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MAKING MAPLE SUGAR
ALREADY the great snow drifts in front of the farmhouse, in the roads, and beside the stone walls had begun to melt away. At mid-day the snow was soft and clumpy and the bees were out; but in the morning there would be a hard crust on which we could run about and visit the neighbors.
On one of these mornings, about March 10th, Addison looked across the breakfast table to the Old Squire and asked if it were not getting about time to "tap trees." "Pretty near time," was the reply. "I see that sap has started."
"Well, Joseph, if you are going to make sugar, you must get two of those new sap-pans and try to do the sugaring off over in the lot; for I do not see how I can have it in the house this spring," Gram declared.
The Old Squire replied that he was not at all desirous of making sugar that spring, and there the subject was dropped — to the dismay of us young folks; for much had been anticipated by us all in regard to maple syrup. I had never seen the process, but had heard glowing accounts of it from Ellen and Halstead. Gram and the Old Squire, who had been making maple sugar annually for forty years, had naturally grown a little tired of the routine.
Addison and Ellen took counsel together; and at length the latter came privately to call Theodora and me out to the wood-shed. Halstead also was present." What we're talking about is making the old folks an offer on maple-syrup this spring," Addison explained. "It's too bad not to make any, when we have sap-house, buckets and kettles over in the 'Aunt Hannah Lot,' all ready for it."
"That's so," Ellen and Halstead both said. "It's luscious good," the former added. "I wish I had some this minute."
"Well," said Addison, "I have been thinking, since we all want to make some, that we might make it and make a little money out of it, too; that is, if you are all in favor of it and are willing to work; for of course there is work about it."
"But how, Ad?" asked Theodora, looking a little curious.
"Why, I was going to say to the Old Squire, that we would go ahead, if he would buy us one new sap-pan, and make all the syrup and sugar we could, on shares with him, half and half, and not trouble Gram anything about it. If we made four hundred-weight, half of it would come into the house; but our half we would sell at the village. It fetches twelve cents a pound, you know; we might get that money, clear, and please the folks, too. I rather think they would like the idea."
We all thought exceedingly well of this proposition; young people — even lazy ones — are generally willing to exert themselves somewhat to obtain maple syrup. Besides, we believed that it would be great sport to make syrup on our own account, in the lot; for Thomas and Kate would be sure to call over often; and we could boil sap, evenings, make maple flap-jacks on snow, and have a good time generally.
Addison was therefore commissioned to broach the subject to the Old Squire. He entered on it at the supper-table, that evening, while the rest of us sat listening, with expectancy.
"Seems 'most too bad not to make any sugar this spring, sir," he began, after we were all helped to milk toast. "But, of course, it is a good deal of work; and I've been thinking, sir, of making you an offer, if Gram also thinks well of it."
"What's your offer?" said the old gentleman.
"Well, sir, we boys and the girls have been talking it over and we are willing, if you will get us a sap-pan, for syruping off, to go ahead over at the lot and make what we can on shares, half and half, and relieve you and Gram of all bother about it."
"I guess there would be some queer sugar made," Gram remarked ironically.
"Well," said Ad, perceiving that he had gone a step too fast, "I was about to say that perhaps Gram would not mind riding over to the lot in the sleigh and giving us the benefit of her advice once or twice, to help us along."
"Well, but who will board you during the two or three weeks that you are making sugar, on shares?" demanded the old gentleman, his eye twinkling a little. "Were you expecting to turn in your half of the syrup toward your board?"
"No, sir," said Addison, laughing, but coloring a little. "We were proposing to sell our half toward a school fund for next fall."
The Old Squire laughed. "I'm afraid, Ruth," said he, "that I shall get my fingers pinched in this business, if I don't look out for myself. These grandchildren of ours are sharp youngsters, I see."
"But I should call it a good offer," Gram said.
"You know you have us to board, anyway, grandfather," said Theodora, quietly. "The more's the pity, but it is so," she added. "I suppose we count on that more than we ought to, perhaps."
"O, I guess we shall be able to get enough to eat and drink!" cried the Old Squire, disclaiming the sentiment which Theodora sought to express. "I was only in fun about your board, my girl.
