Don Hazelton of Dummerston Center has been involved in maple sugaring for more than eight decades. These days, he provides his experience and expertise to a new generation running the family sugarhouse.
Randolph T. Holhut/Commons file photo
Don Hazelton of Dummerston Center has been involved in maple sugaring for more than eight decades. These days, he provides his experience and expertise to a new generation running the family sugarhouse.

A sweet tradition returns

A new generation fires up the Hazelton family sugarhouse, dormant for years, in Dummerston Center

DUMMERSTON — Sugaring in Vermont is a springtime gig. The sap won't run until a series of cold nights and warm days, and the sweet, clear liquid from the sugar maples needs to be stored colder than 38 degrees and boiled down to syrup within two to three days. In Vermont, keeping a sugarbush has always been a way to supplement a farmer's income.

That's certainly true for Don Hazelton, who used to raise strawberries on his hillside farm in June and who cultivated an apple orchard that produced in the fall. He's been making sugar for more than 80 years.

His education began as a young boy around 8 years of age.

“We didn't have our own trees, but we would get permission from folks and tap their maple trees,” he remembers.

He hung 12 buckets of his own and boiled that sap in the kitchen of his mother, Hazel.

“She finally shut me off because I was peeling off the wallpaper,” says Hazelton with a wide grin. “I only gained a cup or so of syrup to put on my cereal or pancakes anyway.”

When not making his own syrup as a boy, Hazelton would go with his father, Merton, to help gather sap at the Tarbox Farm (most recently farmed by the Ranney family on Route 5).

“I was too small to empty the buckets, but I was allowed to use the reins to stop the horses as my father emptied the sap buckets. My pay for the day was one cake of maple sugar,” Hazelton recalls.

Selling the farm

There were big changes at the start of World War II. Very much like what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in 2020, people from the cities came to Vermont and purchased homes, farms, and land.

Merton Hazelton sold the whole farm - including the barn, around 50 acres of land and the farmhouse in which he and Don were both born - then purchased a smaller home in Dummerston Center.

“I didn't mind that,” remarked Hazelton, “because our new house had indoor plumbing.”

“Folks came up from out-of-state during the war and property prices went sky high,” Hazelton said. “City folks were afraid of getting bombed, so they moved up here. It would have been hard to say no with the amount of money that we could get for our farm. A lot of the small family farms like us, those with five or so cows, sold out.”

But the move didn't stop the family from sugaring. With some of the money from the sale of the farm, Hazelton's father purchased 100 acres on Middle Road as a woodlot and sugarbush, along with a tractor that replaced the horses.

Selling the syrup

In 1948, Merton Hazelton built the family sugarhouse that still sits in the town center on East West Road, right across from the West Dummerston Fire Department's substation.

“We built the sugarhouse in the center of town because we could have electricity in it,” remembers Hazelton.

The equipment - including evaporator, buckets, and taps - was purchased, used, from many of those other small farmers who sold out their houses and land, leaving many fewer producers in the area.

They sold maple syrup at the family home and at the sugarhouse.

“That would be hard to do now,” Hazelton says, “It costs a fortune to start a sugaring operation nowadays.”

“We'd put it right up hot to be sold on site,” he said. “We also sold to several grocery stores. Sometimes we'd also sell it in cans.”

Hazelton isn't describing the small metal cans of syrup which were used before plastic jugs became popular - he's talking old-fashioned milk cans.

“Back then milk cans were 40 quarts. Then you went to a 30-gallon barrel,” he said, also noting the next size up was a 50-gallon barrel, at which point a producer would be selling the syrup wholesale. Hazelton preferred to keep a smaller family operation.

“At that time, the biggest producer in the area was the Coombs Farm in Jacksonville,” he said. “We were a smaller operation, selling anywhere from 200 to 600 gallons depending on the weather that year.”

The family didn't do any advertising, but the word spread quickly.

Hazelton remembers the first year late in the season, six out-of-state skiers stopped in the middle of the afternoon and pooled their money to buy a quart of syrup. The next week they'd come back with a whole list of people who wanted them to bring syrup back to Connecticut.

“We kept a cot there to catch a quick nap, but we never boiled all night. When customers asked, they were disappointed that we didn't. So, one night, we did it so we could say we did,” says Hazelton, laughing.

A family affair

Boiling sap has always been a family operation for the Hazeltons.

“I give my mother a lot of credit. We had these syrup strainers that we'd use, and there always had to be four or five extra of them. We put them where the pipe of sap comes in, and they always had to be washed often. We'd carry them up to the house, and she'd wash them out - plus, she was always cooking, sending food down for us to eat.”

As the years ticked by, all of Hazelton's children and his nieces and nephews got involved.

