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VERMONT MAPLE SUGAR
Sap-Boiling Time in the Green Mountain State
At ten o'clock the sap began to tinkle all through the grove. In nearly eight hundred buckets it fell, drop by drop, and the sugar season had begun. It was late March, but from the snow to the sky the day had all the warmth and glow of June. The sun had been up since before six. By seven it was shining bright into the Southern Vermont valley which the Deerfield River has carved out of the everlasting hills that roll and rise till the cone of Haystack tips them, nearly four thousand feet above the sea level. Yet till ten o'clock the maples sulked.
More sap is boiled in this beautiful bowl-shaped valley of which Wilmington is the metropolis than in any other part of the State. Vermont makes four-fifths of the maple sugar that is made in New England, nearly half of what is made in the United States, and here if anywhere you may see the art practised in its perfection. There may be better sugar makers than C. S. Grimes, who has been at it for sixty years, but if so I do not know them. He began with the old-time black iron kettle, boiled in the open over a green wood fire. He has seen the business grow in the sugar house to the use of scientifically accurate evaporating pans where sap flows in a steady stream into one end and comes out syrup of a law-required density of eleven pounds to the gallon at the other, the whole working automatically; and in that time he has learned something of the whims of the maples themselves, though not all of them.
Much of the lore of the great gray trees he told me as we sat together on the broad doorstone of the little white farmhouse, steeping in the sun and looking down upon the peaceful valley and across to Haystack, hazed in the blue smoke of spring. Everything was ready. The spiles were driven and the white, pent-roofed pails hung. The woodhouse end of the sugar house was full to the top of four-foot sticks ready for the boiling. Even the pan was full of sap, for there had been a slight run a week before. But the cold had shut down and the trees had quit. The morning before the thermometer had stood at zero and the sap in the pan was ice. So, no doubt, it was in the trees, and would be until the warmth had reached the heart of them. I learned more in the grove as the patient old horse drew the sled through a foot or two of old snow, and we gathered the crystal-clear sap from the buckets and poured it into the barrel, plodding from tree to tree. More still I got in the sugar house while the veteran fed the roaring fire and skimmed the scum from the boiling liquid as it flowed, an inch deep or so, along the winding channels, back and forth, sap at one end, syrup at the other.
The white men learned from the Indians the art of making maple sugar. In the "Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society," published in 1684, we find the following: "The savages of Canada in the time that the sap rises in the maple make an incision in the tree by which it runs out. After they have evaporated eight pounds of the liquor there remains one pound as sweet and as much sugar as that which is got out of the canes.
The savages here have practised this art longer than any now living among them remember." The white man has since brought the practice to a science. The art remains the same. How far back into the dim ages of the past it goes no man may tell.
The sugar maple reaches maturity at about a hundred years. Then in the forest the trees are seventy to eighty feet tall and have a diameter of two to four feet. Trees grown from seed produce the sweetest sap, second growth not being so good. The seedling under favorable conditions may reach a diameter of sixteen inches in fifteen years, though such growth is exceptional. It is not profitable to tap them before the age of twenty. After that they may be drawn from yearly, a tap to a tree at first. On the largest trees two or more buckets may be hung, never one above the other, as the sap flows up or down, never sidewise. The sweetest and best sap comes from the outermost ring of growth, the wood of the previous year. It is sweetest at the height of the run. It flows better by day than by night; the brighter, lighter and sunnier the day the faster it flows, the trees resting more or less at night. As the sun declines, so does the flow, even when the temperature remains the same. On warm nights, however, there is likely to be some flow. Daytime sap is sweetest, and the nearer the occurrence of a freeze or a snowstorm the sweeter the sap. Light seems to be a powerful agent in the mystery, but a certain balance of heat and cold is more powerful still. Freezing nights with alternating warm days bring the ideal conditions, frozen roots and warm twigs setting the alchemy at work.