"But this syrup-making is hard work, boys," he continued. "I don't mind your trying your hand at it on shares; but it will be hard work for you."
"If you say the word, we will tackle it," said Halstead; but the Old Squire did not "say the word" at once. He took the evening to consider the matter.
Addison did not ask him further concerning it, but while he and the old gentleman were at the stable together, next morning, they came to an understanding.
"We are going to take the job on shares," Addison said to me as we went in to breakfast. "It's all settled."
Accordingly, after breakfast we all set off for the maple grove, in the Aunt Hannah Lot pasture. There were here, scattered about the rough land adjoining the Edwards farm, nearly three hundred maples fit for tapping; a few of them were white maples, but the most rock maples, or sugar maples. Some of them were very large with huge spreading tops; and toward the southerly side, near two great rocks close by which grew five large maples and a yellow birch, stood the weathered sap-house, a 'small hovel, ten by twenty feet, with a chimney in one corner, an "arch" of brick, in which were set three large iron kettles, and a little dark loft overhead where the cedar sap-buckets, spiles, sap-yokes, etc., were stored.
Here the Old Squire had made maple sugar every spring for more than a generation; and he accompanied us that morning to give us hints from his long experience. We took a hand-sled with tapping augers, hammers, shovels, etc., and were in high spirits, with a bright March sun soaring above the white clouds overhead and the hard snow crust underfoot. Already the twigs of the maples had begun to turn red; and the day before, two crows had returned and were lurking about the farm with an eye to defunct lambs. A blue jay, too, was heard crying sharply as we went through the little belt of woods between the farm and the Aunt Hannah Lot.
"It will soon be spring again," the Old Squire said. "We ought to be thankful there is no war and that we have peace once more, even although times are a little hard for farmers. Seems as if everything a farmer. has is shrinking in value. But store prices are lower; that is one advantage."
This was the period succeeding the war, when so many Eastern farmers became disheartened and were led, many of them, into erroneous opinions as to national finance, which found expression, later, in the "Greenback craze." A farm which had been worth three thousand dollars at the close of the Civil War, could now scarcely have been sold for seventeen hundred. It was very difficult to raise money for any purpose. The average citizen could not understand why, since peace was restored, he found it so much harder to get a living than in "war times."
During the war the government was paying out vast sums in "bounties," wages and for munitions; and hence money was plenty; although in reality the nation — and that meant everybody in the country — was getting enormously in debt.
When the war closed, these great sums ceased to be paid out, and the unpleasant task of paying the great debt began.
All wise citizens comprehended it, and bore it as best they could, knowing that it was necessary and unavoidable. But there were still thousands who could not comprehend it, and what was worse, other thousands who did not wish to comprehend it, but desired to have the government issue millions of dollars more in greenbacks, or in other words to go on running in debt, instead of paying what it already owed as it had promised to do.
I recollect that Addison and the Old Squire were discussing the matter for weeks, and were in not a little doubt, at times, what was right and best; for the subject was not as easily understood then as now.
That morning I saw a sugar maple "tapped" for the first time, and saw the sweet sap drop into buckets, set in the snow beneath the spiles. But first we had kindled a fire in the sap-house, melted snow and scalded out the buckets which Halstead handed down from the loft, a hundred and seventy-eight of them. After the water was hot Theodora and Ellen attended to this part of the labor. The buckets had been carefully put away the previous spring and were in good condition.
In one of them which had been set right side up, we found a nest of dry leaves and a squirrel's hoard of acorns; — for there were a few red oaks in the pasture. We concluded that it was the preserve of a squirrel that had either forgotten where he had placed his store, or else, as is more likely, one that had lost his life early the previous winter and therefore left his hoard as a legacy to the finder.
Addison, meantime, was tapping trees and Wealthy supplying him with spiles, and carrying the hammer about for him to drive the spiles into the holes in the trees. It fell to my own lot to carry the buckets to the trees; and the Old Squire instructed me very carefully how to set them in the snow and prop the southerly side with stones or sticks.
Like most boys I soon began to think that my part of the work was the hardest and intimated that I would rather tap than distribute buckets; — for it looked to me very easy to bore holes in the trees.
