Sugarin’—The Way It Used To Beand
It’s a late winter day, a near cloudless blue sky complemented by the stark darkness of tree trunks in the sugar woods on Town Line Farm, owned by Hale and Diane Mattoon. The snug house, tucked perfectly into the lee of a hill, straddles the intersection of the Chelsea/Tunbridge/ Brookfield town lines on the Chelsea-East Randolph Rd. An equipment barn is located just below the house and an old sugarhouse is close to the road.
From a distance you can just make out a figure moving at a measured pace from tree to tree. Hale, at age 72, moves with a grace in the snow that belies his age. There is no wasted motion as he works – clean, precise but also relaxed. He’s doing something he has known all his life, all of which has been spent living on hill farms in the area.
Mid-morning arrives and it’s time to take a brief break and recharge with some strong coffee and blueberry muffins that his wife, Diane, has baked and set out for him. She, too, is gearing up for what lies ahead in the next few weeks. Hale does the boiling in the sugarhouse, but Diane shares the stage and handles all the bottling connected with the operation. She also takes care of washing all the strainers and feeding the multitude of visitors, friends and relatives, who stop by to help out or just check in to see how things are going and linger awhile to talk.
Both know what hard work is ahead of them and how tired they will be at the end of the season, but they wouldn’t really want it any other way. They take pride in producing top quality, mostly fancy grade syrup every year.
In the Genes
Thinking back over the years, Hale recalls he was around four when he began pestering his dad uncle about sugaring. At that time (mid-40s)¸ they were sugaring at what is now Harold and Marilyn Childs’ farm in Chelsea, then owned by Ed Larkin, Hale’s great-grandfather. Hale tapped and gathered in high school, and then as a junior in 1957 he started to boil at what he refers to as the home farm on Densmore Road (East Hill) Chelsea. His dad, Warren, bought the original parcel and then in later years acquired more adjacent land, which increased his sugar woods considerably.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, everyone used buckets and every farmer sugared. There were a few tractors around then, Hale remembers, but horses were used almost exclusively for sugaring.
“Farming in the ‘40s was horses and doodlebugs (homemade motorized contraptions that functioned as a ‘tractor’),” Hale elaborates.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Mattoons had seven draft horses and used two teams to gather the sap. The horses, well-tended and trained, were composed of Clydesdales, Percherons and Belgians, and they served the family well. With Goose (Cecil) Densmore as teamster, they could gather more than 100 barrels (31.5 gal.capacity) and sometimes even more, a day. With two teams going, and two people gathering, the operation was pretty streamlined and worked very well.
Though the Mattoons did not use pipeline, Hale knows all about it. He brings out a vintage booklet which describes the Brower System, a patented (1917) metal pipeline that was used by a few people in the area years and years ago. Some of this metal pipeline was found at his great-grandfather’s farm and Hale now has it in his collection of sugaring paraphernalia. The gravity system was made out of rigid pipeline (available in three diameters up to 1”) and for 1000 ft. of ¾” line the cost was $38. In addition, one required spouts ($7 for 100) and goosenecks (metal connections from the spout to the pipeline). These also cost $7 for 100.
Even with today’s modern pipelines, Hale uses just a little pipeline at present on one steep hillside that gets an early run. The rest of their sugar woods is tapped with the aid of a chainsaw, converted to a tapping device, and the 500 spouts are driven in by hand, down from 2200 taps in earlier years.
Hale also still burns wood, not oil, to make his syrup.
“In fact,” Hale says, “I’m basically doing things the same way as my great-grandfather did, except I use a tractor to gather.”
A couple of weeks ago, with this year’s sugaring outlook still in question, Hale reviewed the best and worst years of sugaring for him.
The worst year was just two years ago; in 2010 he boiled for the last time on March 31.
“I got one gallon of syrup for every six taps.” (His average is 1:3.) It was the earliest he ever recalls, but his dad said that in 1945, he stopped boiling on March 24.
The best year on the home farm was in in 1961 when they made almost 1800 gallons out of 3500 taps. They used about 75 cords of wood and boiled for 28 consecutive days. Horses were used for the operation. That year a gallon of bulk syrup went for $3.96.
Hale admits to liking all aspects of sugaring, but “gathering with a good team of horses was the best thing.”
The year 1980 was the last year he used horses, and that was on the home farm after his dad had died. The horses were later auctioned and Hale hoped that they had all found good homes.