Yet with all this and much more general knowledge to draw from each grove is a study. The maples are strongly individualistic, and every tree is a law unto itself. Some have a much higher percentage of sugar to the same amount of sap than others. Indeed, it is confidently predicted by experts that a race of superior trees could be easily developed by taking seed from those of highest sugar percentage, just as superior fruit trees are thus bred. The profit to the sugar-maker from this is obvious. The future may see it done. As conditions exist the average yield of sugar per tree is from two to three pounds, though in favorable seasons this is increased in some groves to five or six pounds. On the other hand there are records of large trees which have yielded as much as forty pounds of sugar in a season, and many have been known to give twenty pounds. Sometimes a certain tree on a farm gets to be known as "the sweet tree," because of the large amount of sugar it yields yearly.
The sky held a faint violet haze which deepened to royal purple in all distances, a violet which seemed to materialize into innumerable bluebirds which caroled coaxingly as they flew toward the grove. Over on the edge of it song sparrows sang invitingly, but the sugar makers did not move from the cosy doorstep until nearly noon. Then we went toward the grove somewhat warily, as a man tends his traps in the wilderness, rather hoping for luck but doubtful. The sap moves when it gets ready, and no man can surely say when. But a look into a bucket or two told us that the time was at hand for quick action. From every tree a clear, colorless liquid was oozing with rapid drip into the buckets, some of which were a third full already. It looked like water, this new-born sap, as clear as that from the finest spring, yet to my eye it seemed to have a certain radiance, not a sparkle like an effervescent liquid, but something purer and more effulgent, as if the nascent life in it touched something in you by nerves dormant to ordinary sensations. The sugar cane gives up its juice only to force. It must be crushed and pressed. But here is a sweetness which the tree almost bursts to deliver, which will not only drip from every wound, but will force its way with overmastering prodigality. If instead of putting a hollow oaken tap into the three-eighths inch auger hole bored through the bark you drive in a solid plug, the sap will push through the very pores of the oak wood. No wonder when it reaches the twig tips the buds are driven into action and the blossoms burst with astonishing vigor that nothing can delay. There is little sweetness of taste to this wine of the wood gods, but a cool, delectable refreshment that is born of the free winds and mountain air. It tempts you to drink deep and often, and I suspect that Vermonters do and have since the State was first settled. No State has given to the nation more sturdy, dependable, keenly vitalized, strong-souled men and women than this, from the days of Ethan Allen down, and it may be that deep draughts from the potent purity distilled by the rough-barked, rock-rooted maples has more to do with it than we know. Maple syrup ought to be recommended to the schools. I believe it would increase scholarship and promote ethics.
The gray grove was like a temple of white stillness as we went from tree to tree. The only sound was the crunch of soft snow and the splash of sap within the barrel, a cool sound like that of sea waves curling on the rocks. A pair of white-breasted nuthatches ran deftly among the branches and seemed to respect the hush of the place, calling to one another in tiny tones that only emphasized the quiet. Here was the gray column of a beech, its smooth trunk looking as if carved out of mottled marble. There stood a yellow birch with a fringe of flaxen curls. But for the most part the growth was of maples alone and with little underbrush, so that we looked between the trees down to the valley below and up its further side till the gaze touched the sky on the distant blue summit of Haystack. It was easy to note with what feathers and fur the earth keeps herself warm in the fierce cold of Vermont winters. In the distance the black growth of evergreen spruce and hemlock would hardly let the roughest gale pass within. Where these do not stand interwoven the misty mingling of the twigs of deciduous trees made a cloak that was softly beautiful to the eye yet hardly less penetrable, and over all the cleared spaces and under all other protection was the white ermine of the snow. The March sun and the thawing rains of approaching spring had settled this snow ermine closer to the ground, indeed, but had only compacted it more firmly. A foot or more of it was everywhere and you could plunge to the shoulders in the drifts.
Soon the gathering barrel was full and the horse plodded back to the sugar house, where from the hillside the sap ran into the sapholder, a twenty-one barrel cask propped up within, thence to go by gravity through a tube to the pan. Here the elder Grimes was busy, feeding the roaring fire with four-foot sticks, skimming the scum from the boiling sap and drawing the syrup into gallon cans at the other end. Sugar making is no job for a lazy man, even though the pan regulates the flow of the sap automatically, nor is it nowadays to be conducted without some capital. The plant is a small one, yet here, counting house, tools, tanks, pan, buckets, etc., was an investment which easily figured up a thousand dollars. The clear liquid from the trees ran in a steady stream, and the boiling sap bubbled and frothed in one end and collected in palest amber shallows in the other. Now that the run is started from eight to thirty barrels of sap a day will come to the sugar house, taxing the powers of the sugar maker to the uttermost to keep ahead of the flow. It does not do for the sap to wait. The best syrup is made from it when first collected and it will spoil if the delay before boiling is too long. Often the fires roar and the sap boils for the greater part of the twenty-four hours. It may be one or even three o'clock in the morning during a good run before the man at the pan can let his fire go out and snatch a few hours' sleep. If the night has been warm gathering may begin again soon after sunrise and again he must be at his fires.
