IT’S SUGARING TIME
“The robins have come” exclaimed my cousin, as he bolted into the living-room with me at his heels.
“I think sap will run today, don’t you, Grandpa?”
But Grandfather, conservative by nature, and doubly so by long practice, was loathe to admit any belief that the maple sugar season was knocking on our door. “Too cold yet,” was his curt reply; and he kept on reading his newspaper.
“But it’s the 21st of March – spring began this morning, so the almanac says,” persisted my cousin; “and you know March came in like a lion, so it’ll go out like a lamb. That means that sugaring’s right here!”
“Many a time I’ve seen March come in like a lion and go out like Beelzebub!” retorted Grandfather, looking over his glasses; and he returned to his reading.
We were disappointed, my cousin and I; but that was no shock to us – we expected to be, for we knew our grandfather. Just the same, we wondered how he could be so stubborn when all the world was fairly bursting with new life. We could feel it surging within our bones, and why couldn’t he? Even the cows had felt it that morning as we drove them down the snowy path to the spring for their daily drink. One young heifer spied a patch of bare earth the size of the kitchen floor, on a sunny pasture slope, and forthwith made for it. She ran and kicked with tail erect, and fairly spun on her toes. She uttered a wild, blood-curdling howl, very uncowlike in quality – neither a moo nor a bellow, but undoubtedly an expression of pure ecstasy. The contagion spread, and we stood there helpless until each animal had taken her turn at dancing her spring dance on that patch of brown earth. Even Old Speckle, advanced in years and stiff in joints, lifted her tail and kicked with one foot to show that her spirit was willing though her flesh was weak.
What’s more, my cousin and I knew something that Grandfather didn’t know: we had jabbed our jackknives into a maple close by the cow-path, and the sap started! But of course we couldn’t tell that to Grandfather; he’d accuse us of mutilating one of his fine maples, and that would gum up the works and delay still further the start of sugaring.
But something was stirring inside Grandfather. He laid down his newspaper, put his glasses away in their case, and went over and opened the front door. He looked at the sky, then at the thermometer, then at the sky again. A fairly sharp wind from the west smote his right cheek; but the caress of the ascending March sun on his left cheek was more convincing. He took a deep breath just as a robin flew into the big maple to proclaim the end of the long Vermont winter. Yes, something was stirring inside Grandfather; the spring fever was slowly but surely oozing right through his marrow; but he must not make a show of it – not het especially to a couple of grandsons who were steeped in the perverse habit of getting excited over nothing at all. So he put on his glasses again, and returned to his newspaper which, as my cousin afterwards solemnly averred, he held upside down.
With a sigh we started for the barn to yoke up the steers and to administer their first lesson in the mysteries of “gee” and “haw” and “wo-hishe-buck!”
“Where ye goin’? ” asked Grandfather.
“To yoke up the steers,” we replied.
“I’ve jest been a-thinkin’ it over,” he began slowly, “I don’t think it’s sap weather yet – not by a long shot. But I dunno’s ‘twould do any hurt to shovel away the snow in front of the sugar-house door, and take down the sap buckets; and I dunno’s ‘twould do any hurt to start a fire in the arch and heat some water to wash’ em.” All of which was a ‘Very Vermontish way of saying it would be a darn good thing to do so.
A shout of joy, a bolt for the door, and two boys, one of them fourteen and the other eight, were on their way, shovels in hand, to make a frontal attack on the snowdrift blocking the sugar-house door. In but a little more time than it takes to tell, we were inside the sugar-house and ready for business. I, being the smaller, ascended the loft where the old cedar buckets were stored.
A semi-musical “tink” resounded as I placed a bucket on the end of a stick which my cousin upheld from below. “Plunk” went the bucket as it landed on the floor.
