-pint tin cup hanging in the sugar house and when syrup was ready I would fill the cup, set it in the snow to cool down to warm and then drink it like a glass of milk.
In early April, warm southern winds, scattered rain showers and nights in the forties brought an end to the sap runs and the beginning of a new season. Snow yielded to soggy fields of clay and the scattered detritus of the previous fall littered the land. All that remained of sugaring season was the need to collect the buckets, clean the equipment and stow everything until the next year.
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