Above: Roberta Christman tapping in February 1981. Photo from the Christman Family.
Despite the cold we now experience, soon the days will be warm enough and the nights appropriately cool to signal the maple trees to start moving the sap inside the channels of their large trunks. It will be maple sugaring season on the mountain top. The process of turning maple tree sap into syrup is both labor intensive and time consuming, but according to Roberta Christman, the only woman in New York State who boiled maple sap into syrup for 62 years straight (unless someone wants to contest it), making maple syrup or “sapping” was never work.
As anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting her knows, Roberta is quick-witted and strong. She is 99 years young and maintains a mental clarity and aptitude that many even decades younger are immediately dwarfed by. Early in January, in the middle of a mild storm that blanketed our mountain roads with snow, Cyndi LaPierre and I sat down with Roberta at her dining room table in her home along Rt. 23 in Windham. Her house sits above the main road with views of the mountains and is adjacent to Christman’s Windham House, the hospitality business Roberta ran with her husband Stanley.
We started our conversation with an explanation of an old black spiral bound notebook sitting on the dining table. This was the “Syrup Bible,” the book in which Roberta kept track of all the gallons of sap collected, syrup made, and all the people that sweet syrup was sold to.
Above: The Syrup Bible. Photo by Author.
When Roberta and her husband purchased the boarding house that would become Christman’s Windham House in 1951 a maple syruping operation came with it. At the time, Roberta had limited experience with making syrup. As the “middle Thompson girl,” one of the five daughters of the Thompson House in Windham, Roberta had helped boil sap as a child outside on an arch (the base of an evaporator) made by her father. She and her sisters let the sap cook down until it was the consistency of “blackstrap molasses.” The previous owners of the boarding house didn’t have time to teach Roberta the ins and outs of making maple syrup so she had to find out for herself. She was referred to Florence Osborne of East Windham, a woman who was well-versed in the sapping arts. She taught Roberta what equipment to buy and how to strain the finished syrup through woolen filters. Stanley also sent away to Cornell for a sugaring how-to booklet to supplement their knowledge.
Soon making maple syrup became a family affair at Christman’s Windham House. Stanley and Roberta’s four children would all assist. “I can remember well. The kids and I would climb over the snowbank and go along the creek and collect it [the sap] and bring the buckets over to the wall…Stanley would collect it and dump it in a container and take it to the sap house.” Originally the sap was transported to the sap house by horse but later a tractor was used. Sap is precious and Roberta warned the children not to spill a drop, even if they slipped, as they often did, in their little plastic red boots.
Naturally, the process of making maple syrup begins at the tree. Roberta used a bit and brace hand drill to tap the holes in the sugar maples; she knew exactly the correct depth to drill. Spiles were then tapped in and metal buckets hung. The sap was collected regularly as the buckets filled. Once enough sap was collected the process of boiling the sap down into syrup was overseen by Roberta. She used a big hickory stick to open the large wood-fired evaporator and threw logs in to keep the sap boiling at a consistent rate.
Nights boiling in the sap house were long. Sometimes Roberta would be in the sap house until 2 in the morning and would go to bed with splinters in her hands. The night before her son Brian was born Roberta was boiling sap in the saphouse. The level of sap in the pans had gotten dangerously low and threatened to burn the pans. To avoid this, Roberta ran to the nearby creek and hauled buckets of creek water over to the sap house to add into the pan. “I didn’t ever burn the pans,” Roberta said confidently.
In total, Roberta put in 700 taps. She and her family greatly extended the original maple sugaring operation they inherited and tapped all along the creek and back up the mountain where the golf course now is. They developed six routes to collect sap from, including the large maple trees that once lined Route 23. “I would try to get three routes done before the children were home from school, then I could start boiling while they collected the rest.” Even as a child, her young daughter Karen would make supper for the family so Roberta could stay in the sap house boiling late into the night. In their best and most productive year, Roberta and her family made 375 gallons of maple syrup. On average, it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup. If this was the case, then the year the Christman Family made 375 gallons they collected 15,000 gallons of sap–no simple feat.
Even with all the duties one must attend to in a sugar house – feeding the evaporator fire with wood, maintaining a good level of boil, checking the sap levels in the pan, occasionally running out to the creek to add water if it got too low, there is also a bit of downtime. “Sitting in a sap house, you’re sitting there for hours,” remarked Roberta, “So I started reading. But the only thing I could read were paperback books–good books you can’t read in a sap house because the steam will destroy them. So I started reading and I probably read two books every winter from the time I was 30 until I was 90. It just consumed me, the idea that I could sit there and read and it was alright to do. So I did. I did a lot of reading in the sap house.” Eventually her family installed a television in the sap house and Roberta enjoyed watching basketball as she boiled.
Above: Roberta Christman filtering maple syrup, 1981. Photo from the Christman Family.
Making maple syrup was a good fit for those in the boarding house business, Roberta told us. “It’s the two months in the winter when you’re not otherwise busy on the farm, except for milking the cows.” Then the minute the maple syruping season was over, Roberta was busy with the boarding business–cleaning rooms and teaching herself how to cook from Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking.
As her children went to college, and there were less hands to help, the Christman family replaced more buckets with modern plastic sap lines to make the work easier. Her son Brian continues the maple sugaring operation to this day. Roberta once mentioned to him that he should give it up considering all the other work he has to manage. But Brian responded that it was “his heritage.” This response made Roberta laugh. Maple sapping hadn’t been her heritage, but with all the time she and her family spent making maple syrup, it had truly become theirs.
Roberta will celebrate her 100th birthday in May. She wouldn’t tell us the exact day. If she could she says she would go up to the sap house and sit and boil today. “I’m probably the only woman in New York State that boiled from 1952 until 2014. There may be other women. And I did enjoy it, really, it was not work. I did enjoy it.”
Author’s Note: Thank you to Roberta Christman for her generous time and Cyndi LaPierre for her partnership on the Oral History project.
By: Alexandra Prince