"Well, let him tap one, if he wants to," the Old Squire said quietly.
With a grin Addison handed me the tapping auger; and planting myself in front of a maple I essayed to bore a hole in it. "Mind now," said Addison, "the hole must slant upward a little, so that the spile may slant down. If it doesn't, the sap will not run into the bucket."
I stabbed the worm of the auger into the hard, rough bark and tried to bore into the tree — on an upward slant. It did not auger well. I tried again, but could not make the worm draw. Again and again I attempted it, for I knew that Addison and the Old Squire were looking on and I presumed that they were amused, although I would not look at them.
As a result of my efforts I produced a scar in the green tree, very shallow and resembling an ulcer more than an auger hole. The sap began to trickle forth, but no spile could by any means be inserted. I was discomfited, mortified, and uncertain what to do next.
"Bores hard, does it, my son?" said the Old Squire. His visage was much puckered by smiles. Addison, too, was regarding the effort with an aggravating grin. Wealthy, the little traitress, had run off to tell the others that I was trying to tap a tree and couldn't; and Halstead, Theodora and Ellen were approaching with faces expectant of diversion.
"Going to give it up?" Addison asked me.
I would not do that and again jabbed the auger into the hole. At length I got it started to bore a little, but Addison cried, "Slant it up! Slant it up more!"
In trying to slant the hole upward, I again lost the bite of the worm and puggled away fruitlessly, while Halstead and the girls laughed.
Again and yet again I tried, but had now got the hole in such a condition that no one could have bored there. With much shame, I finally made a virtue of necessity and said, "I don't believe I can tap a tree."
"Have you just found that out?" cried Halstead. "We've all known it for the last fifteen minutes."
I made an effort to get rid of the auger by handing it back to Addison, but the Old Squire cried, "No, no, sir. Never give up in that way. You must now tap a tree."
"I don't believe I can," I faltered.
"Yes, you can!" cried the old gentleman. "Take that auger and come out here to this log."
I followed him to a birch log which lay near the sap-house. "Now bore a hole in it," said he.
This I succeeded in doing.
"Now come to this maple," the Old Squire exhorted me, "and try again. Get right down on your knees, set your auger at the right slant, to begin with, and try to tap that tree."
I had completely lost confidence in myself, but obeyed and, somewhat to my own surprise, succeeded this time in boring a fairly even hole in the tree, at the proper angle.
"There you are!" cried the old gentleman, patting me on the shoulder. "Now go back to that first tree, begin a new hole and tap it right."
My courage was better now, and I tapped the big maple and drove in the spile.
"Never show the white feather again, in anything you try to do!" cried the Old Squire, by way of final advice to me. "What others can do, you can do."
It was a good lesson; I had learned, moreover, that tapping a frozen green rock maple, with an inch auger, is something more than child's play, and was quite willing to let Addison resume his task. The scar which I had made on the big maple oozed and wasted sap all that spring. Halstead often called my attention to it when we were gathering sap, and he wished to hector me a little. "See that poor tree bleed!" he would say.
At length the Old Squire relieved Addison at his task of tapping, for the latter grew not a little tired by the time he had bored eighty or ninety holes. We did not feel quite right to have the old gentleman do the work, however, since we had undertaken the job ourselves; and Theodora at last said that we would need to give him more than half of the first boiling of syrup. "O no, O no," he replied. "I am not trying to hedge on the contract. I do this of my own accord. But if you fear an infringement, you must forbid my working," he added, laughing heartily. "The fact is, I've tapped these trees here so many years that it comes very handy for me. Seems just as if I must take hold and work," he added.
We fancied that he felt a little touch of sadness at the thought of giving up his annual task here despite the laugh with which he turned it off. Theodora presently drew Addison aside, and they conversed for some moments; then as I was setting a bucket under a spile that the Old Squire had just driven, Addison came along and said, "We have been thinking, sir, that we would like to have you go in company with us and make a new contract."