For the next few minutes it was “tink, plunk; tink, plunk; tink, plunk”; until all the Ricker buckets, all the Renfrew buckets, all the Hooper buckets, all the Heath buckets, all the Lyford buckets, so-called from the craftsmen who made them, or the men at whose vendues Grandfather had purchased them, were on the floor below and ready to be washed. Then there were, as reserves, the old Hodgdon buckets, small at the top and big at the bottom, said to have been a hundred years old even then. They all had personalities – those old buckets, and we knew them all as if by name. There was the bucket with the peculiar twist in the hoop, the bucket with the bulging bottom, the bucket on whose bottom a great-uncle – forty years in his grave, even then – had carved a fox-and-geese board, so that he and a chance companion might while away a pleasant hour in a game while b’ilin’ sap.
A fire was started in the arch; with the help of Father and Grandfather the buckets were washed and scalded; and, next morning, on the hard, glistening snow crust, we whisked the buckets over hill and dale on a crust handsled, and “scattered” them among the maples. The trees, too, had personalities, or so we thought, for we treated them with discrimination. The Old Corner Tree had to have two big buckets, for she had a reputation for largess; and Old Sweety had to have the whitest, cleanest-looking bucket, for her sap was sweeter than that of any other tree.
My cousin and I didn’t tap the trees; Father and Grandfather did that, for they knew, through years of experience, the most “likely” places to drill for sap.
However, we were allowed to drive in the spiles and the nails, and hang on the buckets, and linger for a moment to watch the sap start.
All this is to show the eagerness with which country youngsters of forty to sixty years ago hailed the advent of sugar-making. More than any other seasonal work on the farm, sugaring marked the close of one season and the beginning of another – the close of the most confining of all seasons (although it had its bright days), and the beginning of the most expanding of all seasons, when all the world seemed young again, and everybody seemed so full of faith and hope and courage.
But there was another reason why the advent of sugaring made such a dynamic appeal to most youngsters – yes, the plain truth is, we liked the sugar. Doctor Holmes has said that every Green Mountain Boy has eaten a thousand times his weight in pie. I’ll wager that the same holds true of maple sugar.
The disgraceful part of this story is that after a week or two of sugar eating, when we had reached the saturation point, and had become pillars of sugar as truly as Lot’s wife was of salt, we were not so eager and efficient in our work. We had sometimes to be called the second time in the morning, or we dragged our heels when sent on an errand. But that, of course, was when we were passing through the small-boy stage.
We improved with years – I hope.
To Vermonters who were brought up on farms where sugaring was an established custom, as regular in its recurrence as seedtime and harvest, and especially to Vermonters in exile, there is no other industry that calls up so many memories that stretch back into the nebulous haze of babyhood.
Last night as I sat by my suburban fireside, nibbling the cake of maple sugar which my cousin had sent me from the old farm among the Vermont hills and dreamily gazing into the flickering flames on the hearth, I fell a-musing.
The newspaper which I had been reading slipped to the floor. The book I had started the evening before made no appeal. Back over the road of memory I traveled to the time when, a mere child, I watched the angry flames in the old sugar arch as they devoured the gum-laden spruce logs. I saw again the clouds of steam rising from the hissing, turbulent sap. I watched the face of Grandfather across the arch, now clear, now dim, now gone, now clear again, framed in by rushing volleys of white steam like “trailing clouds of glory.” Between the puffs of steam I saw the big knot-hole in the gable of the old sugar-house, which my infant mind imagined to be the moon. In the starry evening as I was being led home from the sugar-house to be put to bed, I looked back to see the sparks shoot from the chimney as someone stirred the fire in the arch, and I thought how envious the stars must have been at such a glorious display. I lived over that first sugaring-off of which I had any recollection – a saucer and spoon all my own, a snow bank all my own on which to cool the thick syrup, a coat bedaubed, the fuzzy end of “a tippet which somehow got mixed up with saucer and spoon and syrup, a face besmeared, a stomach uncomfortably full. So much of a mess was I that I had to have a full bath (although it wasn’t Saturday night), and all my clothes had to be washed or cleansed (although it wasn’t Monday morning).
