Maple sugaring is a family tradition that’s been passed down from generation to generation. I was reminded of this at the recent Vermont Farm Show while visiting with sugarmakers. “It’s in my blood” is a saying that applies to most sugarmakers, because they sugared with their grandfathers and fathers. Harvey Davis, 75 years young, told me about growing up in Derby, Vermont, and hanging his grandmother’s mason jars on trees. Then he and his grandfather boiled the sap down. Roger Palmer, 67, of Randolph Center, Vermont, remembers sugaring with his grandfather and hearing stories about his great-grandfather tapping. Both of these men are active sugarmakers today with a nice size operation, and they had a great time reminiscing about sugaring with their families and how they started their own operations.
Harvey renewed his interest in sugaring 45 years ago with 25 taps on his farm in Bethel, Vermont. He gathered the sap in milk cans on a toboggan. He boiled it down in milk cans on a stove in his hunting camp until the Sheetrock started to come down. Today, he and his wife and son share 1,500 taps on pipeline and boil in a much nicer sugarhouse.
In 1984, Roger started his own operation with 50 buckets and a hobby rig. He told me, “I went back to sugaring to appease my dad.” Now his grandsons Sean Palmer (17) and Brandan Palmer (15) help him with 2,400 taps on pipeline. When I asked Sean why he likes sugaring, he said, “because I like to spend time with my grandfather.”
That’s how my family started sugaring. My father had some old buckets and taps and the grandchildren wanted to sugar. My children tapped 10 trees and hung buckets. Every day they came home from school and ran to the buckets to see if any sap had run. When we finally gathered enough sap, we tried to boil it down on an outdoor wood-fired stove.
You’ve probably figured out that the Sweets did not have a very sophisticated setup. It’s a good thing we only had 10 buckets, because that old woodstove did not burn very hot. It stood in the middle of the driveway with an old piece of tin used as a roof. The sap was filtered through a dish towel placed in a milk strainer, and then dumped into an old Surge milking machine. The whole contraption looked like Granny’s moonshine still on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
After watching the sap boil down to a consistency not much thicker than water, we decided to finish it off in the house. Luckily we had no wallpaper in the house at that time. We all know what happens when sap is boiled, in the house. I, like many other sugarmakers, stayed up half the night boiling down that sweet sap into golden syrup. For all our hard work the yield was only 2 quarts. It didn’t matter though because my kids thought that was the best maple syrup in Vermont, and of course they had to share it with their grandfather.
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