Gramp glanced at him and divined his motive instantly; for he was always very quick to appreciate a touch of sentiment. But he only laughed. "No, no," he said, "we will stick to our agreement. You couldn't make a young man of me again, if you were all to try ever so kindly," he added. "I have had my time. Others must soon take my place. It is the law of nature. The main thing is for each one to do his part well, during his allotted time." With that he abruptly dismissed the subject and began to speak of the fire-wood for boiling the sap. There were about two cords of weathered dry wood which had been cut and piled at a little distance from the sap-house the previous spring. In addition to this the Old Squire now pointed out to us several dead and partly dry trees, scattered about the lot; for a few maples died nearly every year here. Tapping and drawing the sap from the trees materially shortens their lives. The wood of their trunks, too, near the ground, where the tapping is done, is very liable to decay around the auger holes.
It seemed to me that I never tasted a more delightful draught than that cold maple sap, fresh from those great trees that morning. It ran quite rapidly, that is to say, it dropped fast; by eleven o'clock some of the buckets were half full. There were two large tubs, called sap-holders, of about a hogshead's capacity each, in the sap-house. Both these were scalded out with hot water and prepared for storing the sap overnight.
By this time we went to dinner, but returned before three to collect the day's run of sap. The snow crust had thawed by this time beneath the warm sun; and it became a laborious task to tread a path into the lot and afterwards tread diverging paths from the sap-house around to the trees. Carrying the sap in tin pails through the snow, when sometimes we would slump into it with both feet, was far from easy labor; this part, indeed, is the prosy side of maple sugar making.
Many of the buckets were now brimming full. Halstead, Addison and I were occupied for as much as two hours, fetching in the sap and filling the sap-holders. Addison made use of a sap-yoke and brought two pailfuls at once; but one pail was as much as I could manage in the soft snow; and once or twice I spilled my sap.
Before it was all gathered I had become very tired and fully realized that even so alluring a business as syrup-making has, necessarily, its share of work ere the sweets can be enjoyed.
The weather was still so cool that there was no risk from the sap souring in the holders; and the business of boiling it down was postponed till the following forenoon. In fact, we were all fatigued; even the girls, who had not assisted at gathering the sap, were now quite content to wait till next day.
Just as we were finishing work and fastening the door of the sap-house to go home, Thomas Edwards came across lots on snowshoes, to see how we were getting on. Their sugar-lot lay to the westward of their farm and pasture; and he informed us that he and his father were to begin tapping trees the following morning.
"How's Latin lately?" he shouted back to us as he climbed the fence, bordering their field. "We haven't looked at it since we had the mumps," replied Addison.
"No more have I," replied Thomas. "I believe the mumps wiped it all out of my head. But Kate is hammering away at it, every day."
We had another reminder of our neglected Latin that night. Ellen, who had hastened to the post-office after the mail, brought a letter from Master Pierson, also a package on which there were sixteen cents in postage stamps, which proved to be a second-hand copy of Cæsar's Commentaries on the Gallic War, with notes, map, a vocabulary and a short biography of Julius Cæsar. There were also pictures of the battles between the Roman army and the Helvetii, Germans, Nervii and numerous ancient peoples of Gaul. It was a copy of what was called "the Brooks edition," that being the name of the editor.
Oddly enough the first words in Joel's letter were the same with which Thomas had hailed us, half an hour previously: "How's Latin, lately?"
Joel then went on to encourage Addison ( for the letter was directed to him) and all the rest of the class, to retain what we had already learned, by reviewing it occasionally. "Perhaps," he added, "you can read a few sections of Cæsar. It opens rather hard, but you will soon catch the knack of translating it. Suppose you try eight or ten sections, during the spring. It is interesting reading after you make a start with it."
We examined the book with much interest. It looked ominously difficult to me; but I liked the pictures and the portrait of Cæsar very much.
"We will take it out to the sap-house while we are tending kettles and see what we can make of it," Addison said. "Perhaps Kate and Tom will come over and try their wisdom teeth on it."
Ellen had another piece of news. "There is a notice posted on the schoolhouse, for a school-meeting, to choose a new agent for next year," she informed us. "I stopped and read it, as I came past."
