April 19, 2018

Places I’ve Played

By Bill Skiff

For the love of sugaring


In the spring, a young mans fancy turns to love — or is it baseball?- — or is it really sugaring?

As a teenager growing up on a farm in Vermont, I blended all three into a gloriously fun season.

When it came to sugaring, Uncle Charlie was Dad’s master boiler. He was a rare man who could operate a syrup rig with a touch of genius. Uncle Charlie was a master of the wood fire. He could work the firebox so he always had the right temperature at any crucial moment. I have seen boilers get such a raging fire going that the whole sap contents turned to syrup in an instant. That never happened to Uncle Charlie:  he always had the heat just right so he could draw off three or four gallons of syrup at a time.

One season, Uncle Charlie set the farm record: 60 gallons in a day. His work started at four in the morning and ended at ten at night. It was done the hard way, without modern equipment.

My jobs during sugaring were to help gather sap and wash the felt pads used to strain the nectar out of fresh syrup. To clean the pads, I washed them in boiling hot sap. I wore rubber gloves, but I burned my hands every time. The worst part was ringing the pads out. Dad finally found an old wooden ringer. It was not only efficient, it saved my fingers for the baseball season.

Gathering sap also had its disadvantages — carrying a five-gallon pail of sap in each hand and walking on crusty snow could be disastrous. If your foot broke through the crust, you stumbled, and sap spilled into your boots. You spent the rest of the day squish-squashing around with cold-wet feet.

Horses pulled a sled with a tank attached for gathering sap from buckets. As you went to empty your bucket, if you misjudged the top of the tank, your bucket bounced off the top and sloshed sap down your front and into your boots. Now you had a soaked shirt and pants to go along with your wet boots.

During my teen years, I was known to become infatuated with members of the opposite sex. It was my practice to carve our initials into the beams of every sugarhouse I worked. BS + PN can still be found in a few sugarhouses. Dad’s was the scene of most of my artwork and would have had more if Uncle Charlie had not kept calling me to clean felt strainers.

PN was almost the cause of my demise during one sugaring season. I couldn’t believe my luck when her father asked me to hire out for the season. He offered me a few dollars a week with board and room. I would have worked for nothing just to have the opportunity to work with PN.

But her father was smarter than I had given him credit. PN never went anywhere near the sugaring operation. She stayed home and worked with her mother. That’s the first lesson I learned that season — when a man hires you to work — he expects you to work!

The second lesson took place during the evenings. After doing chores in the morning, working all day in the woods, and completing chores at night, we finally sat down to supper. By that time, I was whipped.  All I could think about was crawling up the stairs and flopping into my feather bed.

Then it would happen…after dessert, PN would say, “Billy would you like to sit in the parlor and listen to records?”

“You bet your life I would.”

All my fatigue would disappear and I was fresh as a daisy.

About 9:30, PN’s mother would cough, my signal to get to bed before her father appeared.

My bedroom was over the kitchen. The metal smoke pipe from the kitchen stove ran right past the head of my bed. Every morning, PN’s mother was up at 4a.m. to begin baking. The first thing she did was open the top grate on her stove, stick an iron poker through, rattle it around in the pipe and yell, “Billy its time for chores!”

As those sounds amplified up the stovepipe — and right beside my head — I bolted out of bed in shock, confusion and disbelief. How could it be time for chores? I just went to bed!

While doing morning chores I would resolve, “Nothing — and I mean nothing — is going to keep me from retiring early tonight.”

Then I would hear that sweet invitation, and the cycle would repeat itself.

When my two weeks as a hired man — and connoisseur of fine record — were over, Dad picked me up on a Friday night, rolled me into a bushel basket, put it in the back of his truck and drove home. Mother poured me into bed and I never made a sound until Monday morning.

Lesson two:  Love doesn’t make you blind — it makes you tired.


Bill Skiff grew up on a farm between Cambridge and Jeffersonville. After a career in education, he now lives in Williston, where he is a justice of the peace and Fourth of July frog-jumping official. In “Places I’ve Played,” he shares his experiences of growing up in Vermont. Comments are welcome at vtcowcal@yahoo.com.


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