Making Maple Syrup | Yankee Classic
Yankee Plus Dec 2015
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Making maple syrup is tough business — so tough that the Howrigans of Fairfield, Vermont, don’t share secrets even with their own family.
March 1998: It is just after noon and the air is bright with more than just a hint of warmth to it. Shelley Howrigan pulls on her high-top rubber boots and sets out into the sugar bush. Her father-in-law, Robert Howrigan, is sitting in the rocking chair in the living room with his granddaughter, Annah, in his lap. The sun is shining strongly through the big picture window, and he knows that there will be a good run today. He hears Shelley going out and watches her cross the road and start up the hill. Even from where he is sitting, he can see that the mud, which has been pushed into deep ruts by the wagons, is up to her ankles.
If this were Texas and maple syrup were oil, Robert Howrigan would be a very rich man, indeed, a syrup tycoon. But it’s not and he’s not — he’s just a legend in the syruping industry, which some years does very well and some years barely breaks even. With this year’s sugaring season just about half over, it’s still too early to tell what kind of year this will be.
Robert’s sons, Danny and Robbie, are in the bush today with the two teams, and he can see the steam starting to come up out of the sugarhouse across the road. Annah laughs and grabs her grandfather’s lower lip and pulls. Yeaaaww! she says.
Shelley has Danny’s lunch in a cooler, and she walks the hill briskly, stopping now and then to listen. “If I stand still, I can hear them,” she says. “That’s the only way I can find them.”
It’s a long ways in, through fields and stands of maple, before the thudding can be heard, a slow creaking, and then a jingling of the harness. “There they are,” she says and moves in the direction of the sound of the horses.
Danny and Robbie are the sixth generation of Howrigans to pull maple syrup from this land here in northern Vermont. Robbie’s sons, now in their 20s, are the seventh. As Robert Howrigan likes to tell it, his mother, Margaret McCarthy, came to Vermont at the age of six from a Boston orphanage. When she was 16, she passed the test to teach the eight grades at the school on Fairfield Ridge. “She never even knew where she came from,” he says, with regret in his voice. This is incomprehensible to Robert Howrigan.
Soon his mother met a man named Howrigan, and they had ten children, enough to make up for the family she never had. She is not alive today, but if she were, she would know that the town of Fairfield is populated with her offspring — and more than a few of them make maple syrup. If you ask the Howrigans how many Howrigans there are, they’ll say, “Get the calculator.”
They will say something similar if you ask them how many acres they have. After working for his father for eight years, Robert Howrigan struck out on his own, bought his own place, and began to buy up the neighboring farms, four in all. Each one had a sugar bush, each one had a sugarhouse. In the center of this sweet amalgamation, he built a central sugarhouse.
“A lot of people think we do things the old-fashioned way,” he explains. “But I take exception to that.”
People think that the Howrigans do things the old-fashioned way because they collect the sap with horses. It might be said that the Howrigans have kept the Vermont image alive. Photographs of the Howrigans with their picturesque team of horses and wagon have graced the covers of Vermont Life more than once, and they have appeared in books and other magazines with enough regularity so that they hardly notice this kind of attention anymore. A photography crew from Martha Stewart Living came to visit last spring, and that caused quite a stir.
“The guys in the sugarhouse were giving themselves spit baths and straightening their collars,” Shelley recalled. “We thought she was coming herself.”
The old-fashioned part ends with the horses. Once Robert Howrigan built the central sugarhouse, he devised a network of lines that ran down into the main house. This was in the 1960s, when laborsaving methods were beginning to invade the sugaring industry. He and his sons set up central vats — stainless-steel tanks — where the sap could be dumped, and it would run by gravity feed down to the sugarhouse, right into the evaporator. “I remember one morning I sent one of the children down to make sure the lines were all right, that there weren’t any leaks, and he came running back. ‘Dad!’ he said. ‘The sap is shooting way up into the air!’ ”
Sap is not like oil, and it should not gush up out of anywhere, most especially from the lines that are delivering it to the sugarhouse. This experience pushed Robert Howrigan to the next step. He buried all the lines throughout this vast 400-acre sugar bush, an impressive feat.