Maple Syrup Tradition Keeps Family Close
Bakers Make Syrup, Make Merry Together
Bakers first settled the area just south of the Roxbury town line in the late 1800s, and by at least 1930 Tom’s paternal grandfather, Henry, started sugaring on his land. Only a few years later, Vermont’s flood of 1936 put an end to the family’s maple syrup production until the mid- 1960s, when the land and the trees had been able to recover.
That’s also when the current sugarhouse was built behind Jessie and Scoot’s farmhouse across Route 12 from the aptly-named Baker Pond. The sugarhouse “is pretty rough looking at the moment,” Tom chuckled, describing the structure which has become a hodgepodge combination of tin siding and wood planks over the years.
However modest the building, it’s filled with generations of Bakers every year. For the limited number of weeks when the days are warm and the nights are cold, fathers, mothers, sons, uncles, aunts, nephews, grandparents, and grandsons make merry in the sugarhouse while the sap boils.
Politely refusing the title of “leader,” Tom, the eldest of three brothers, described himself as “the one who says ‘Hey, let’s go!’” when it is time to start tapping.
Tom does not remember becoming “in charge” of the family operation. He does remember “Gramps distracting the little kids,” who were more hindrance than help, taking them up to the hillside with a hand-drill while the adults tapped the rest of the sugarbush.
For the Bakers, sugaring was (and is now) a long-standing tradition. “It’s just what happened,” Tom reflected. “In the spring, you sugared.”
Connor, Tom’s 18-year-old son and a senior at RUHS, has fond memories of finally being entrusted with some of the real tasks of the sugaring operation—tapping trees and running pipeline—as a young adolescent. Often putting in time after basketball practice and on the weekends, “Connor’s right there with me,” Tom said. Once, Connor recalled, when he was still in elementary school, the sugarhouse caught on fire at the peak of the season.
Pails of water could not be brought fast enough to smother the growing flames. The family, according to Tom, “threw some sap on it and put some tin on it and went back to sugaring.”
The relatively small operation— roughly 600 tap—is what Tom refers to as “just a weekend gig.” Twenty-or-so years ago, sap was flowing from nearly double the taps as today, but the 1998 ice storm “took off tree tops” and forced the Bakers’ sugaring operation to shrink in size.
Working with pipeline and a vacuum pump scavenged from the family’s former dairy farm as the only “modern” machinery, the Bakers are proud to run a pretty traditional operation. The sugar bush’s relatively high location on a ridge conveniently means that gravity does most of the work to get the sap down to the sugarhouse with only some help from the pump. Interestingly, the Bakers are among the few sugarers who still package their syrup in tin cans, purchased in bulk at Bascom’s maple supply store in Alstead, N.H., as opposed to the much more commonly used tan plastic jugs.
In addition to syrup, the Bakers produce maple cream and the occasional sugar-on-snow (provided there is snow) for themselves and their small network of customers, which mostly comprises friends, Tom’s coworkers at Norwich University, where he is the grounds supervisor, and people who make note of the sign along Route 12 and stop for a sweet treat.
The family normally taps the trees at about waist height, but they have been tapping above their heads this winter for want of snow.
Unless the oddly warm weather suddenly turns cold, Tom predicts that the sugaring season of 2016 will certainly not be the best he has seen. Typically, his family produces about 50 gallons of syrup within the two-to-three-week season.
This past Saturday evening the family celebrated the first boil of the year. Nephews and dogs roamed outdoors as the adults tended the old wood-fired arch inside. Dark syrup is common for them at the beginning of the season, followed by a patch of lighter syrup towards the middle, and finally more dark syrup at the end.
Last year, however, it was the snow that started the season off late, and the Bakers, along with many other local sugarers, were busy boiling from late March into April, an almost unprecedented occurrence.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding this year’s season, the Bakers have faith in those of the years to come. Connor is yet to determine whether he will pursue his studies in New England or out west, but he says there is a very good chance he will be tending to the pipeline and boiling sap with relatives long into his adulthood.
This first appeared in the Herald of Randolph March 17, 2016