By Harry Cooley
“IT LOOKS LIKE we might get a good run today, Ben“ I said to my helper as we went to breakfast at seven-thirty on March 20, 1937, after we had been in the barn since five-thirty doing our milking and feeding of thirty-five milkers and twenty-five younger heifers and calves.
“It’s a good thing we got most of the roads broke out and the buckets hung yesterday. All the tapping there is left to do is down in the cold corner of the Callender lot where the snow is so deep. There’s about fifty buckets left where the two sap roads join.
“When you get your team cleaned off and harnessed, you can hitch onto the gathering sled and draw that up to the sugar house and run the water into the storage tank. Then take fifty covers on the tank and sled and drive over into the Callender lot. If there are some buckets half full or more you better forget tapping and start gathering.
“If there isn’t much sap, see if you can break out the road in that cold corner and scatter those fifty buckets, but don’t get your team into it if there’s a heavy crust. Your nigh horse, Ned, is a perfect fool in the snow and with those sharp calks you put in yesterday he could cut himself bad.
“I’ll wash up the rig and lay a fire so when your first load comes in I can fire up. If this west wind holds and the sun isn’t too bright, it may run all night tonight. As soon as Henry gets the stables cleaned he will be over to help you, and perhaps we can get a couple of Aggie boys from the school this afternoon so you can get everything filled up by five o’clock.”
“If I have all that help and we get sap, we’ll have you running over by three o’clock,” was Ben's only comment as we sat down to a hearty breakfast.
My forecast of the day proved to be correct. The west wind freshened, the sun was slightly overcast, the thermometer hovered in the middle forties, and every one of our twelve hundred spouts began to put sap in the bucket at about sixty drops per minute. Just as I drew out the last of the wash water from the evaporator I heard Ben’s team bells on the ridge above the sugarhouse as he drew up his rig with a flourish at the end of the pipeline. Sap was brimming in the top of the tank, and he reported that some buckets on the big trees were almost full. It took five minutes for the first sap to come rushing out of the draw tub through the three-inch pipe, through the sap strainer, and into the supply tank outside the sugar house, and other five minutes to cover the bottom of the evaporator, and I touched a match to the kindling in the arch.
At first there was a feeble crackle and snap, but as the fine dry limb wood blazed up and the thirty-foot stack began to draw, the whole fourteen feet of cold evaporator began to steam and produce the hum and hiss of the giant teakettle which it resembled. Soon steam filled the whole space above the pans, and I made haste to open the ventilator doors.
Ben and Henry and the team departed hillward and I settled down to a busy day:
First, see that all parts of the pan are covered at least one half inch deep with sap.
Second, check the regulator float to see that it will maintain the right depth at all times.
Third, bring in more wood from the shed.
Fourth, fill up the grates with wood again.
Fifth, rinse out the felt filter bags with hot sap and hang them in the syrup tank.
By this time the evaporator has settled down to a steady hum and the flue pan is heaped above the edge with bubbly foam. If this continues, sap will start running over the edge, but a dash of butter spreads a very thin film of oil over the surface and the foam subsides with a bubbly rattle. In about half an hour the contents of the syrup pan begin to show a creamy bank of fine tan-colored bubbles, and I set the bulb of the syrup thermometer in the corner of the pan. The mercury goes to boiling, 209 degrees at our altitude of sixteen hundred feet, climbing until it reaches 216 degrees.
Then I open the syrup gate and allow the syrup to run into my syrup pail until the thermometer drops two degrees. Since the barometric pressure may have changed a little, I take a sample of hot syrup in a deep tin cup and float my hydrometer to see if it checks at 32 Baume, which shows proper density for standard syrup. If it is under 32, I allow the next drawing to go one degree higher. The hydrometer is the final test because the temperature may change as the barometer changes. Next, I empty my hot syrup into the filter tank, check the fire, put in more wood, skim the foam off the sap pan, go all around the rig to check the regulator, and step outside for a breath of fresh air.
In less than an hour the boys are back with another load of sap and report some buckets full and running over. Twelve barrels of sap gathered already! At this rate we will be pushed. Our small rig can take care of three barrels an hour, maybe four if I have good wood, but they are bringing six barrels at a time.
There are a few noon chores to do, so the boys and team go to the barn for a change and feed. After they eat dinner they bring my lunch to the sugar house and I will eat it between times. My wife has been telephoning to the Vermont School of Agriculture, and after dinner a strapping young man shows up, ready to go with the men and team.
Every hour almost on the hour comes another full six-barrel load of sap. My two storage tanks are gaining all the time in spite of a roaring fire, which is now so hot that when I open the doors the heat scorches the hair on my arms. I wear unlined buckskin mittens and would take off my shirt except for the heat. The fire doors are a deep cherry red over half of their extent. I draw two or three quarts of syrup every 15 minutes, and the regulator box is foaming as the cold sap rushes in.
Shortly after four o’clock everything is ”full up” and a load on the sled. Two and one-half men have visited one thousand buckets, carried for varying distances a little over four tons of sap, and traveled collectively about twenty miles. When the day's collection is all “boiled in,” we will have thirty-five gallons of syrup.
The tired horses go to their stalls. The student helper goes home, and my two men start the evening chores. As part of the day’s work compensation, during the time it takes to unload the boys have sampled the day’s production, hot off the fire. There seems no limit to the capacity of a Vermont farm boy to consume hot syrup. All my crew can and do easily drink a large cupful on every trip and some students drink two. But they have earned it and probably need the energy because carrying forty-pound pails of sap in one to two feet of soft snow is hard work.
Long before this I have had to empty my filters several times from the sugar sand, which seems to be more abundant than usual. I take this to be a sign that it will be a good sugar season. Inside each heavy felt filter bag I have put a hand-made bag of heavy cotton flannel, which catches much of the sand and can be emptied and rinsed without disturbing the big filters. I save the sand in a sap bucket and will sell it at the Eaton store in South Royalton. Mr. Eaton will steam it to get all possible syrup out, then dry it and send it to a manufacturer of optical lenses where it will be used as an abrasive for grinding lenses.
My woodpile has a sizable hole in it. My syrup tank is filling and I am weary, but with all this sap and probably more tomorrow, this is no time to call it a day. After the boys finish their chores and eat supper, probably Ben will spell me on boiling for a couple of hours. I light my Coleman gas mantle lantern as dusk approaches. The lantern hangs over the thermometer, and I even have a flashlight to help check the temperature of each batch of syrup.
About seven o’clock Ben appears and, after a careful check of the outfit, I go across the garden to supper and a short rest. By eight I am on my way back. The moon is full and the sky is clear. The snow glistens in the moonlight and the evaporator stack is shooting a stream of sparks into the sky. A goodly cloud of steam rises high above the ventilator. Ben is poking up the fire. All seems to be in order. After a brief chat he goes home to bed and I fire up, get in more wood, draw syrup, and relax until it is time to do it again. About midnight I decide I have lowered the tank sufficiently so the boys will have room for tomorrow’s gathering.
I stop firing and as the hum of boiling dies away to a murmur, I lower the regulator to increase the depth of sap in the pans, clean up the dry litter in front of the ash pit, prop the doors of the arch shut with the iron poker, and turn off my lantern. Tomorrow is here already and it looks like a sap day.
Excerpted from Historical Sketches by Harry H. Cooley. Photo: "Francois" (a hired hand) and John Cooley, probably in the late 1940s.