This notice was of interest to us; for there had been much difference of opinion in the district for two years; and we knew that Tibbetts and his clique were resolved if possible to elect an agent who would do as they wished about the school. As we considered their intentions bad, we were all — Addison in particular — much exercised about it and desired, if possible, to defeat them. We hoped to have Joel Pierson hired for the following winter as our teacher again. "If Tibbetts get's his man elected for agent, we shall not have Joel," said Addison, at the supper table. "We can count that as settled. There will be an end of Latin, algebra and everything else that we want in the school line here at home. We have advanced now where a poor teacher will be of no use to us, only a drawback. A good teacher, too, is best for every scholar in the district, whether advanced or backward. I think it is a shame to be held back and be put at a disadvantage by one old rum-seller! What he will do, if he can, really excludes us from the advantages of the school here and defrauds us of our school money; we shall be obliged to go somewheres else, if we have instruction. Fancy having another Sam Lurvey next winter!"
Addison waxed indignant; he felt very strongly on this subject.
"But perhaps Tibbetts will not get his man elected for agent," Theodora said.
"I am anything but easy about that," exclaimed Addison. "There's a majority of voters out around the Corners. The trouble is there are seven or eight weak-headed, no-account fellows, some of them only just come of age to vote, who have no sense and no care for anything except Tibbetts' bad liquor. Half of them, I suppose, are in debt to him for it; and they will do just as he gives them the wink to do. There's Tim Darnley, Jerry Cross, Lige Davis, and that whole gang of low-lived chaps, who spend most of their time around Tibbetts' place, chewing tobacco, telling shady stories and working just enough to live along and get a drink of rum now and then."
"It's a shame such men have the right to vote!" cried Gram whom Addison's oratory on the subject of temperance, and of Tibbetts in particular, always roused. "They ought no more to vote than so many pigs!"
"Well, but they have the right to do so, under the Constitution, Gram," replied Addison; "and it's their votes that I am afraid of."
"If I had made the Constitution, or if I had power at the State Legislature, no man should vote who was not of temperate habits and who did not have a family and a home in the community," Gram declared, vehemently.
"But, Ruth, that is not the Jeffersonian doctrine of equal rights for all men," remarked the Old Squire, smiling.
"Jefferson or no Jefferson, I don't believe in letting drunkards vote," exclaimed Gram. "Such votes hold the whole country back and degrade us. Nobody ought to be called a citizen, or be able to vote, who has not got a home of his own and something to vote for. It is just as Addison says, only worse; for it is drunken, worthless voters who defeat worthy measures in our elections, all over the country. And you mark what I say, for I have been hearing how elections go for the last twenty years, it will grow worse and worse in this respect, as time goes on, on account of liquor and boughten votes. It will not be the honest and intelligent citizens who will rule the country, but a mob of the Tibbetts and the Tim Darnley stamp. So I say and shall always say that only those ought to have a right to vote who are temperate and engaged in some useful occupation, and who have something of their own in the world to feel an interest in and to vote for."
"Just what I think, Gram!" cried Addison, laughing.
"We shall have to send you to Augusta, Ruth," observed the Old Squire a little sarcastically, for he never liked to hear grandmother talk politics too long at one time.
"Well, Joseph," cried the old lady, turning her attention to this last remark, "I have no doubt it would be quite as well to send home one half the representatives to the Legislature at Augusta, and put their wives in their places. There would be a better winter's work done at law-making than there was last winter, I'll be bound to say — which wouldn't be saying much, either. One thing we women would do, for certain, we would cork up the rum business so tight that no cork-screw ever yet made could get the stopper out."
The Old Squire did not reply to this sally, but remarked, at length, to Addison, that it would be well to make a quiet effort before the school-meeting took place, to set the matter before the minds of the voters in its true light and appeal to their good sense. "That is all we can properly do," he-added. "All we ought to do."
"We are sure of every voter here in our own neighborhood, on this road," Addison remarked. "For I think Batchelder will vote with us; and Sylvester, Murch, Wilbur and Edwards will be with us, of course; but unless we can secure five or six of those Corners voters, we shall be defeated, sure as fate."
We went out from supper to see the new sap-pan which a neighbor had brought up from the village for us that afternoon. The Old Squire scalded it out and next morning we hauled it over to the sap-house where it was set on the "arch," in place of the two old kettles.