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Here in Vermont, we have a wonderful opportunity for a sweet spring ritual. We feel the sun getting stronger, snow begins dripping off the roof at just a hint of sunshine, our shoulders start to relax as we realize we’ve made it through another winter, and it is time to make maple syrup.
As the sap begins to flow through the trees in the spring, it can be collected and boiled down into the more concentrated syrup. It takes anywhere from 20 to 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
One of my favorite Abenaki stories is that of Gluskabe and the maple trees. The Creator had made many gifts for people to enjoy, and one of them was the thick sweet syrup that flowed through the branches of the maple trees. All that was required to enjoy the syrup was to snap the end of a branch off, and the thick syrup would flow right out. Gluskabe, who kept an eye on the people on behalf of the Creator, noticed that more and more villages were falling into disrepair. Walking the forestlands, Gluskabe realized that people were becoming fat and lazy because of the abundant and readily available maple syrup. Rather than repairing their homes, keeping their fires going, and growing and hunting for food, they were simply lying on the ground underneath maple trees catching the sweet syrup in their mouths!
The Creator instructed Gluskabe to add water to the maple trees, so that the people would have to work to get their beloved maple syrup, and so that they would remember to be grateful for the many gifts of the Creator. In addition, the Creator decided that it would be better if the sap was sweet only in the spring of the year. After Gluskabe added water to the trees, the villages began to prosper once more, and the spring became a joyful season as the ritual of sap gathering and boiling developed.
Here at Green Mountain Timber Frames, we try hard to remember and appreciate the gifts that we have been given and to honor the trees from which we construct barns and houses. What better time could there be than spring to enter a ritual of gratitude!
In the spring of this year, we were lucky enough to be cutting a new timber frame at the beautiful Larson Farm and Creamery. A real plus of working there was the close proximity to the small maple operation. In fact, we could keep a really close eye on how the sap was flowing. We kept some mugs handy for dipping out deliciously sweet maple sap at coffee time, and we sometimes even brewed our coffee using the stuff! Since two of our team members are backyard sap boilers themselves, they could tell just when it was time to go home early to collect the full buckets of sap.
Sugar making systems run the gambit, with some maple hounds boiling outside using a tripod and giant cast iron pots, while others build large sugar houses and have elaborate equipment. Many of the modern maple-making systems use vacuum pumps, plastic tubing, reverse osmosis systems, and oil fired sap arches.
Being the history nuts that we are at Green Mountain Timber Frames, and given our proclivity towards hand tool worked and hand made, we tend to favor the smokey flavors of the wood-burned syrup, and the traditional bucket methods of collecting. Indeed, we have discussed at length the merits, drawbacks, and subtleties of maple flavors over our years of spring time coffee breaks! Jesse, one of our team members, even brought in Kombucha made using maple sap this spring.
This is the outdoor system of Lucas and Dylan- two brothers and members of our team.
We recently discovered some very old maple sugar taps that were tucked up into the roof system of the Nichols Store timber frame. They were made by whittling saplings and drilling out the center. We found many wooden barrel parts in this structure as well, and it is likely that the sap that flowed through these wooden spouts was also collected in a wooden bucket suspended underneath.
These spouts were found in a circa 1806 frame that we were recently cleaning. I couldn’t help wondering if the trees that these spouts tapped are still alive. It is possible, as Maple trees can live for hundreds of years.
Look at the beautiful carving on this barrel hoop, which was found in the Nichols frame with the maple taps. The ends locked together and held the barrel staves in place.
A few years ago at the Larson Farm, we decided to upgrade our sugar house. It was a wonderful family project, and we want to share some images of the sugar house with you.
The timber frame sugar house measures 16 feet by 24 feet, and has an 8 foot by 24 foot wood storage porch. There is a half loft inside the sugar house for summer guests to enjoy.
All the trees for the project were cut on the farm. The posts were sawn at a local mill, and the rafter system never left the farm. Instead, Luke used a vintage axe and adze to hew the rafters and five-sided ridge beam right in the woods. What a treat it was to experience the joy – and hard work – of shaping the timbers by hand right where they had grown!
The five-sided ridge beam and rafters were shaped the old fashioned way- with an ax and adze.
When the frame was cut and prepared, the whole family plus some friends got together and put the whole frame and roof boards up on a Saturday. In the next photo, note the circa 1810 timber frame hay barn in the background. It is as if it is presiding over the events of the day, and lending solemnity and continuity to the traditions of timber framing on this farm.
The very first bent goes up at around 7 AM in the morning.
Here we are tipping up the second bent.
Bent three goes up. The ties between all the bents are fit into place as the bent rises.
The top plate goes on. Teep – turn that brace the other way!
What is everyone looking at?
Drive those pegs home.
Ready for the rafters!
The ridge and rafters are up, and it is time for roof boards.
Applying the roof boards
The door header, visible at the far end, is made of plum wood. It is a token of gratitude to the tree that had to be removed in order for the sugar house to be built on this spot.
Following millennia of tradition, an evergreen branch is attached to the new frame as a token of respect and gratitude to the trees. Remember the lesson of Gluskabe!
The loft floor joists have a traditional “swoop” on the ends, and we used vintage hand planes to put a hand-worked surface on the posts and girts.
We worked a long and joyful day, and by the evening we had the roof covered and protected with felt paper. Family and friends spent the last light of the summer day standing inside the newly crafted space, taking in the beauty of the timbers. Even Hazel, the family Corgi dog, seemed very tired out by the end of the day!
Even Hazel, the corgi dog, is tired out!
We used vintage slate to build a roof, and we have a collection of recycled windows to install in the sugar house.. any day now! What is it they say about the cobbler’s children going unshod? In the meantime, while we try to find time to finish off the sugar house, we are enjoying the sweet maple syrup that was boiled inside it, as well as the warm spring sunshine. Happy spring everyone!
The tall smoke stack ensures a hot fire inside, and the cupola windows let the steam out as maple sap is evaporated.
Do you love timber framing as much as we do? At Green Mountain Timber Frames, we build vintage and new post and beam homes.