Classic: Making Maple Syrup
Their explanation for why they have not replaced the horses with tractors or four-wheel-drive vehicles is simple: “We like the horses.” Besides, Robert Howrigan will say further, “Where can you find a tractor that knows which tree comes next?”
The horses, Scott and Moses, have been at this a long time, and they know the route up through this exquisitely rough road, replete with boulders and gullies, where even the most rugged four-wheel-drive could not go. It’s a trip they make every day during this season, which can last as long as eight weeks but which is usually more like six. Even a veteran like Robert Howrigan cannot tell you the rules for sugaring season.
“We’ve made syrup in February, and I’ve boiled in May,” he says. “If I’ve learned anything about sugaring, it’s that next year will be different. It’s not like haying or planting, in that you can get it tomorrow if today’s not right. With sugaring there’s no tomorrow. You either do it today or you’ve lost it.”
The only thing you have to watch with the horses is their impatience. They know the route, but they also want to be done with it, and as the day comes to a close and those
familiar last trees come into sight, Danny struggles to hold the team back in their haste to return to their stalls. When he was nine, Danny got his foot trapped under a tank filled with new sap, and his toes still remember that injury. That’s the only injury he can recall in working these woods.
The Howrigans use the horses only in the spring, for collecting sap. The rest of the year, Scott and Moses and the other three teams they own are out to pasture, “living the life of Reilly,” according to Robert Howrigan.
Danny and Robbie sit in the strong spring sun. The trees are still bare, but it’s easy to know that real spring will soon come to these northern woods. Like their father, they know about all there is to know about sugaring. They know about the warm side of the woods and the cold side. They know which trees are the sweet trees and which ones aren’t much good. They know these trees like a herd they keep. “They have to know all the trees by their first names,” Robert Howrigan says. And they do. Most trees yield sap that is two or three percent syrup. A three percent tree is considered a really sweet tree. The Howrigans claim that they have an eight percent tree.
But this is their favorite part, just being out here in the woods on a day like this. As the season moves, they do also, moving with the sun from the warm side into the cold side, where the sap has finally begun to move. Farming is hard now. The sugaring is just a small part of their business, which is primarily dairying. “We spend an awful lot of time on the books,” Robbie says, shaking his head. Less and less time out in the air.
“Want a ride back?” Danny offers.
“Sure,” says Shelley. She packs up the cooler and hops onto the wagon, holding on to the side of the vat. The sap sloshes inside as the horses toil up over a large boulder and then strain as the wagon tilts down the other side. A few more buckets down the line, the horses are in the clear and their spirits lift. They pick up speed, and Danny leans on the reins to try to hold them back. These horses have done this so often, they are like children arguing for one good reason why they have to go slowly. Once they hit the road that leads down to the sugarhouse, Danny has to use all his might to rein them in as they make their way to the sugarhouse. Spill the whole vat and that’s a morning wasted. And, as his father has always said, in sugaring there’s no tomorrow.
It is sweet and steamy inside the sugarhouse. The vats are as big as houses and the men stand on ramps to watch the sap as it boils. Robert Howrigan claims that his grandfather was a very sickly man who suffered terribly from asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. All through the winter, he walked about in pain. But once he got into the sugarhouse, the steam would cure his asthma and the syrup would loosen up his joints. “Every year you’d think he wasn’t going to make it, and then once they got that sap boiling, he was good for another year. Yes, yes,” he says, after a long, thoughtful pause, “maple has been very good to us.”
On the windowsill of the sugarhouse are small clear bottles filled with syrup, each a different shade of copper. At the end of the line is a bottle of ketchup. “The guys like to throw hot dogs into the vat and boil them up to keep themselves going,” Shelley explains. More often than not, the boiling goes on throughout the night. “Sap is not like whiskey,” Robert Howrigan says. “It does not improve with age. You’ve got to boil it right away and make way for the next day’s crop.” A sweet hot dog goes a long way in the middle of the night.
Fairfield is one of the biggest maple-syrup-producing towns in Vermont. Most likely that is because of the Howrigans. Robert and his sons are not the only Howrigans who make syrup. Robert’s two brothers and their offspring also do a keen business. The Howrigan clan is a close family, and the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day here rivals Christmas.