Bernard. A. Drew | Our Berkshires: Windsor maple tree created a buzz
GREAT BARRINGTON — It was late March, the end of sap gathering at Helen G. and Lt. Col. Arthur D. Budd's Notch View Farm in Windsor — now Notchview Reservation — and foreman Jason Clapper and his assistants were busy.
"Mr. Clapper looked into one of the buckets," the Berkshire Eagle reported in its April 1, 1936, issue, "saw the bottom was covered and proceded to the usual business of pouring it into the collecting pail.
"But nothing came out," the newspaper continued. "Mildly astounded, Mr. Clapper tried again. This time the amber coating began to flow slowly down the side of the bucket. Mr. Clapper took off his gloves and stuck his finger in. A small lick, and Mr. Clapper decided here was something new. It tasted like maple syrup; but it also tasted like honey."
What was going on with this tree's sap of a gooey consistency?
At that point, something that looked suspiciously like a bee buzzed up to the bucket spout and strolled unconcernedly up into the trough and out of sight. Not one, however, to be frustrated by something just because it isn't in the rule books, Mr. Clapper banged the pail on the tree, merely to see what would happen. Something did, and Mr. Clapper left without further investigation approximately three steps ahead of a large cloud of obviously indignant bees."
Clapper called in Robert E. Stuart of Pittsfield, agent for Berkshire County Extension. Stuart had never seen anything like the maple honey but anticipated it might be the start of a new industry.
Wearing beekeeper's masks and gloves, Clapper and Stuart used a smoker as they visited the tree. "Mr. Clapper and his distinguished and amazed audience learned beyond a shadow of doubt that, by some coincidence, the sap spout had been installed plumb in the middle of a bee hive. A section of the bark was later chopped out, confirming the deduction."
Witnesses agreed the bees, undeterred by the spout nosing into their hive, decided to make good use of it. "They therefore took the spout over as their front door," The Eagle said. "Returning from a foraging expedition, their tails would drag on the surface of the spout, through which the maple sap continued to run. They thus added drops of maple sap to their load of pollen, and as a result the flavor colored the honey. The honey, in turn, flowed at times out of the spout."
Clapper (1891-1963), a native of Middlebury, Vt., had gone to work for the Budds in the 1930s, later transferring to Mount Hope Farm in Williamstown.
The Berkshire County Commission in August 1934 had promoted Stuart as chief 4-H Club agent. In 1938, among other activities, he would organize a poultry club in the Brick School District in Hinsdale. He left his Pittsfield job that year to return to Littleton to help his father farm.
Budd had a modest sugar-making business in the 1930s until the onset of World War II. He advertised his "100% Maple Syrup" as being "Fresh from the Berkshires." In 1941 he sold syrup, express prepaid, $3.25 for a gallon, $1.75 for a half gallon.
The old sugar bush is about a half mile from the Notchview Reservation Visitors Center, on a dirt road. The sugar house is gone. When I was growing up on the estate, its sweet years were past. The evaporator was gone. The building stored sawn lumber and an old road grader.
The last person to boil sap in the sugar bush was my mother, Jennie R. Drew of Dalton. My late father, Warren A. Drew, then superintendent of Notchview Reservation, in the 1990s built a small outdoor arch using cinder blocks. Mom tended her wood fire hours at a time, waiting for the sap to boil down to the right consistency.
The colonel in a letter to the Hartford Courant for March 3, 1947 disputed a popular belief: that the earliest run sap makes the lightest and sweetest syrup.
"If fancy syrup is made when the season opens," he wrote, "it may be because everything [equipment] is clean. Sap is highly organic, unstable and easily sours. Unless all the equipment is kept scrupulously free from slime and dirt, the syrup keeps getting darker and losing flavor. A well equipped saphouse provides for daily flushing ."
Drews who sugared in years past would have disagreed; the lightest, first-run, Grade A syrup wins ribbons at the country fairs. But Erik Wilska, proprietor of Shaker Mill Books in West Stockbridge, with 700 gallons of sap on hand last Sunday and ready to do his first boil, agreed with the colonel. He said the sugar content doesn't change, but bacteria accumulates in the taps and other things darken later syrup.
Jim Caffrey, stewardship manager for Northwest Management Unit, notes that Rachael Niswander, an intern at Notchview, working with the Windsor Historical Commission, has mounted a display of black-and-white photos of maple sugaring at the property in the 1940s. They're on the walls in the Visitor's Center. Take a look before you go out to ski.
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.