I can't remember the first time I visited Harlow's Sugar House, up in Putney VT on Bellows Falls Road (US 5.) I think it might have been the first Spring after I got my driver's license. Some friends and I were in Vermont doing some early-season camping (yes, we were insane at the time) and decided to stop on a whim. The sugar house had the evaporatior running on one side of the barn, and a sales area right beside it. The people running the place - the Harlow family - were friendly and inviting, and were happy to show us - three grubby teenagers who'd been living in the snowy woods for a week - how they turned maple sap into maple sugar. I'd like to think it more than just salesmanship, even though I left with a jug of syrup and a box of maple candy for my grandmother (who adored maple sugar candy.)
That first visit of mine was back in 1977. This old postcard from the late 1960's is a fairly accurate representation of what Harlow's looked like when I was first there, though. The picture was taken from the front yard of the big house across US 5 from the sugar house. At the time the postcard was printed, Harlow's really was still gathering at least some of their sap using sledges drawn by oxen and horses, though I don't remember seeing any teams on my visit.
Harlow's is somewhat larger these days. The evaporator is now on an extension on the north side of the building, the original sugar house is a comfortable, rustic sales room., and there's a broad porch-like overhang running the length of the front. But even if you've only seen the postcard above, you'd still be able to recognize it as you come around the bend from the south. To me, the changes to the building have happened gradually over the years - I try to get up there at least once every sugar season - so I couldn't tell you when they added what.
Anyway, this past weekend I decided that a ride up to Harlow's would be a fun day trip for my granddaughters, so Maryanne and I shoved 'em along with their mother (my stepdaughter Jamie) into the back of the Exploder and we hit the road. I thought it might have been a bit early in the season yet, so we were relieved to see the steam from the evaporator pouring out of the vent on the roof of the building. As it turns out, this was their first weekend of operation - they had just started boiling on Friday.
Harlow's is still a family-run operation, four generations on now from when they opened over 80 years ago, and everyone is just as friendly now as they were when I first stumbled upon the place back in the 70's. They weren't too busy at the time - probably because it was so early in the season - and everyone had plenty of time to chat and make us feel welcome. The two girls were invited in to see the evaporator running, and they stood in rapt wonder in an indoor cloud as the process was explained to them, culminating with a sip of still-warm syrup tapped right from the spigot at the end of the line. You can imagine how that made their day. The kids each got a serving of sugar on snow and sat on the floor of the showroom getting the maple candy stuck to their teeth and watching a video about syrup production while their mom and Maryanne and I poked around the sales area. I ended up buying a half gallon of first-of-the-season syrup and a bag of maple candies. (My grandmother passed away a few years ago but sometimes I still find myself off on the road up north, holding a packet of maple sugar and saying to myself "Hey, I should bring back some sugar for Grandma Billie...oh, shit...")
Now, I know there are plenty of sugar houses in New England, and it would be easy enough for me to find one a lot closer to home. But Harlow's is kind of like an end-of-winter tradition for me, and it's one of the few places left in southern Vermont that still feels like the old, pre-hipster-and-douchebag-invasion true New England Vermont. Also, US 5 north of Brattleboro is a fine and beautiful ride, even in winter.
You could do a lot worse for a day trip.