Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Friday, April 02, 2010

How It Sugars Off in Starksboro, with John Elder

You’re in for a muddy ride this time of year, if you turn up onto Big Hollow Road off Route 116 in Starksboro.

There's a short stretch of pavement as the road climbs steeply out of the valley. But it's all dirt from there.

As on so many of Vermont's less travelled roads, a surprising number of people live back in the hollow.

Just about when you think the settlements will give way to untouched forests, you arrive at the optimistically named Hillsboro Manor mobile home park.

The children who live there know that however muddy things might be in the spring -- and however isolated they might feel up there in the big hollow -- this season is the time for a special visit to the sugar shack up the hill. There's a nice older couple doing the boiling on weekends. They can be counted on to give young visitors a warm welcome and the taste of a doughnut with fresh maple syrup drizzled over it.

The Maggie Brook Sugarworks is deep in the hills, but those kids from Hillsboro Manor aren't the only visitors. There is, for example, a man who lives in Huntington but spends most of his days walking through the woods on Sugar Hill, whatever the weather. He can be counted on every year to drop in and buy a couple quarts.

Many other adults make the trek, too -- drawn as much by the owners as by the sweet syrup itself.

Bristol residents John and Rita Elder, you see, aren't your usual sugar makers.
Rita taught for 25 years in Lincoln before retiring a couple years ago. John is approaching the end of a 37-year career of teaching at Middlebury College, the Bread Loaf School of English and Bread Loaf Writers Conference.

He's the author or editor of several volumes, including the especially fine Reading the Mountains of Home. The book explicates a Robert Frost poem, "Directive" and relates Elder's exploration of the wild mountain woods around Bristol.

Though John and Rita are originally from California, they sank their family roots even deeper in Vermont a decade ago when they decided to take up sugaring.

John and his sons Matthew and Caleb, adopting what John calls "a Thoureavian approach," invested plenty of sweat equity but only a few hundred dollars in building the structure that houses the sugar works. The original operation was similarly spartan -- strictly gravity-fed and built using what John calls “the jerry-rigged technology of sugaring,” with the sap boiled off by wood heat.

The sugar shack has grown from its original form over the past 10 years. The Elders have added a wood- storage area on one end and on the other, housing for the sap tanks.

These days, too, a generator hums in the background as the sap boils in the foreground.
The generator creates a vacuum that helps draw sap down through the tap lines strung on the steep hill above. With climate change making sap runs less predictable, the vacuum provides for sap on marginal days. The generator also powers a blower that makes the wood burn more efficiently.

For much of this season the Elders have been burning poplar -- not the best wood for converting 40 gallons of sap into a single gallon of syrup.

But when one of the Elders' sons built his house near the sugarworks, he had to take down two large poplars. So poplar it is, until that's gone and they can again turn to better-burning hardwoods such as red maple and oak, harvested from their 142-acre plot.

Though most of the snow was gone from Sugar Hill when I visited last Saturday, there was still some ice in the puddles. Down in the Banana Belt of Bristol and parts south, most sugar makers were done for the year. But the sap was still coursing in this cold hollow.

At my request, Caleb Elder picked up a distinguished-looking banjo that rested on a chair in the sugar house and played a few bars. It's a banjo he made from cherry wood, with an oak-leaf motif at the top.

I commented that he obviously knows his way around a banjo fretboard, given that the instrument was fretless and therefore provides few clues on where to place the fingers of the left hand.

"With the banjo," Caleb shrugged, “if you’re off by a little bit, you just keep wiggling your fingers."

It’s the kind of “good enough is best” approach that serves sugar makers everywhere. The only perfection is the end result.

Last Saturday was going be a long day and night for Caleb. With the last run of the season likely approaching, he and his brother -- the younger Elders -- were planning to spend all night sugaring.

Hundreds of Vermont sugar makers boil and toil in obscurity, but not the Elders.
John told the story of starting Maggie Brook Sugarworks in The Frog Run, an essay collection. A few years ago, the New York Times reported on efforts by Elder, joined by local writer and UVM faculty member Amy Trubek and others, to determine whether it could justifiably be claimed that Vermont maple syrup exhibits different characteristics depending on where it is created.

Could maple syrup, like fine French wine, claim to be influenced by terroir?

Elder says the jury is still out. We will, in the vernacular, have to see how that sugars off.

But he swears he can identify maple syrup made in Starksboro because it has a hint of vanilla.

"And of course," he adds with a smile, "Starksboro maple syrup is the best."

-- 30 –

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