At this time of year, the White River between South Royalton and Sharon, Vermont, is beginning to swell with the sweet promise of spring. The snow is still everywhere, but warm days and frosty nights promise a change in weather, and something else even sweeter. The sap from the maple trees will soon begin to run, and the young people from the South Royalton Branch will gather it on the Joseph Smith Memorial Farm in Sharon.
The sap, which looks just like water and is not much thicker, will be boiled down to make maple sugar and maple syrup. Maple syrup is one of the few crops that is produced only in North America, and this sweet harvest has been gathered for hundreds of years, having been collected annually by the Indians of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River regions prior to the arrival of the European settlers. The syrup is obtained mostly from the sap, or sweet water, of the sugar maple. However, some sugar sap is obtained from the black maple, and a few people claim that during a good year, you can even get the sweet water from a telephone pole.
The farm itself is a memorial to the birthplace of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It was purchased in 1905 by the Church and dedicated to the memory of the Prophet. On December 23, 1905, a granite shaft 38 1/2 feet tall was erected on the site, each foot of the shaft representing one year of the Prophet’s life. The country surrounding the memorial is some of the most beautiful to be found anywhere. Rolling hills and farmland are surrounded by meadows, pastures, and woods of maple and pine. It is easy to see that this is the New England about which Robert Frost wrote much of his beautiful, pastoral poetry.
On this particular evening, some 16 young members of the South Royalton Branch and their leaders have gathered together to gather the sap. They meet at the chapel that is just a few hundred yards from the memorial. After directions from Branch President Harlo M. Beckstrand, they scramble down the road to begin gathering the sap. This year the buckets are hanging from tap spouts on the trees—the same method that was used for hundreds of years. In recent years the young people have used the more modern method of hooking each tree up with a plastic hose and running the hundreds of hoses together to one main gathering tank.
But this year it’s the old method, and the old method is much more fun.
Members of the branch carry five-gallon cans in which they empty the buckets from the trees, and then as the five-gallon cans are filled, the young Mormons start the long trek down the road to the main gathering tank. Sometimes a truck follows along, and the sap is dumped into a pumper tank that is towed behind. You might even catch a ride back to the next maple tree if you are lucky.
After the sap is gathered into the holding tank, the pumper wagon comes along and gathers up the sap so that it can be delivered to the boiling house. The pumper is called the “sap sucker” by those who really know the business. The pickup truck and the “sap sucker,” loaded with sap for the boiling house, head down the muddy road in front of the South Royalton chapel. The boiling house is run by Brother Franklin Fisk and his wife Dorothea. They live in a beautiful canyon about three miles from where the sap is gathered. As you round the bend approaching their home, you can see the steam rising from the boiling house as the sap is reduced further and further down to make the syrup.
Brother and Sister Fisk watch very carefully as the sap is boiled hour after hour. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of maple syrup. Pure maple syrup is very expensive and is not often found in our stores. Sister Fisk watches the sap carefully and grades the quality of the syrup by comparing it to other syrups in bottles that have already been graded. The syrups are graded by their color and clarity.
After the sap is boiled down into syrup, it is bottled and sold as syrup for pancakes and waffles and toppings for ice cream and other desserts. It might also be made into maple sugar and maple sugar candy.
For the young people who are lucky enough to live in this beautiful part of the world so close to the birthplace of the Prophet Joseph Smith, life has many challenges and rewards, but most of the time life is pretty sweet—especially at this time of year when they gather maple sap on the Joseph Smith Memorial Farm.