The delightful memories of the sugar season do not lose a bit of luster when seen in contrast, for there were also days of sore disappointment, like the one, for instance, when, upon seeing some stir about the sugar-house, probably a smoke from the chimney, I had run my stubby legs to Grandmother’s kitchen for a saucer and spoon to try the sugar, only to be told by her that they were not making sugar at all, but were boiling soft soap in the old cauldron kettle which Grandfather had installed for the purpose in back of the arch, and that I would have to “wait a spell” – And what a spell of waiting it was, two weeks, perhaps; before sugaring time came; but it seemed half an eternity!
Yes, and there was another day of keen disappointment, after I had become a boy of some size, big enough to help with the work. It was in that year when the sugar season was so late in coming – so exasperatingly late that April Fool Day came and found us fooled indeed in our attempt to beguile sweetness from the ancestral maples. The trees had been tapped for two weeks, and my cousin and I
had waited and waited, not patiently to be sure, but sourly, grumblingly. Neighbor Hooper remarked, as he drove past:
“That ol’ sun up thar hain’t got no more warmth in his heart than a snowball!”
And neighbor Whitcher, tall, erect at three score and ten, picturesque in his great shock of white hair, as he dropped in for a friendly chat in commiseration, exclaimed: “Conscience! Never see nothin’ like it! Why, I’ve sowed wheat same’s next week, and now look at them fields, two – three foot under snow!”
But there came a day at last when “The sun up thar” did repent of his stubbornness, and began to send the snow down the hillsides in trickling little rills, and brought a robin to our maple, a bluebird to our sweet-apple tree, and a purple finch to our basswood, yes, and warmed the sweet life blood of all our maples.
Shall I ever forget the day my cousin and I lugged pailful after pailful of sap – the precious “first run” of the season – over the slumping snowdrifts, to our big store tub in the sugar-house until it was swimming full – lugged until our legs were ready to drop off from weariness and our arms all but pulled from their sockets, impatiently longing for the morrow when we would touch a match to the crisscrossed kindlings in the arch, and start the flame that would turn our sap to sugar? What unspeakable dismay settled over us like a pall, when, next morning, upon gloating over our store of sap, we discovered the floating carcass of a grandfather rat (there’s no fool like an old one!) who, disappointed in love or broken in fortune, chose our precious sap as the most desirable liquid in which to commit suicide. With what regret we poured upon the ground all that hard-earned sap, and scrubbed and scoured that old tub as if we were trying to rid it of the germs of bubonic plague, mumbling under our breath all the swear words we had stored away in our youthful vocabularies, wondering all the while why the cussed old dotard hadn’t by some mistake tumbled into the rain barrel!
Then we waited again, for the “run” was over; but after another storm and freeze there was another run, and we actually boiled it down to sugar; and, believe me, no other sugar ever had such a come-hither appeal. We sampled it every few minutes as it passed through the syrup stage, and at the sugaring off we surrounded saucerful after saucerful either “stirred off” or made into wax on snow; and when from very fullness we could hardly pull the lids over our popping eyes, we followed the advice of Rowland Robinson’s Uncle’ Lisha, “Take a pickle. Joseff, if yer cl’yed. and begin agin.”
Then, to add insult to injury, we whittled out spuds” from a spruce slab, and with these, we had the courage to scrape the sugaring-off pan clean and eat the scrapings after Father and Grandfather had taken out the “heft” of the sugar to store away in tubs for family use or to barter at the village store for other things we needed more than sugar. Is it any wonder that a Vermonter in exile, accustomed as he was in boyhood to such an unrationed quantity of maple sugar, even now, with appetite under control feels a certain “hankering” for a taste of maple sugar when the year rolls round to March?
Is it any wonder that his heart beats a little faster when the postman hands him a can of syrup or a box of maple sugar cakes sent by somebody back home?
