I was fourteen years old when “Old Carl” walked into my life on the two well-worn crutches which had served him as “legs” for much of a lifetime. I stood by the dusky bluff sides of the old sugar house and watched him make his slow, smiling way across a patch of meadow to where I waited. It was the first spring of our years on the Brookfield farm and the sap was running in the 500 buckets we had tapped and hung in the sugar maple orchard whose promise was a large part of the reason we had made a huge change in our family’s life. Between tapping trees, driving spiles, hanging buckets, gathering and hauling sap and cord wood, there was still a herd of Jersey cows to be tended and milked. With more than enough work to go around Dad had decided I was to be the one who learned how to run the sugarin’ rig and turn slightly sweet water into farm profit.
I figure Carl Wakefield, who had once owned and “pioneered” the very farm we now called our home place, had been born sometime around 1878 or a dozen years after the end of the Civil War and the assassination of a President. To me, he seemed “ancient”, and I wondered just how much real help he was going to be in teaching anything.
Converting the slightly-sweet watery sap of a sugar maple tree (Acer saccharum) into legal syrup involves boiling away the water until what’s left is 66.5% sucrose, without scorching or under-cooking any of the 35 gallons it takes on the average to make each gallon of finished product. This is not a “one-time” cook-off, but a continuous flow of new sap flowing into the evaporator from the storage tanks as the finished syrup is carefully drawn off the other end, all the while monitoring and feeding the demanding fire underneath gobbling up four-foot lengths of seasoned hardwood.
Once the gathering and storage tanks are full and the trees are running full-tilt, there can be no let up, and Carl and I would work in the steam-choked semi-darkness right through a night and a day at times, lucky to wolf down a meal my mother would bring to us from the house a mile away.
I soon noticed that while I was scientifically measuring viscosity in a test tube, Carl would be yelling “forget about that; this here syrup is ready; open the valve now!” And every time, he would be three minutes ahead of me and right on “plumb”. He knew just when the fire was getting too hot or starting to cool, and he knew all kinds of little tricks to keep the syrup in the final tray from “foaming” or worse yet, scorching. But I learned so much more: of how Mary, the love of his life had broken his heart and turned down marriage because of a misunderstood medical fear; of how a childhood disease had taken a beloved son when about my age; how he had been trapped and crippled by an enraged bull as a young man, bringing on the lifelong arthritis condition which would have finished off most men.
The farm had to be worked, bills paid, responsibilities fulfilled. Carl trained his horses to work on voice commands, so that he could hold on and drag himself along as he planted, cultivated, mowed (with a hand scythe), and gathered hay and silage. He kept the place handsome and in repair, and built for the future. He had a firewood business on the side, and when he had a wagon load of cut maple and birch lengths loaded, he would leave six feet of space and a short chopping block behind him, climb aboard, tell the team of horses to “gettyup” for town and start splitting and stacking his way forward. Two hours and seven miles later he would deliver to his customers, load up at the feed store and Claflin’s Grocery and head for home.
Day by day, and year after year, Old Carl met his challenges and obligations head on and without complaint, finding time to attend church, participate in events at the Grange Hall, and write and read his own poetry, some of which is still remembered and recounted – I have discovered – fifty years after his passing.
Old Carl taught me how to “make sugar” the old fashion way, before the gadgetry and technology which eases the travail of today’s sugar-makers, and I am still a discerning judge of what is “Grade A” and what is “Vermont Fancy” and what is far from either despite a pretty label. But more than that, I learned a lot about the meaning of honor, integrity, honesty, fortitude and Yankee industry. And the word indomitable took on a whole new meaning in the eyes and heart of a fourteen-year-old kid. THANK YOU CARL!
With a hundred years of memories sweetening its interior, a typical maple sugarhouse much like the one in this story stands as a hallmark near Shrewsbury, Vermont.