The Sapbush Run, that was the nickname of the passenger train that crawled between Utica and Watertown, via Lowville, back before the tracks were torn up. The unique moniker came from its travels through maple groves. I’ve never heard them called anything but “sugarbushes” except for that one instance, but there it is.
Every year about now, I think back to our own sapbush runs of many years ago. We were living in an old farmhouse between Canton and Russell. Our neighbors decided to tap the huge old sugar maples that lined our county road, and invited us and another couple of families to join in. We succumbed. As our contribution I bought a beat-up old stake truck, enabling us to clatter up and down Russell Road collecting sap (our “Sapbush Run”) while contemplating the road through the hole in its floor.
That first year, we boiled the sap down in our kitchen, turning our house into a sauna and loosening more layers of wallpaper than we had imagined could possibly be there. History peeled away hourly, in soggy strips of various colors and patterns, until we arrived at some barely legible nineteenth-century Plaindealer ads for work boots at fifty cents a pair.
That was OK; we wanted to repaper the kitchen anyway. We just didn’t want to do it every year. So when the next March rolled around, we boiled on an antiquated potbelly stove in a prefab metal shed out back, learning that while such devices can raise the ambient temperature to suffocating levels, they flop at spreading heat over a large surface. In Year Three, the neighbors who had initiated all this acquired for $2 at auction a well-seasoned evaporator pan, and we “boiled down” over an open fire in our driveway.
Two bucks. One reason we began making our own syrup was to save money. Our power bill spiked like a church steeple that first year, but moving outdoors necessitated the purchase of firewood. Our rust-bucket truck came in handy for that chore, but half the time, when the sap ran the truck wouldn’t, so procuring the fuel before we exhausted our stash and scorched a panful of sap proved to be an exercise in creative mobilization. Jim Locke, who I’d gotten to know when he’d stop in on Friday nights at Connie Barr’s former establishment on Miner Street to play his banjo, ran a hardscrabble sawmill up on Waterman Hill, an operation that looked like a setting for a Faulkner novel. We’d backfire and sputter our way up there and pay him $5 for a truckload of 16-foot pine slabs, which burned hot but astonishingly fast.
And then of course we had to have buckets and spiles and whatnot; we were regular customers at Eli Bacon’s maple supplies shop over toward Hermon – eager listeners, too, to a wily old veteran of syrup-making, who vowed he’d never tap in February, no matter how gall-darn warm it got. (Producers Bill Brewer, up Beech Plains way, and the Hurlbuts on the Pyrites Road also kindly dispensed free advice to our cabal of neophytes.) And we patronized Coakley’s and Merrill Bros. hardware-plus stores in town for all manner of accessories. Ultimately, we figured that in order to save $35 a gallon, the going price in the mid-1980s, we spent about four times that, and once in a while, perhaps by accident, made some syrup that was actually palatable, if we defined “palatable” liberally.
But we did it for fun, too, and for bonding with friends and family. More about that on our next Occasion.
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