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Maple Sugaring Along the Mohawk Trail

When nights are cold and daytime temperatures rise above freezing, sap starts to run, and buckets hang from maple trees all over rural New England.  Visitors, eager for some diversion between ski season and summer, flock to sugarhouses to watch the evaporation process, buy maple products, and eat at sugarhouse restaurants.

Sugarpails1 Colonists first learned about the sweetness of maple sap from Native Americans, who collected it from V-shaped slashes they made on the trunks of maple trees, and the newcomers subsequently developed their own techniques for tapping trees and reducing the sap to syrup or sugar.  When England forbid trade with the West Indies in 1765, colonists looked to maple sugar to fill their sweet needs.

In earlier times, farmers with a substantial "sugar bush" set up sugar camps in the woods, and the whole family would move to the camp to help with the labor-intensive process of gathering and boiling sap.  So originated the one-week "winter vacation" still observed every February by New England schools, a custom non-natives find bizarre--who wants their kids home in February when they can't go outside to play?   What began as time off from school to work at a sugar camp is, today, an opportunity to visit a modern-day sugarhouse.

Sugarpails2During the Civil War, cane sugar became scarce once again, and maple sugar, supplied to the troops and used at home, was considered the "patriotic" alternative to sugar produced in the South.  Metal buckets with lids, such as you see here, were developed to aid in collecting sap, and the development of the tin can in these years allowed syrup to be preserved, shipped, and used year round.

Today large sugaring operations use less quaint, time-saving tubing to collect sap, but small producers still use sap buckets, and many larger operations use buckets to collect sap from outlying trees.  A single farmer may tap the trees on many properties, paying his neighbors for sap in gallons of finished syrup.  The ratio of sap to syrup is 40:1--forty gallons of sap to one gallon of syrup.  To be tapped, trees need to be 10 inches in diameter, which means they need to be c. 40 years old.  Each tap hole will yield about 10 gallons of sap, which will reduce to 1 quart of syrup.

Maple syrup comes in four different grades, named by color: golden, amber, dark, and very dark.  The darker the color, the stronger the flavor.  Which is best depends on one's personal taste.  Each has the same proportion of maple to water, and the producer has no control over which grade each boil will produce, but darker syrup tends to come later in the season.  In addition to syrup, producers usually offer maple sugar, often made into candies, and maple cream.  A favorite at Western Massachusetts' many fall fairs is fried dough smeared with maple cream.   

In the 1960's, three Franklin County sugarhouses, Gray's in Ashfield, Davenport's and Gould's in Shelburne, began offering maple-syrup-laced breakfasts during the sugar season, an early foray into the now popular "agri-tourism."

Of the three, only Davenport Maple Farm, up Little Mohawk Rd. off Route 2, still offers breakfast during the sugar season. (See Sugarshack Restaurants in Western Massachusetts.)  Gould's has ceased all operations for the present.


Gould's Sugarhouse

The evaporator at rest

Gould's evaporator in action

Tending syrup

Monitoring the syrup


While Canada, mainly Quebec, produces 80% of the world's maple syrup and Vermont leads the U.S. with around 1 million gallons, Massachusetts, ninth in the nation, produces about 60,000 gallons, worth 5-6 million dollars, and interest in this local industry is growing.  Eighty percent of our 300 plus producers are located west of I-91. Sales of Massachusetts syrup are mainly within the state.  For more information visit www.massmaple.org.

                           Syrup flows from the evaporator

Maple syrup production benefits the environment by preserving forests and woodlots, important habitat for birds and other animals.  By making commercial use of forested areas, sugaring saves them from other uses that might destroy the trees.  Sugaring preserves approximately 15,000 acres of open space in Massachusetts.  It also allows local dairy farmers to stay in business by giving them additional income.                  

