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Making maple syrup: a photo essay

Wayne LaPier & Family Maple Sugar House

As we drove by a small sugar house, we saw smoke and steam rising from the vents in the roof – they were making syrup today.

House exterior woodpile

We’d never been to Wayne LaPier and Family Maple Sugar House before, and we’d just come from a pancake breakfast at another maple farm. But the woodpile stacked to the side of the building suggested that LaPier’s was an old-fashioned operation, one that still ran on wood for fuel rather than gas or electric. And a sign out front advertised an open house.

Wayne LaPier and evaporator

Inside we met Wayne LaPier, 75 years old, who has run this operation since 1985 when he bought it from his father. He’s standing next to the evaporator, the key piece of equipment in making maple syrup, and the producer of the smoke and steam that alerted us a boil was taking place.

Trees with tubing and drum

Sap used to be collected in wooden or metal pails and then carried to the syrup house. Now a system of plastic tubing connects the trees and gravity carries the sap down to a drum for collection.

Sap collecting tank

Those drums are gathered when they fill, brought to the syrup house, and poured into a larger collection tank.

Vacuum pump

Sap from nearby trees bypasses the collection drums and is pulled directly into the sugar house via a simple vacuum system hidden in a back closet.

Reverse osmosis machine

In another closet sits this reverse osmosis machine. It takes the sap from the collection drums and vacuum system and rather like a household water filter, separates the water from the impurities – except in this case it’s the “impurities” that become the syrup. The process cuts the fuel needed for running the evaporator by two-thirds.

Evaporator front end

After going through the RO system, the syrup is stored in an overhead vat and gradually drained into the evaporator. Wayne bought this evaporator when he took over the operation in 1985. It’s made by the Canadian company Dominion & Grimm. Matthew Thomas’s Maple Sugar History blog has a short history of the firm, including an advertisement from 1909 with an evaporator that looks very much like this one.

There’s a pile of wood ready to be burned.

Family stacking wood

The rest of the family is moving the wood into place…

Feeding the fire

…so Wayne can keep the fire going.

Boiling evaporator

Sap boils inside the evaporator, further reducing the water content.

Using a hygrometer to test the syrup

Wayne uses a hygrometer to test the syrup from the evaporator. When the syrup reaches a particular density, it’s nearly ready for consumption.

Filtering process

It only needs to run through a series of filters…

Drinking hot maple syrup

…and the result is fresh, warm syrup, with a flavor much richer than even good syrup that has been packaged and stored.

Reader, should you ever have the chance to drink hot maple syrup right from the evaporator, please, do not pass it by.

Thanks to Wayne LaPier, Christine, and the rest of the family for letting us stay for an hour, answering all our questions, and giving us a taste of the syrup at its best.

Florida trip, days 3-4: Old Spanish Point, Lemon Bay Park and Environmental Center, and baseball

Early attempts to commoditize maple syrup were hampered by what were, in retrospect, the obvious deficiencies of a labor pool made up entirely of ibises.

Reading notes: Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer, The Farm in the Green Mountains 📚

Herdan-Zuckmayer, Alice. The Farm in the Green Mountains. Translated from German by Ida H. Washington and Carol E. Washington. New York Review of Books, 2017. Originally written 1948.

Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer, her husband (“Zuck”), and their children escaped Austria in the early 1940s. They arrived in the United States and settled for five years on a farm in Vermont. The Farm in the Green Mountains is a collection of essays adapted from Alice’s letters to friends back in Europe, telling them of her new life, so very different from that before exile. Where in Europe Alice and Zuck had been intellectuals, with servants to do the housework, in Vermont they learned to be farmers: cooking and cleaning, raising chickens and goats, chopping wood and drawing water. They find themselves among neighbors who have integrated the life of the farm and that of the mind. The two turn out to be not opposed, but complementary, and Alice’s concluding elegies to a college and its library bring the two together.

