You may have heard: Maple Open House Weekend Cancelled for Second Straight Year.
Covid or no Covid, the sap will rise, and Bennington-area sugarmakers will make excellent maple syrup from it. Moreover, they will once again find ways to get it to consumers at a time when large sugarhouse gatherings are out of bounds and travel is still restricted.
The pandemic struck right in the middle of maple season last year, but then a funny thing happened. It seems that people want their maple, especially when it says “Pure Vermont.” And they want it even – no, especially – in times of Covid. The good news is that Bennington-area sugarhouses are ready this year to accommodate visitors who observe the usual pandemic precautions.
Bill Freeman of Glastenview Maple Farm in Shaftsbury, remembers what it was like in 2019, before Covid. “We had 380 people here during that Maple Weekend and we sold an awful lot of syrup. Now we’re looking at two years in a row with no party. But we’re boiling, and people will find us. We have our local and out-of-state regulars, and a lot of people find us through Google, which takes them to our Facebook page. They either drop in – on the way back from skiing, for instance – or they ask us to mail them something. We have a full line of products besides syrup: maple cream, syrup aged in bourbon barrels, cinnamon-infused and coffee-infused syrup, maple walnut cookies. We made up in the fall and Christmas season for the sales we lost during last March. We’ll miss the fun of the big weekend again, but people will find us again, one way or another.”
Freeman says visitors are welcome anytime during maple season, in small groups, and with masks and proper distancing. Those new to sugaring may get a tour of how it’s done. For example, with tubing instead of buckets these days, through which the sap flows from the taps into collecting tanks, which then get picked up and taken to the evaporator. Then 40-some gallons of steam pour out through the roof for each gallon of syrup that remains. Freeman usually makes 125-150 gallons from 750 taps. The Glastenview Drive sugarhouse and shop, a short hop off Route 7A in South Shaftsbury about five miles above Bennington, is open 7 days a week, year-round.
Meanwhile, out on Niles School Road in Pownal at Ball Brook Maple, a couple of miles from Route 7A on the east side of town about five miles below Bennington, arborist Dave Dence, Jr. has also been boiling. “We’ve been having a traditional Vermont winter for a change. I had to set my taps and tubing on snowshoes this year. It feels good to be off and running and making syrup. We have 1500 taps, so we’re aiming at 400-500 gallons. It takes the labor of friends and family to make it all happen. We’ve adapted in terms of how we sell. We have a table by the road on the weekends. We’ll still let people come up to the sugarhouse in small groups this year if they like, and I’ll be making plenty of maple cream. We’ll ship if people can’t come by. When Covid started last year, there was a pause, and then there was a surge of people wanting syrup in April. I think some of them were stocking up, not knowing what was going to happen. We sold out two months earlier than we usually do.”
Maple by Mail, Too!
I called to see if John Williamson (of Williamson’s Sugar House) was boiling this past weekend at his sugarhouse on the White Creek road on the west side of North Bennington. Sure enough, it was his third day at the arch. The season began on February 26 for him this year, which is two weeks earlier than it used to be, he says. His father kept records. And so did his father, beginning in 1939, at the same farm (climatologists, take note!). Calendars hang on the wall, one on top of the other. John draws some aside, and we are suddenly back in 1957 (who needs a melting clock?).
He tells me what it was like when the pandemic hit. “No pancake breakfast on Maple Weekend, for one thing. That’s usually a big event with friends, family, customers, visitors, towards the end of the season. At the time we were worried about reaching buyers for our 550 gallons of syrup. But people know us. Half of what we produce goes to local customers, with a system of “contactless” buying. The other half has travelled by mail.”
“One day I took 17 boxes to the Post Office. Christmas was crazy,” adds Melissa Williamson, John’s wife and partner in the business. She also runs the sugarhouse’s Facebook page and gets referrals through the Bennington Blotter page.
Williamson recharges the fire with three-foot-long bolts of seasoned split wood, then relaxes and tells me that last year someone took a jug of his syrup to the Pope, who loved it, no kidding. Covid or no Covid, one thing is certain: the fresh, warm syrup Williamson gives me to taste in a small paper cup is sweet, buttery, with intense aromas of vanilla and caramel. It’s as close to heaven as the rest of us are likely to get.
If you can’t get to a sugarhouse, there are places to get Vermont maple syrup right in town. Maple products loom large at Bringing You Vermont, right on Main St. Co-owner Heather Hassett points to maple as a bright spot in what has been a tough year for retail. “Especially now, people want to support the makers of Vermont products and the mom-and-pop stores like ours that sell them. There’s a greater awareness now of where food comes from and an appreciation for the people that provide it. Customers want the human connection. The maple products we sell are produced by relatively small family operations. No matter where you get your waffles, there’s an emotional connection to people and the land when you pour on the Vermont maple syrup. In the time of Covid, as we’ve had to live more distantly, that connection has only gotten stronger.”
Hassett sells maple products from a number of local and regional Vermont producers, including syrup from Corse Farm in Whitingham and the Mears family in Arlington. She also does a brisk business in new and adventurous versions of maple: ginger-infused syrup from Runamok Maple in Fairfax, smoked maple syrup from Sugar Bob’s Finest Kind in Rutland, and maple mixtures with chile peppers for use as a sauce from Benito’s in Morrisville. For traditional maple candies, too, demand has never been stronger. All their maple products are available by mail and are popular in gift baskets. How to order? “Just call,” says Hassett.
More Places to Visit and/or Buy Maple Syrup
- Armstrong Farm: 3½ miles south of Bennington at 614 Route 7A
- Dunn’s Leakee Bucket Sugar Shack: 2710 Chapel Road, Bennington. Retail outlet at Henry’s Market on East Main Street in Bennington.
- Mance’s Tree Farm: 217 Holiday Drive, South Shaftsbury. Retail outlet at the Market Wagon on Route 7A in Bennington
- Maple Hill Maple: 207 Maple Hill Road in Shaftsbury 802-375-2251
- Bringing You Vermont: 434 Main Street in Bennington
- The Wing Farm: 599 Town Line Road West in Shaftsbury
– Phil Holland, a resident of Pownal, is the author of Robert Frost in Bennington County.
Photos in this post were taken by Phil at Williamson’s Sugar House in North Bennington, Vermont