The following are excerpts of a conversation with George LaFever about making maple syrup in Bovina with his father, Benson LaFever. George LaFever is the father of Duane LaFever who now co-operates Maple Wood Farm.
It was Very Hard Work, Hard Work
“On the dairy farm we had three or four hundred taps, my dad did, gathering with horses and I was small then, very small. The horses slip on ice...then you’ve got to get a vet and some back up. [laughs] I didn’t care for it much. My dad wanted to go bigger at it. He built a new sap house and put a giant evaporator in it, a five by sixteen, wood fired King Evaporator, which in those days was considered a monster…. This would be in about 1949…and rented from one neighbor a very large sugar bush, of about 2,000 taps, and then rented from other people up and down the county highway there. There used to be a lot of roadside maples, he tapped them. So when we got done, we had about 5,000 taps. This is all buckets, no lines, no nothing. Well, he had three boys, I was the youngest, but we’d get off that bus, change our cloths…you got work to do. He had a pretty good-sized poultry business at that time, for those times and a small dairy farm, 28 cows and with 5,000 taps and a good run, things were just overwhelming. Made a lot of syrup though, an awful lot of syrup.
“If I could show you some of the places that we got sap. Now you’ve got a bucket in each hand, and you come down off that bank, a roadside bank like that [he holds his hand almost vertical]...and it’s like five steps, but by the time you get to the bottom, to where the ditch is, it’s just about all you can do to hold yourself up [laughs]…. It was very hard work, hard work.
“Once our tank got full…we had a very large tank…I forgot what it was…I think it was a thousand gallon tank, it was a very big load. We’d take it down and dump it off and we it would run on down to the sap house; we dumped it up by the road. And as soon as that’s gone, we’d go back and get another one. We didn’t have cell phones, we didn’t even have a telephone so sometimes you’d have to run down there, and because I was the youngest, I’d go down and see if they wanted more sap to run down, and how much…. Wherever you went there were steep areas, hard areas. It was a constant battle. You gathered sap in the snow; you gathered sap in the rain; you gathered it on beautiful days. It’s just that when it was there, it was there. I remember it being such a miserable job. Tiring, it beat the dickens out of you.
“When we syruped off, with the King Evaporator, usually we made about five gallons of syrup per draw off and then that we dumped into a big flat felt strainer. A lot of people used what they called a hat strainer, that’s where they just set it down in a milk can…clothes pins to hold it on, and then pour your syrup in there, the felt was [he holds his fingers about an inch apart] like that thick. So there was also these flat filters, and they would be this square, so he’d put the vat down and then he’d have a rack over top of it and he’d put on a layer of silk span. The silk span caught most of the larger particles you wanted to get out of the syrup. And that was a throw away. It made it so the felt lasted so you could run a lot of syrup through it. That’s the way we did it.
“We had maple sugar at home. That also would be one of the kids jobs, after the sugar was made, we made real hard sugar and we’d have to bust it up and then we’d run it through a little meat grinder and it took forever. It was a lot like brown sugar only it was maple sugar.”
Light Amber is the Most Delicious
“Usually my dad was down in the sap house, putting the wood in, syruping off and working there…. Back then you made a lot more light amber than you do now a days…. I don’t know, I don’t know whether the environment is changing up…. I don’t know. I do know that we made a lot of light amber back then, an awful lot and everybody did…. To me growing up in and being around the maple business forever…light amber is the most delicious, it makes the nicest cream, it makes the nicest sugar and it’s the best flavor of any of them.
“Back in the days when my father was doing it, and I was helping him on the farm, most of our syrup went into gallon and half-gallon cans. Cans not glass. We made some glass but not much. One of the big things about maple syrup, you put it in a can and ten years from now it’ll still be light amber if you start with light amber. If you put it in plastic it’ll be less light; it will darken.
“You know, back then, my dad made about 1,200 gallons of syrup a year at the awesome price of $5 a gallon. [laughs] He would go to Delhi with his old car, four-door car, and there’d be syrup in the trunk, syrup in the back seat and it was a big heavy load. The car really had a heavy load. He’d go down there and he’d have all these orders and what it was, my dad had been making syrup for 25 to 30 years and so it was kind of like a name. You bought this year so you’d order for next year…. He sold only to the ones who had an order in for it because he didn’t have enough to go around…. He sold syrup to the Delhi Diner, way back then. That was a fifty-gallon order. And that guy had maple syrup on the table every morning year-round for pancakes and it was my dad’s syrup…. That was a nice big order…. [My dad would] pretty much sell out and we didn’t make the candies and creams and stuff like that hardly ever, just it was too difficult and all that business.
“Up there on Mountain Brook, I lived at the end of Mountain Brook for thirteen years, owned that place and I started a maple thing up there…. I had five hundred taps and that was my first experience with the tap lines and with that sugar bush we tried to make it with a natural vacuum…. There was an old sugar bush up there…. A man by the name of Cecil Russell who had Russell’s Store in Bovina, a lot of history there. He’d lived on the farm where that sugar bush was, that I had bought. So I asked him, one day in his store, when he’s in his late seventies. He was a very proper talking man, no cursing, no nothing. Everything was just proper. I said to him, ‘Cecil, How was that sugar bush up there on the old farm that lays in that little mini basin? Was that a pretty good one?’ He said, ‘It’s a crackerjack! It starts earlier than anybody else, even down in the low lands’. And he said, ‘You could make a lot of syrup there, but you can’t anymore,’ and I said ‘Why?’ He said ‘When we sold out, they moved in a saw mill and they sawed them all down.’
“Well, fifty years later you know what was there? The trees were like this [he holds out his arms], perfectly sized…. So it was a beautiful, beautiful sugar bush, never been tapped…and it was wonderful. So the first light amber pint can I made I gave it to him. And he said ‘Tomorrow morning I’m going to try that’…and as soon as he tasted it he said, ‘I’ll tell everybody what it tastes like, that’s good!’”