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Saving The Stories of Vermont's Sugarhouses

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Paul Hartshorn climbs down from checking a gathering tank on his sugarbush in Warren. The family has sugared at four different sugarhouses over the past 120 years or so.

All over Vermont small, family-owned sugarhouses lie tucked into hillsides. Some haven’t been used in decades and at others, families are still producing maple syrup like they have for generations.No one really knows how many sugarhouses there are in the state — or some of the family histories that are tied to the funky wooden structures. But there’s a new an effort now, known as The Sugarhouse Project, that is working to photograph and catalog them, and capture those stories before they disappear.

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Over the past 120 years or so, the Hartshorn family has been boiling sap at one of four different sugarhouses strung out along the steep hillsides leading up Lincoln mountain in Warren.

Paul Hartshorn, 84, says he remembers working as a kid down at the one that sits along what’s now Lincoln Gap Road.

A sugarhouse with a tin roof and wooden clapboard sides collapses into the hillside, with a thin layer of snow around it.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
One of the Hartshorn family sugarhouses on Lincoln Mountain. There is an effort underway to save working sugarhouses and catalog structures like this, which are being lost to age.

“My granddad run that one for a long time,” Hartshorn said while gathering sap one recent spring day. “And then my aunt came up and boiled for him. And we gathered his sap for him and he watched it.”

The shack sits down an embankment, along a brook, with weathered wood siding that makes it clear that this is no modern, pre-fab structure.

The pavement curves around it, as if the town wanted to preserve the sugarhouse when it was laying out the road.

It’s been more than 50 years since any maple syrup was produced there, but a couple of years ago, Hartshorn says his brother jacked it up, and put a new roof on to try to preserve it.

“It was granddad’s and we kind of wanted to keep it,” Hartshorn said. “It’s kind of a family thing. And to me it’s — I don’t know what you’d call it — but ... sentimental, I guess, ayup.”

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There was a time when every family farm in Vermont had it’s own sugarhouse.

And here in the Mad River Valley, Hartshorn says it was a sure sign of spring, when the sap started running and the sugarhouses came to life.

“I probably could list 50 in the valley that I know of that were running when I was a kid,” Hartshorn said. “Ayup. You could drive around the valley and see steam coming up everywhere — everywhere. And now, I think one outfit is making more syrup than was made in the whole valley, at the time.”

"I probably could list 50 in the valley that I know of that were running when I was a kid. Ayup. You could drive around the valley and see steam coming up everywhere - everywhere." - Paul Hartshorn, sugarmaker

Vermont is producing as much maple syrup now as it did when just about every small farm had its own sugarhouse.

Last year, more maple syrup was produced here in the state than anywhere else in the country; a record-breaking 2.2 million gallons.

But a lot of it is being produced by large commercial companies, such as The Maple Guild in Island Pond, which is billed as the largest privately owned maple operation in the world.

Dori Ross ran a maple syrup business in the Mad River Valley for about 10 years. She says, as commercial maple syrup operations get bigger and old timers get out of the business without having the next generation take over, Vermont stands to lose an important part of its history.

“You know there aren’t many bucket operations anymore. And a lot of these old sugarhouses are just being forgotten or taken down,” Ross said. “And these great big almost factory-looking buildings are being created because there are some really big outfits now in the industry.”

Even as maple syrup becomes somewhat easier to produce, with backyard enthusiasts investing in  modern equipment, those historic sugarhouses are being lost.

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To prevent that, Ross is now leading an effort to record and catalog sugarhouses across the state, and funnel historic preservation money toward saving the ones that are still in operation.

The state-funded Barn Preservation Program has invested about $3 million into more than 360 barns and agricultural buildings around the state. It was established in 1992.

Ross wants some of that money to go towards saving sugarhouses.

She’s working with the University of Vermont to create a webpage with photographs of the sugarhouses, and interviews with the families that have boiled down maple sap in them.

“The overall objective is to have the most comprehensive list of all of these sugarhouses, regardless of age,” Ross said. “And that history is going to get lost. And if it’s not documented by someone, it’s going to be a huge loss, I think, for the state of Vermont.”

A man wearing a gray button-down shirt stands against the old clapboard siding of an abandoned sugarhouse.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
David Hartshorn stands near the sugarhouse on Lincoln Mountain where he used to help his family when he was younger.

Paul Hartshorn’s son, David, runs the business today, though his dad still drives the truck around to gather sap.

David says when he was growing up, everyone in the family helped out.

They’d eat supper in the sugarhouse when the sap was running, and he says he spent many nights there as a young boy, while his parents turned that clear sap into sticky, sweet maple syrup.

"My mother would do the boiling while everybody was gathering,” he said. “And at the end of the day, as a little kid, I would climb in a syrup box and make it my home for the night. And I just remember all night long hearing the ladle hitting across the pan and the syrup run off, and the smell of sap and syrup. And I just remember that as a little kid. I’ll always hear that.”

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The Hartshorn’s have their own modern sugarhouse now down along Route 100, where the tourists can stop by to see the sap boiling and pick up some syrup.

David said his son has a fulltime job, and isn’t interested in giving over his early spring to making syrup.

He says he might be the last generation in his family to remember the sugarhouses up here on Lincoln Mountain.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman@hweisstisman.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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