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Classic: Making Maple Syrup

Classic: Making Maple Syrup
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“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.

Inside the sugarhouse, he replaced the wood-burning evaporator with one that runs on oil and wood, and more recently his sons invested in a new invention, an evaporator that runs off the steam that it creates. Robert Howrigan has good cause to take exception to being branded old-fashioned.

In the sugar bush Shelley makes her way toward the sound of the horses. The creak of the wagons gets louder, and there’s a snuffling as the horses exhale. In spite of the buried lines, it’s still necessary to collect the sap from the buckets way up in the bush.
“Hey there!” she calls.

Danny and Robbie are five years apart, and they look enough alike so that even though she has been married to Danny for 15 years, Shelley will still sometimes get him confused with Robbie.

They stop and set up onto the wagon. The big tank on the planks is full of fresh sap, as clear as water. They are nearly finished with the run today. In spite of the warm temperatures, they haven’t collected as much as usual, and they say that this year may be the worst they’ve seen, ever.

Shelley sets the cooler on the wagon, and Danny and Robbie dig around for their sandwiches and sodas. Even with the horses’ help, this is hungry work.

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2 Responses to Classic: Making Maple Syrup

  1. Warren Phelps February 21, 2008 at 2:11 pm #

    Being originallly from Connecticut and seeing my mother tap a maple tree in Avon, Conn. as a child, it makes me long for Vermont. I have been there several times and would live there if I could afford a good warm house and a fireplace or cast iron stove. Several years ago, I spent several days with Montpelier as home base and drove to various towns of interest. On my way back south I felt as if the river beside the highway was offering me a race to the bottom. Stories of winter hardships overcome and maple sugaring are a delight for me, now living in Missouri. Thank you for this awesome website!
    Warren Phelps

  2. Karen Beaudreau March 23, 2008 at 12:09 pm #

    I live right here in Vermont, the southern end. I can relate to maple sugaring. My husband and I tapped some trees at his parents property,( maybe 5 years ago back when propane was $6.00 a fill ) and we brought it back to our place to boil it on a propane burner with a high pressure regulator,and when we boiled it down far enough we brought it in the house and finished it off on the stove. I really like the darker maple syrup it has more of a maple flavor. I always like to read articles on sugaring Thank You Karen Beaudreau

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