After a mile of muddy ruts, the dirt road opened out onto a foggy clearing. There, in front of a small stream, sat the sugarhouse where all of the maple syrup for Steve’s Park Diner on Merchant’s Row in Middlebury is boiled down.
By Monday evening, last week’s sun and unseasonable warmth seemed like it had all been a dream, and after a day bundled in extra layers at the office, it was hard to think about going back outside.
But misfortune looked at another way is sometimes fortune, and when Sue Leggett, who works in my office, called to tell me that the sap was running once again, I had to (grudgingly) thank the cold weather for coming back.
Around the sugarhouse, miles worth of blue and white tubing ran into a central holding tank under a roof. Inside, sap boiled in a shiny evaporator, at its base the dull roar of burning oil. The evaporator looked like nothing so much as a small steam engine, ready to puff away down nonexistent rails.
Steve Dow, in hunting pants and a “Steve’s Park Diner” polo, watched the evaporator do its work. He was seated in a wheelchair, the unfortunate result of a fall from a ladder last August while adding an extension onto the sugar shack.
David “Crock” Leggett and Bill Sargent were also there, checking pumps and gauges. But a look inside the holding tank outside revealed that their work was almost done for the day: The vast tank held only an inch of sap. Soon after I arrived, the spigot opened to pump the last of the boiled syrup out of the tank.
The work goes a lot faster today than it did when Steve’s father owned the sugarhouse, when he and his helpers would go around to every tapped tree and empty the buckets of sap, then bring them back to boil over a wood fire. Now, once the trees have released their sap over the course of the day, it’s just a matter of hours to boil it down, from about two percent sugar to 67 percent sugar, the legal limit above which the sap can be labeled “syrup.”
Even with the high-powered evaporator, installed four years ago, each gallon of syrup required three gallons of fuel oil to make. But the addition of a reverse osmosis machine last year, which extracts some of the water before the sap goes in to be boiled, cut the fuel oil down to about three quarters of a gallon.
All the technology saves time, of course. But to Steve, those advancements haven’t necessarily improved the process. He was thoughtful when he talked about growing up in the sugarhouse — which, when he was a boy, was just across the stream from the new sugarhouse. Now the old and the new are connected by a bridge, and the old one is used for storage.
“I enjoyed back in the old days when you’d have to go out and collect the sap,” he said. “Sugaring was what you did off season.”
Off of dairy farming season, that is. Steve’s family has been dairy farming in the area for hundreds of years, almost too far back to count. And in the spring, there was always sugaring.
“In the 1800s, the sugar house was up there,” he pointed up the hill. “And when that one burned, they built another one.”
And further back in the woods, he said, was where sugar house from the 1700s had stood.
The sugarhouse that Steve’s father built in 1942, the one used for storage now, is made of hand-poured concrete blocks that, he said, the family poured during downtime on the farm during the summer, then brought up into the woods to build for the next winter.
On the inside of the wooden door of that sugarhouse are penciled records going back to 1944 — how many trees tapped and how many gallons of syrup they yielded, and the occasional note of a sugar house record for yield. Since 1987, when Steve bought the operation from his father, the records are more detailed — one tattered account book holds the quantities boiled per day, trees tapped and start and end dates for each of the past 23 seasons.
Also scattered throughout the book are records of every time the Middlebury Panthers won hockey championships and the occasional story, like the time a friend’s dog fell through the ice into the pond up the hill, and Steve jumped in after her.
Steve shook his head with a smile.
“We have fun up here,” he said.
Even though no one has to spend long hours feeding four-foot-long logs into the evaporator any more, sugaring still requires a lot of time. Last spring Steve and company boiled 837 gallons of syrup, which set a new record for the sugar house. And considering that it generally takes about 46 gallons of sap from Steve’s maple trees to make one gallon of syrup, there’s always something to do — between the tubes, the vacuum that pulls the sap into the holding tank, the reverse osmosis machine and the evaporator, there are a lot of parts to maintain.
Luckily for his family, said Steve, there’s no running water there, so he has to go home to shower. Otherwise he’d spend all winter sugaring.
And he wouldn’t be alone — between family and friends, there’s always someone visiting. Last weekend, he said, there were around 30 people packed into the house, and on nice days they’ll hike up to the pond on the property.
“It’s pretty much a party every weekend,” he said.