The essays are written simply and directly, with plain language setting out observations of everyday life. My favorites are “The Telephone” and “The Standard” (the latter referring to the town newspaper) describe the formation of close-knit communities among a thin rural population. Others tell of the upkeep of the farm animals, the mighty efforts required to warm the farmhouse in the Vermont winter, and the extraordinary difficulty of traveling through that winter on icy, dirt roads, in an era before electrification. The spectres of the Holocaust and of World War II are always in the background, but only in “The Rats” – about nothing more than a temporary infestation of vermin – is it clear how much of a hold the horrors in Europe still held over Alice and her family.

Education and research go together. Even more important than mere teaching of technology is the teaching of the scientific method. Its cultural values perhaps exceed its purely practical ones, great as these are. The methods of science are those of democracy. Each citizen needs to learn how to use science himself and not rely wholly on the expert.

— USDA yearbook for 1947, quoted in Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer, The Farm in the Green Mountains

Today’s project: reverse-engineering our Word letterhead and recreating it in Latex.

Reading notes: Matthew Thomas, Maple King: The Making of a Maple Sugar Empire 📚

Thomas, Matthew M. Maple King: The Making of a Maple Sugar Empire. Published by author, 2018.

The eponymous “Maple King” of Matthew Thomas’s book is George C. Cary (1864-1931), founder of the Cary Maple Sugar Company of St. Johnsbury, Vermont. In Thomas’s telling Cary was not only a producer of maple products, but a key figure in the modernization of the industry. Before Cary, maple sugar was produced a few hundred pounds at a time by small farmers and sold to consumers for household use. But after Cary, maple sugar had become a commodity. Small producers sold to large “packers,” who mixed their purchases together and sold a standardized product measured in tons rather than pounds. The primary purchaser was now large commercial interests rather than individuals.

Maple King is organized chronologically, and serves both as a biography of Cary himself and a history of the rise, fall, and rebirth of the Cary Maple Sugar Company and its associated brands. It makes sense to write the two together, for Cary and his business were, Thomas argues, inextricably intertwined. Cary began the company with the money he had made purchasing maple sugar to sell to tobacco manufacturers. It ran on credit through the 1910s and 1920s, much of that credit backed by Cary’s personal wealth. When Cary was no longer able to finance operations the company fell into bankruptcy.

The book begins with the limited scale of maple sugaring in the early nineteenth century and the industrial progress that began after the Civil War that transformed the maple products as it did the rest of American agriculture. It follows how Cary entered the maple sugar business and how he steadily moved from a role as middleman to become a producer, refiner, and marketer of maple products. Succeeding chapters detail Cary’s expansion beyond his own company, via the purchase of failing competitors, partnership with successful ones, and innovative marketing of his products. The culmination of this period was Cary’s dominance of bulk maple sugar production in the United States by the 1920s. But by the end of the decade business had slumped, hit hard by the Great Depression, as credit tightened and the tobacco companies that were Cary’s primary customers pushed for lower prices. The result was bankruptcy, after which pieces of the Cary empire were split off, sold, and sold again, up to the present day. Yet one brand in particular – Maple Grove Farms – has stayed strong.

One of my favorite things about Maple King is Thomas’s use of both documentary sources and material culture. Company documents, newspaper accounts, and archival photographs are key to the narrative. But Thomas is especially interested in the built landscape of the Cary maple empire, including the company plant and Cary’s residence in St. Johnsbury, the stores and restaurants that marketed Cary products to tourists, and the farms and sugarbushes in outlying areas where Cary sourced its raw materials.

Cary’s story is that of a self-made man, skilled in the world of business, not just rising to the top of an industry but creating one where there was none before. And what Cary created really was an industry: bulk purchasing, bulk refining, and the sale of a commoditized product. Today the iconic images associated with maple syrup include log cabins, trees hung with buckets, and a strapping man in a red and black checked shirt. These are very much the opposite of the landscape of mass production that Cary created. And yet, it was Cary’s own marketing machine that sold us the images of rustic sugaring.

When I first read Maple King I wondered how Cary’s business compared with another large maple sugar operation of the early twentieth century, Abbot Augustus Low’s Horse Shoe in the Adirondacks. I was happy to read on Thomas’s blog Maple Sugar History that his next book will be on Horse Shoe.

