By MarykateSmith Despres | Family photographs courtesy of Helen Gould
The kitchen table is heaped with folders, fat with newspaper clippings and photographs in plastic sleeves, 55 years’ worth of Gould’s Maple Sugarhouse memories. Helen Gould easily and often slides up and down the timeline of family history as she tells me the stories. Stories of great-grandchildren come home to help with sugaring last year; of her late husband Edgar’s childhood, one of 10 raised on the farm through the Depression; of her own children (“Our kids, of course, they’ve been gathering sap since they could walk.”)
All the way back to 1812, when Ebenezer Fisk, one of the earliest settlers in Shelburne, a relative on Edgar’s side, built the house we’re sitting in. Through all the years and stories, Helen is warmly present. She tells me about the community that has grown up, around, and through the restaurant since it opened in 1960. Families of tourists and neighbors and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts come year after year to the restaurant Edgar Gould built from the remnants of old barns.
“Edgar built the sugarhouse with the idea that making syrup is an art, you know, and that the building is to match the art.”
Helen was “a Greenfield girl.” She laughs when I ask how she and Edgar met. “‘He had a horse,” she begins, eyebrows raised in remembering. Edgar, a few years older than Helen, would ride his horse down the back road from Shelburne to bring her mother maple syrup for two dollars a gallon. “I only came here ’cause he had a horse,” she tells me. He had a sleigh too, which they would drive down the streets of Greenfield in winter. Edgar and Helen married in 1945 and bought the farm. “The horse died after 27 years, but I stayed.”
Outside the three large windows across from the kitchen table, the farm is beautiful. Ice shines out in slick streaks and patches under the snow sifted down last night. Like powdered sugar dusted on the face of the fields. The wind blows clouds of it off the roof above the windows and across the side yard abutting cow fence and cornfields. The shorn stubble of stalks jut straight and hard out of the frozen ground and beyond them, more fields, clear and white, slope down a hill and up again like a river through the thick grip of trees on its banks. Helen’s son Larry comes into the kitchen with work on his clothes and sits solidly across from me, interrupting the view with the immediacy of the day and the scope of the season ahead.
The maples are strung together with tubing or hung with buckets during sugaring season, which runs its short but bustling course over just six weeks between February and April. Maple is the first cash crop of each year, but to say it is when farms wake up after a long winter is far from accurate. Though the winters are long, they are not still, with cows to be milked, sheep to tend, cordwood and timber logs to cut, chores to do. The Goulds, like many farmers, do not go to bed with the crops at the end of fall. But sugaring does bring a change, a quickening, to the pulse of the farm.
“Warm days and cold nights,” says Larry, “that’s the key.” The sap starts flowing and the movement multiplies all over the farm. Through the winter, Helen, three of her six children, Larry, Leonard, and Linda, plus one full time hired helper, run the operation. Come sugaring, the place buzzes with help of siblings, spouses, grandkids, great grandkids, and a team of what Larry calls “local labor.”
If taste alone is not enough to convince a person of the miracle of maple syrup, the math of making it will. In a good year, there are 20 days of boiling sap to syrup. Larry is happy to average two to three gallons of sap per bucket per day, though “a real good day” could mean upwards of five to six gallons per tap. It takes between 40 and 50 gallons of sap boiled at 219° Fahrenheit to make one gallon of maple syrup. That one gallon of syrup, boiled again and hotter, yields eight pounds of maple cream. It takes about 100 cords of wood, grown and cut on the farm, to power the evaporator for one season of syrup.
The Goulds are a purely wood-fired evaporator operation and maintain that the choice not to use a reverse osmosis system, the more prevalent method among syrup producers, is more than tradition, it’s taste. Larry likens the difference to the flavors that develop slowly in the process of grilling meat or aging cheese. As he schools me on the different grades of syrup (early syrup is lighter, late syrup darker and stronger), Helen brings me coffee and English muffins with a saucer of maple cream. She saves the early syrup for cream and candies. “Eat this with a spoon,” she says, setting down the saucer. “See how good it is.”
Helen likely only lets the compliment slip because it speaks directly to the sweetness of the cream rather than her part in it. Both she and Larry talk about the business of the farm with a fierce modesty that only people who so intimately know the land and the work of it can. Six generations of ceaselessly hard work and often precarious returns have calloused the mind against boasting. They are quick to preface success with gratitude or cautious satisfaction.
“The community has been good to us,” Helen will say before talking about the longevity of the restaurant. “It’s nothing new,” says Larry of sugaring. “It’s been going on for hundreds of years.”
Clearly, the Goulds are doing something right. The restaurant is open for its 56th year March 1 through the last Sunday in April, 8:30am–2pm, seven days a week, and then again Labor Day through October, or thereabouts. Diners can enjoy sugar on snow at the start of the season, and homemade apple pie by the end of if, and plenty of pancakes, waffles, and corn fitters in between.