It is at the sugar house that the business of making maple sugar has lost much of the romance of old days. The big black kettle in the little shed or the open woods with its sugaring-off frolics by the boys and girls is a thing of the past. In its place you have a small factory equipment running overtime, with much of the regularity of factory drudgery, while the short season lasts. Yet it is a godsend to the farmer. His winter's work in the woods is done. His farm work has not yet begun, and the sugar brings in many hundred dollars in ready cash, readier cash than he gets on any other farm product. Good syrup brings from $1 to $1.25 a gallon, and on a recent year it was estimated the returns from maple sugar averaged over $3 each for every man, woman and child in the State. That of course is gross returns, not profits. These vary so greatly in individual cases and in various years that it is impossible to get at the net result. Some Vermont farmers do not think that sugar pays, and many have even gone to the extent of cutting up their groves for wood, preferring the cash from the trees once for all. This, of course, is killing the goose, for it greatly depreciates the value of the farm. Indeed it is an axiom in the Green Mountain State that a farm without a sugar orchard is an unmarketable commodity. For all that it is safe to say that for one reason or another not half the available trees in the State are tapped yearly.
Even about Wilmington this is true. I should say that there not one grove in three is being worked this year. To begin with, there is the investment in "sugar tools," no light expense for the man of small capital. Good sugar workers are not so common as they once were, and require good wages when they are to be obtained at all. It is customary to pay a man fifty dollars a month and his board, and his wages run whether the sap does or not. A start may be made and then adverse weather or the idiosyncrasies of the trees may keep the gang waiting a week, or even three. Even the men hired by the day get two dollars to two and a half. In some years the snow is not deep and the run of sap steady and prolonged. Then the farmer makes money. During other years the snow may be so deep that it is necessary to shovel out the roadways in the grove and go from tree to tree on snow shoes. Last year, owing to peculiar weather conditions, there was but a light run of sap, and it was soon over, lasting hardly three weeks. In consequence the crop was light. Yet maple sugar is distinctly a luxury for which the demand is greater than the present supply, and is likely to steadily increase. It is probable that the planting of large areas to especially productive trees on which the most scientific business methods were used would result in large profits. The trouble is that the season of production is short and all trees must be worked at the same time. Moreover, it takes twenty years for a seedling maple to grow to producing size, and the average investor does not care to wait that long for the first of his returns. In any case, it is a matter for the capitalist rather than the farmer, who does not usually look so far ahead for returns on his money.
Along with the improvements in the sugar house have come many in the methods of getting the sap from the trees. The pioneer method was to "box" them. This meant cutting a receptacle in the tree itself large enough to hold a pint or so of the liquid which ran into it. Boxing, year after year, was destructive to the trees which, nevertheless, survived a vast amount of it. It is probable that boxing has not been carried on in the Vermont groves for more than fifty years, yet there are trees standing to-day which show marks of the old-time method. On what was known once as the Kathan farm, just west of the Connecticut River in Dummerston, still stand a few trees of what is believed to be the first grove in the State from which white men made maple sugar in any quantity. Thirty-three of these veterans were there in 1874, but now only nine remain. They are gigantic trees, free of limbs to a great height and one at least sixteen feet in circumference. At the base can be seen the knotted, uneven growth covering the scars of nearly seventy years of "boxing." After the boxing method came the tapping iron, almost as hard on the trees. A slanting kerf, an inch deep and four inches long, was first made. Then the iron with a half-circle cutting edge was driven in deep at the bottom of this to make a place for the spout of hard wood, grooved with a gouge and finished with drawshave and pocket-knife. Troughs of white maple or basswood, split in halves, dug out with the axe and smoothed with the gouge, were used to catch the sap, which was gathered in hand-made pails hung from a "sap-yoke" which rested on the bearer's shoulders and took the weight.
