Originally published in Business Digest, April 1997

Sugar House

by Joanna Jeffery and Edna Tenney

We used to have a few people come here and visit," says David Palmer of Palmer Sugar House in Shelburne, "but now on the weekends it's like mass hysteria here. I think we had 300 people here yesterday. I know that's not gigantic," he adds, "but we just do this for fun."

Maple sugar houses all over the state are popular destinations in March and early April when the cold nights and warmer days signal the new crop of maple syrup is on the fire. This year's delayed spring has pushed the sugaring season further into April, but there is still plenty of snow for sugar-on-snow parties.

David Palmer is carrying on a tradition that dates well back into the last century for his family. "I'm tapping trees that were obviously tapped a hundred and some years ago," he says. The Shelburne land and sugarbush are the legacy of his father's family, but it is his mother, Marjorie, who has been the sugar maker in the family since World War II. David's father, Loren Palmer, who died in late February at the age of 89, was a funeral director and co-owner of the Corbin and Palmer Funeral Home.

"The reason my mother got into sugaring was the shortage of sugar during the second world war," Palmer says. "She and her girlfriends thought it was neat, making their own sugar." But the wartime sugar shortage doesn't explain why Marjorie continued sugaring through the years, and still has a hand in it.

[Marjorie Palmer] Marjorie Palmer, also known as the "Sugar Lady," has been sugaring since World War II, when the shortage of sugar forced many Vermonters to make their own. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

"It's a big family thing. We think it's a lot of fun," Palmer professes, echoing the catch-phrase that is included in every brochure from the state agriculture office or the maple promotional board. But for most of the people at the small sugaring operations around the state, fun is the unlikely reason that they spend so much of their time in the winter cutting and splitting wood or trudging around the hillsides installing and repairing pipelines. It's all in preparation for long days and nights of stoking fires and pouring, stirring and waiting in drafty, sweet-smelling sugar shacks.

It isn't the money, although many small producers do make a little profit from selling their syrup. And it isn't because they love the taste of maple syrup, although they do. The real reason: just to do it.

Palmer worries that recent emphasis on more state regulation of sugar making will ruin the fun. "A lot of backyard sugar makers make enough for themselves and they sell a little. That's happening all over the state. I know a lot of people who have little rigs -- are you going to regulate them, too? What sugar maker who does it part-time for the fun of it is going to spend all this money just to appease a couple of state regulators?"

Palmer, a retired dairy farmer, says, "I got out of dairy farming because there was so much money in it, and so little regulation, that I just said, 'That's it.'" He pauses, then adds, "It's just the opposite, of course. The federal government has a policy to keep down the cost of food. In this country, you and I spend less on food than we do on entertainment -- only country in the world.

"It's just like the big battle we have over the cans. The maple association has these cans coming from England and they're metric. I'm a can dealer, and I won't buy their cans. If somebody wants them they can go to Barre and pick them up. I'm going to buy a can that's made in Vermont and I'm going to put Vermont maple syrup in it. Let the rest of the world put their syrup in their metric cans."

The current Palmer sugar house was built in 1972, just off the Dorset Street Extension. "We moved it down here for my mother to be closer to the road." This sugar house even has a furnace for warming chilly visitors. "The sugar they can handle," he chuckles, "it's the cold that drives them out."

Every week during sugaring season, Palmer's grown children call and ask if they can come and work the weekend. "Most everybody here is a volunteer," Palmer says, "My friends come down and they say, 'Well, what am I getting for a raise this year?' and I say, 'What do you want? 50 percent more? 75 percent? You can raise it anyway you want, but it's still zero at the end.'"

Palmer's 2,000 taps are all on pipeline, and have been for almost 25 years, he says. Except, of course, for the taps on buckets set up a few yards away from the sugar house so that he can "march the little kiddies up there and give them a taste of the sap."

Palmer Sugar House probably gets more than its share of tourists visiting because of its proximity to Burlington. "You see a lot of people out here with sneakers on," Palmer says, "You can't walk in the woods with sneakers on."

When he's boiling sap for syrup, Palmer meets people from all over the world. "It's amazing how they find this place," he muses. "I can't imagine one country in the world that I haven't met somebody from -- anywhere from Russia to Central Africa." There's a police chief from a Caribbean island, who visits for two or three hours every year. The man once told Palmer that when he was young, he helped his family press sugar cane, and maple sugaring reminded him of that experience. Visitors from Russia tell Palmer stories of tapping birch trees, and the similarities there.

A recent story Palmer tells involves a Vermonter -- a young woman who came into the sugar house, bought a quart of syrup and visited for a while to talk about the fun she had as a little girl during visits to the Palmer farm. Before she left, she asked for a piece of tape.

A while later, Palmer noticed a note taped to the counter. Upon opening it, he found $30, along with a lengthy explanation of how, as a child she had received too much change from a syrup purchase, and felt guilty about it ever since. "How many people would you find like that?" Palmer asks.

One year Palmer kept the sugar house open like a farm stand. Instead of hiring someone to run the stand, he found it cheaper to leave a table and money box in front and depend on the honor system. Palmer figured, "If somebody stole the money box and there was $50 in it, big deal. It would have cost me that much to hire somebody to watch it."

Palmer believes that Vermont sugar makers not only make syrup, they make tradition. The Palmers make syrup, make tradition, and make it fun. Just this year, Palmer built a pen for two of his goats and one sheep, giving easy access to interested children. Not expecting much to come of it, Palmer put a gumball machine full of corn out by the pen. The next day, he was shocked to find approximately $30 worth of quarters in the machine, not to mention a goat with indigestion.

Joanna Jeffery was a student intern at Business Digest during the fall 1996 and spring 1997 semesters.
Edna Tenney is editor of the magazine.