“There was always a bunch of the family's kids hanging around,” he says. “There were 16 kids within a mile of the sugar house - four Bolsters, my sister Mary's kids, and six Bessettes, my sister Carol's kids. We had a born workforce between us,” Hazelton says with a laugh.

Hazelton's son, Ted, now living in Kansas, remembers those days well.

“I loved sugaring time,” he says. “It's in my blood. It's not a profitable operation, but it sure was fun.”

Ted remembers coming up the hill on the school bus in the 1960s and seeing the maple trees on the town common.

“You'd see that the buckets were overflowing, and you knew it would be a great day gathering,” he recalls. “We drove Dad's tractor around collecting the sap while my dad and grandfather were boiling down in the sugarhouse,” he says.

The sugarhouse was right by the school bus stop.

“We would get off the bus, pop into the sugarhouse, and all us kids were allowed to have one shotglass of syrup before you would go up to the house to change your clothes and get to work,” Ted Hazelton says.

“Technically, we were only supposed to have one shot, but we'd wait until Gramp wasn't looking, and then we'd try to sneak another one,” he adds.

In the 1990s, as many family members had grown or moved, Hazelton had many friends who became family to him and welcomed them to help. Joe Thompson of Brattleboro, a lieutenant with Rescue Inc., first met Don Hazelton when they would run Rescue calls together as volunteers. Years later, Thompson found his way to the sugarhouse via his friendship with Hazelton's nephew, Matt Bolster.

“Don is very knowledgeable and taught me everything I know about sugaring,” remembers Thompson. “He told me, 'You can't make a mistake I haven't made,' and he was kind and welcoming when I asked to help out.”

Hazelton's statement was challenged on Thompson's first day.

“We were walking around, and Don was showing me where and how to collect the sap. Somehow, I got some piece of equipment turned around and couldn't figure out what I'd done. Turns out, Don couldn't either.

“He stood there laughing loudly with that great sense of humor of his and said, 'Well, I take that back, Joe. I don't know what you did. You made a mistake I haven't made before. Congratulations,'” remembers Thompson.

“We still laugh about that day,” he says. “Don still explains everything to anyone with kindness, care, calm and his great sense of humor.”

Thompson likes to tell a story about working in the sugarhouse late one night when the crew was hungry, and Hazelton volunteered to drive to town to get pizza for everyone.

“Don lives a sheltered life, I guess. I don't think he'd ever bought a pizza before. When he arrived at the sugarhouse, he was carrying the box on its side like a suitcase. Everything on the pizza had slid off the pie and it was so messed up we couldn't even spread it back on the dough. We laughed hard about that. Still do,” remembers Thompson.

When reminded of the story, Hazelton smiles and, with a hearty laugh, shares his dry wit.

“Yeah, nobody let me go for pizza after that,” he says.

“It was just like the time that Dwight Miller and I were asked to make the coffee at the Grange Hall,” he adds. “Nobody asked me to do that past the first time, either.”

Changes cloud the future

Hazelton has seen plenty of changes to the maple industry over the years, and some of them were no laughing matter.

“Climate change is going to take its toll - in fact, it already has,” says Hazelton, more serious now.

“First off, with the rainstorms we get now, I wouldn't be able to grow strawberries on that hill any longer. I guess we'll have to wait and see how it stresses the trees over the long haul, but the fact that we had all that warm weather in January is an indicator of what might be coming.”

Hazelton also notes that since maple producers can now apply to tap maples on state land, sugar production has become a huge business.

“Those producers are factory specialists,” he observes. “To have that big an operation you must have at least a half a million taps, reverse osmosis equipment, and many workers.”

And then there is age.

“I've been sugaring, cutting wood, and kept up with everything until I turned 90. Then my body went to hell,” he says, soberly.

But then his face lightens.

“But I still have syrup on my oatmeal every morning,” he says. “I'm still the best customer.”

The steam rises again

After Hazelton cut back on his projects, his nephew Matt Bolster took over for a couple of years, and then the sugarhouse stood dormant for a decade or so.

But this season, the steam was rising out of sugarhouse once again.

Matt Hubbard, Merton Hazelton's great-grandson, has resurrected the business. Hubbard, who now lives in Putney, says he had a great season, which closed out on March 26.

“I thought I'd only manage to put up 20 gallons, but we're closing out at 60 gallons this year, which is a great start. Lots of people stopped by to tell me how happy they were to see the place open again, and many stopped by to wish us well.”

Hubbard is happy to run the sugarhouse. “I have a lot of great memories of being inside as a kid,” he says.

And he is selling his syrup.

It can be purchased at his parents' home - the same house where Don Hazelton grew up at 33 Bunker Rd.

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