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.
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.
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.
Still, they don’t tell each other how many gallons they make each year. Nor will they say how many trees they’ve tapped. Their father used to advise them not to share that information with anyone. “You do that, and it’ll depress the price!” he told them. And so they don’t, not even with each other. It’s a friendly competition but a competition nonetheless. “I always tell people, ‘We made enough for the house and some to sell,’ ” Robert Howrigan says. And he laughs his merry Irish laugh.
From the sugarhouse Shelley walks across the road to the house. Inside, her father-in-law is still in the rocker, Annah fast asleep in his arms. Sitting as he is, in the strong March sunlight, his lids are heavy, too.
Seven generations. Annah is the last for Danny and Shelley, whose oldest child is now a teenager. Another maple season is coming to an end. It is nearly the turn of the century, and Robert Howrigan’s 75 years in the sugar bush are on the wane. But here is Annah. “Sweet child,” Robert Howrigan says, getting up to place her gently into her crib.
Excerpt from “’This New England,” Yankee Magazine, March 1999.