The boiling was in the big black iron kettle which the elder Grimes remembers so well. It was hung by chains from a pole set up on two crotched sticks. Beneath it were two big green logs between which the fire was kept. Sugar houses were unknown and dry wood was rare, yet with care a respectably clean sugar was made.
A piece of wood taken from one of these trees in 1873 is still preserved in Vermont. It is twenty inches by four, yet it shows five boxing places, two deep in the wood and three that the later growth of the tree had not been able to cover. Sugar was made from these trees in 1764, and they were tapped each year by some member of the Kathan family until 1862. One of the largest of these trees was cut in 1858, and the number of concentric rings of growth showed that nearly a hundred years had then passed since the tree was first boxed for sap. In 1894 another was cut, having a box mark only three inches beneath the surface of the wood, showing that in this tree at least someone had gone back to the ancient method not more than half a generation before the date of cutting the tree. Probably scattered trees of the groves of a century and a half ago still stand in other portions of the State, carrying deep in their heart wood the scars of the old-time sugar making.
The Vermont laws against the adulterating of maple sap products are now quite strict; and it is probable that original packages from the State are reasonably sure to be what they are sold for. The syrup weighing eleven pounds to the gallon is practically at the point of saturation, a gallon weighing even an ounce more than this showing a deposit of crystallized sugar. It was formerly considered that the intermixture of cane syrup could not be detected, but modern methods of chemical analysis show it, the ash from dried and burned maple sugar being greater than that from dried and burned cane sugar in that it, having not been recrystallized, still contains other chemical constituents of the sap. These no doubt contain the ingredients which go to make up the delectable flavor, and those not yet isolated elements which help make the Vermonters the big-hearted, big-souled people that they are. Yet the rich golden brown color which most maple sugar has is not a quality of the sugar itself, but due to impurities, harmless but unnecessary. They come from tiny flecks of bark which fall into the sap or from careless boiling. Before the sap gets to the can in the Grimes sugar house it has been strained seven times. The iron kettle sugar of the old days was sometimes almost black. Care in the handling will give a syrup that is almost as colorless as water and a sugar that is nearly white. Hence color in the final product by no means indicates purity, though it may in no sense indicate adulteration. The best syrup is a clear, viscous, pale straw-colored liquor, and the sugar itself need not be much if any darker.
To an outsider the whole trip into the upper valley of the Deerfield River is a delight. At Hoosac Tunnel the big train gets tired of the long climb and plunges into the very heart of the mountain. But the little narrow-gauge road takes up the ascent most determinedly. The boy's-size engine snorts and chu-chus up astounding grades, winding into defiles where the mountains close in on each side and almost squeeze the track into the river. At some stations the stop is on such a slant that the engine puffs and grinds for minutes before any progress at all is noticed. The town comes down to see the struggle, and the small boys call the conductor and engineer by their first names and rail at their railroading. "Hey, Bill," says one. "What's your coffee mill grinding today?" Then, as the imperceptible first motion accelerates to a snail pace, they stroll along with the engine and continue their chaff till the hills shut down and cut them off. Yet after all, when you consider the grades, the curves and the stops, the whole trip is made at a good pace, the twenty-four miles being covered in about an hour and a half. Coming down is coasting, and the speed is limited only by the requirements of safety. Vermont whole-heartedness runs through the train chaff, however, and the favorite salutation is "neighbor." To take the trip is like attending a lodge meeting, and long before the final stop you feel a friendly interest in everybody present. If you don't know most of the others by their first names it is because you have not kept your ears open. At this season at least you learn how strong a hold the good old business of sugar making still has on the hearts of the people of the Green Mountain State, and the gossip of the groves and farms is yours without the asking. The free, wholesome air of the mountains is in it all, and as you breathe more and more of it you feel that the good old-time New Englander does not need to come back. He is there, up under the purple shadow of Haystack, talking maple sugar and drawing its essence of vitality from the white wood of mighty trees that clothe mountain slopes with the kindly peace of their stately groves.
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