Behind the closed doors of America’s syrup industry

| 04 Mar 2014 | 02:27

In the minds of most people, those who know something about maple syrup and its production, a sugarhouse is a cottage-sized building with a smokestack for a wood fire and a cupola or some other sort of opening for venting steam. The sugarhouse sits alongside a road, maybe an unpaved country road. There is a woodpile outside and maybe buckets hanging on trees nearby. Possibly there is a horse, maybe a draft horse used to pull a wagon and gather maple sap. Snow covers the ground, a fire is burning, and the sugarhouse door is open. There is syrup ready to be sampled.

I have wondered if there is an equivalent of the sugarhouse in any other form of agriculture. Apple orchards have their farm stands, and I know of some orchards where farm stands have grown into stores or where, in the fall, many people come to pick apples. But any other agricultures with the architectures of sugarhouses? Everyone who makes maple syrup has some form of sugarhouse. Bruce Bascom said that within an hour’s drive of his place in southwestern New Hampshire there are a thousand sugarhouses. He claims that there are 20,000 maple sugarmakers in the United States, so if you subtract those who make syrup on a small scale in their kitchens or in backyards, there may be 15,000 sugarhouses in the United States. And many more in Canada, where much more syrup is made.

The image of the sugarhouse, smokestack, and steam is iconic, but sugarhouses are as varied as the imaginations of their owners. Some are swaybacked and mossy old sheds handed down through the generations. Some are as smartly carpentered as new barns. Others are plumber’s dreams of pipes and steam. Some are restaurants and sugarhouses in one, where people go for pancakes and to watch the syrup being made. Some are small personal museums with collections of buckets, shoulder yokes, and sugar molds. Bruce told me of one in Quebec with a piano, a dining room, and chef, and quarters for workers during the sugar season.

And there is this sugarhouse, the one at Bascom’s. Some people have said this one actually isn’t a sugarhouse, that it’s an industrial plant. Bruce always refers to the place as a sugarhouse. He wouldn’t say he was going to be in the office on any particular day – he would be at the sugarhouse. The Bascom sugarhouse is 170 feet long and 100 feet wide, and it is these dimensions, and maybe the buttoned-down look of the place, that puts doubt in people’s minds as to whether this place is in fact a sugarhouse…

Bruce gave me his short talk on the history of the maple syrup industry in the United States. It peaked around the time of the Civil War, when maple syrup was associated with the abolitionist movement. “No sugar made by slaves,” went the slogan. Sugarmakers actually made sugar then, dry or partially wet. For most families in those regions maple sugar was the primary sweetener. After the war, when the tariff on white sugar was reduced, dry maple sugar could no longer compete broadly in the marketplace. Still, at the time of the US centennial in 1876 there were 154 “sugar places” in the town of Acworth, which produced 214,000 pounds of dry maple sugar. In the early 1900s Bruce’s grandfather and his brother held “buy days,” when they collected dry maple sugar from other farmers and carried it by horse and wagon to the train station on the other side of the Connecticut River in Bellows Fall, Vermont. Gradually the industry went into decline as the prices fell. Some farmers liquidated their sugar orchards, selling their trees to mills that specialized in rock maple wood. A hurricane in 1938 destroyed many remaining maple groves. By the 1960s plastic tubing began to be used in maple orchards. Some sugarmakers would never use it, would never suck sap out of their trees, but plastic tubing saved the industry, Bruce said, and made possible a new level of pure maple syrup production…

“The public out there still thinks we’re doing it in the mythic way with oxen and buckets,” Bruce said. “We can’t put a picture of tubing and vacuum on that jug of syrup.” It was true. Not many people knew about tubing and vacuum, reverse-osmosis machines, or steam powered evaporators of the kind Bascom’s used. Or about the scale on which Bruce was operating.

Excerpted from The Sugar Season: A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup—and One Family’s Quest for the Sweetest Harvest, by Douglas Whynott (Da Capo Press, 2014)