Unfortunately, maple sugar production everywhere is is threatened by the invasion of the Asian longhorned beetle, which destroys hardwood trees, particularly maples.   It was  discovered in Worcester, MA, where 25,000 trees were destroyed to stop its spread.  Today officials urge people to keep an eye out for the pest and, most particularly, never to transport firewood from one location to another, but always to burn local wood.  For more on the beetle and how to identify it, see www.beetlebusters.info.

Maple syrup is high in antioxidants, minerals, especially manganese, vitamins, especially Riboflavin (B2), and low in fructose.  For recipes that use maple syrup, visit millbrookhouserecipes.com.

















Morocco 2022

  • 047 Guard, Hassan Tower
    In 2018, a friend from London told me he had purchased a riad (row house) in Marrakech. Enthusiastically, I promised to visit. I had never given a thought to visiting Morocco, to Morocco as a country, or anything about Morocco. Maybe I associated it vaguely with the film Casablanca or the French Foreign Legion, but certainly not with a modern Muslim society. Morocco had not even come up in news about the Arab Spring of 2010, but I wanted to be supportive. So in 1919 Steve and I made plans to visit my friend in Marrakech during his fall vacation the following year. However, by the time our plans had shipwrecked on the shoals of Covid, not once but twice, I began to seriously question my loyalties. Nevertheless, finally, serendipitously, in the spring of 2022, it all came together. The specter of Covid tests still hung over us, but we started out gamely and discovered a world of gracious people, amazing art and architecture, delicious food, and a fascinating history (that I am far from mastering). After visiting my friend and his beautiful riad in Marrakech, we joined a guided tour of Morocco’s “Imperial Cities,” i.e. those that had served as capitols to different rulers and dynasties from Roman times to the present. The following album contains the best of Steve’s photos from the trip.

The Best of Sandy and Rocky

  • 035 King of the Universe
    Sandy was a year old when he came to us in 2013 as a scrawny stray with one misshapen eyelid. A few months of hearty eating transformed him into a sandy-haired beauty, extraordinarily gentle and extremely fond of cuddling and schmoozing. About that time we adopted three-month-old Rocky, mischief-maker and comedian-in-chief. Where Sandy never saw a lap he didn’t like, Rocky never passed up a box or a bag if he could possibly get in it. When, in 2015, our permanent move to Mill Brook House enabled the cats to go outside, Sandy proved himself a fearsome hunter while Rocky fell in love with wild turkeys and domestic chickens. Sadly, at the end of his first outdoor summer, Sandy disappeared. Days of calling, searching and alerting neighbors turned up nothing. Devastated at first, Rocky eventually recovered his moxie, and he continues to romance the chickens across the street, play pirates in the claw foot tub, and fall asleep on the hand-hewn beams in the attic. This album commemorates our “cat years.”

Charlemont at 250

  • 027 Balloon Rides
    This year marks Charlemont's 250th Anniversary (incorporated 1765). See photographs here and read more at: http://www.millbrookhousenews.com/mill-brook-house-news/2015/06/charlemont-at-250.html. For permission to reproduce any of these photographs, please contact Steven Sternbach: [email protected].

Shelburne Falls' Bridge of Flowers

  • C014
    The Shelburne Falls trolley bridge, connecting the villages of Buckland and Shelburne, was built in 1908 to carry freight and passengers on a 7.5 mile line to Colrain. With the advent of the automobile, however, trucks began hauling freight, and in 1927 the company that built the bridge went bankrupt. Turning the abandoned bridge into a flower garden was the brainchild of Antoinette and Walter Burnham, who, with the Shelburne Falls Women’s Club, raised $1000 for loam, fertilizer and plants, and made this unique, historic landmark a reality in 1929. Then, as now, all the labor to start the garden and keep it going was donated. This album is a month by month chronicle of the ever-changing spectacle the bridge presents to tourists and residents every year from April to September.

Western Mass.


  • MassMoCA, Exterior
    The photographs in this album record exhibits at MassMoCA in North Adams, MA, on January 1, 2011. All of these photographs are copyrighted by Steven Sternbach; for permission to reproduce them, contact the photographer at [email protected].
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