In the meantime, Maple King is an excellent narrative of the transformation of the maple sugar industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, well worth reading for anyone interested in the histories of maple sugar and maple syrup, Vermont, or industrialized agriculture and forestry.

Reviewing January 2019

January began poorly, as we had to say goodbye to our cat Simon. In late December he hurt himself somehow and couldn’t put weight on his left hind leg. The veterinarian at the emergency clinic took X-rays, which were negative, and suggested it was a soft tissue injury. We took Simon home but his condition did not improve. He stopped eating and spent most of his time curled up under the bed. Our own vet put Simon on an antibiotic and an appetite stimulant. But the next morning he was worse, lurching and stumbling and unable to hold his head straight. We went back to the vet. Given Simon was 14, had multiple and worsening issues, and was in pain, the right decision was obvious but still difficult.

The next week we visited my parents in the New Hampshire mountains and saw their cats, who are becoming much more tolerant of new people in the house.

I continued working on the maple sugar project, reading secondary sources on the 1790s attempts at commoditization: Taylor, William Cooper’s Town; Evans, The Holland Land Purchase; and Maxey, “The Union Farm.” There is also a very nice recent MA thesis by Mary Donchez, “A Sweet Legacy? Thomas Jefferson and the Development of the Maple Sugar Industry in Vermont”.

I went running 15 times, totalling 127 km. That’s much less than I was running during the fall. The February fitness challenge on Apple Watch is to walk or run a total of 390 km, which averages out to 14 km/day. I’ll have to boost my mileage again if I want to meet that goal. I don’t know how Apple figures out how to set monthly challenges but it seems to strike a good balance: tough but achievable.

And the spring semester began this week. I was back at the reference desk after a semester off. I’m also teaching information literacy classes and Zotero workshops, which will take up most of my time through February.

Five and a half years ago Ellen called to tell me she’d found a stray, sick orange cat huddled under a bush at the Museum. To nobody’s surprise that cat came to live with us soon after. Today we had to say goodbye to Simon.

Goodbye 2018

It’s strange how placid things feel now at the end of December, because, taken event by event, 2018 has been an awfully stressful year:

March: We find a house. A day later we make an offer. The owner meets us halfway.

April: The scale tells me I’m almost back to 200 pounds; time to really watch my exercise and diet.

May: A routine CT scan shows that my lymphoma has continued to shrink, but my appendicial mucocele has grown to the point where the appendix needs to come out. Not an emergency; surgery scheduled for August.

June: We close.

July: We move in, on the hottest day of the year.

Also July: My tenure kicks in.

August: Laparoscopic surgery to remove my appendix. I feel great; am out of the hospital that afternoon and begin to run again six days later.

Later in August: histology reveals the mucocele wasn’t a mucocele, nor was it related to my lymphoma. Instead, it’s a different cancer, of the appendix. We schedule surgery to remove the right half of my colon and fourteen lymph nodes.

September: Surgery. This time I stay in the hospital for a couple of days and it’s two weeks before I can run again.

October: Relief. Tests on both the colon and the lymph nodes were fully negative. The doctors conclude I don’t need chemo or radiation now, just to continue with periodic CT scans for the lymphoma.

Also October: My sister-in-law and her husband have their second son. They live just across the lake. We see them every couple of weeks at this point.

Since October I’ve slowly reintegrated myself into the library. The combination of tenure plus reduced duties this semester due to surgery allowed me to cut out a lot of my non-essential obligations: committees, small projects, etc. I’m fortunate that I can now choose what to add back and what to decline. The only thing I’ve agreed to do so far is teach for the history department again – a reprise of my course on the American Revolution from fall 2017. That won’t run into fall 2019, so I have a fair amount of time to decide how I want to change things.

I’ve also kept up with exercise and healthy eating. I’m down to the weight I was senior year of college, and have run as much as 55 miles in a week. I have no doubt that surgery and recovery were made much easier by dropping 30-plus pounds.