Is it any wonder that his heart sinks when he reads in the home-town paper that neighbor Jonas and neighbor Jake have sold their sugar orchards to a company of swindlers who propose to whittle all their stately maples into last blocks, croquet balls, or pipe stems?
To him the removal of the ancestral maples is as sacrilegious as was the profanation of the household gods to the ancient Roman.
Think of a hungry man beginning his day’s work without a breakfast or of a religious man beginning the day without a prayer.
Fie on the Vermont farmer who begins his spring without a season of maple sugar making. Let no one imagine, however that all the pleasure of the maple sugar season was confined to the satisfaction of a sordid over-developed appetite for sugar.
To be sure this feature played an important role during the small-boy stage. Nevertheless, there were certain other experiences, adjuncts to sugaring, so to speak, which, though they seemed inconsequential at the time, now, in retrospect, seem altogether delightful.
There was the fun of helping to boil the sap by lantern light, and listening to the stories told by Father, or Grandfather, or Uncle, or an occasional neighbor who had dropped in to compare notes, stories of how a great-grandfather dragged cauldron kettles on a handsled from a distant settlement, and chopped down fir trees from which he hollowed out small troughs for catching the sap, and larger ones for storing it; stories of combats with bears and mountain lions, and of living in dread of the Indians; stories of sugaring to the halves, when somebody always got the larger half – and somebody else the smaller; stories of how old Jeb Jones mixed butternut syrup (potent stuff!) with maple, in order to cure irresponsible neighbors of sneaking up to his sugar-house by night and filching his hard earned syrup.
Then there was the fun of stealing off to the woods in the “stilly night” with only a great horned owl and the friendly moon peering through the leafless branches as witnesses; of listening to the roar of the spring-swollen brook in the valley, and the silvery tinkle of the maple sap dropping into a hundred buckets all around.
There was the fun of waking up in the morning and viewing a landscape transformed to fairy land by a “sugar snow,” one of those last kicks of winter, so soon healed by the kindly April sun; of feeding the newly arrived migratory birds robbed of their breakfast by the mantle of snow – song sparrows, fox sparrows, juncos, to say nothing of the shy nuthatches and the friendly chickadees who came back for a farewell peck at their doughnut or suet before going into the deep woods for a summer sojourn; of watching a sapsucker as he carried on the business of sugaring all by himself by drilling a hole in the old dooryard maple and sipping up the sap as it slowly oozed from the tree; of playing hide-and-seek with a pileated woodpecker, king of all the woodpeckers, the bird of the tall crimson hat, who always managed to keep himself on the other side of the tree when under observation.
There was the fun, also, of visiting often a sunny bank at the forest’s edge where the snow went earliest away, to watch, at the foot of a huge beech tree, the unfolding of spring’s earliest blossom and oh, the joy at her appearing, – that first hepatica!
Then as the days grew warmer and the sap turned sour and slimy there was the fun of gathering up the “last run” and taking in the buckets to the music of the frogs, and the honking of the wild geese as they drove their great wedges through the sky on their merry way to the lakes of Canada.
Yes we took in the sap buckets but not with the dispatch which I have indicated for as Grandfather had to be reckoned with at the beginning of sugaring, so too, did he at the end.
“We’d better take in the buckets today hadn’t we?” suggested Father.
“We ought to get on with the spring plowing.”
“No hurry yet,” replied Grandfather. “There’ll be another cold snap and another run o’ sap. Better leave ’em out a spell – jest a leetle longer.”
“But the buds have started, and the sap would be sour, and the sugar of poor quality and black as tar.” persisted Father.
“Twon’t be fust rate fer the market.” replied Grandfather, “but it’ll be awful good sweetnin’ fer mincemeat!”
This is one of 16 separate stories written by Waldo Glover in 1946
Many of these pieces were printed in the Vermont History magazine.
I have been transposing these stories into Microsoft word documents so that they can be reprinted and shared with others. Please contact me if you have any ideas on what to do with the stories.
Printed by Deborah Jurist 2005 584-3049