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Friday, Sep 29, 2023

Local Wanders - 4/22

The New England Maple Museum in Pittsford,Vt. prides itself on being the largest and most complete maple museum in the United States. Tom Olson founded the museum with his wife Donna in 1977 to share what they believed was the misunderstood history of an essential state product.

Born and raised in Vermont, Olson has treasured the annual tapping of maple trees since his childhood. But it was not until he worked as a Mechanical Engineer for GH Grimm, a maple sugar equipment manufacturing company in Rutland, that his interest in the history of maple production took off. Later, when he took a position at the Vermont Marble Company, he conjured up the idea to create a museum to pay homage to everything maple.

“I wanted to continue my interest in maple sugaring and I decided it would be fun to build a museum to commemorate some of the stuff that Vermont was famous for in the past,” said Olson.

The museum’s authentic portrayal of this Vermont staple starts with the building’s façade, an enlarged replica of a 19th century sugaring house. The museum’s murals, painted by Grace Brigham, depict scenes of the maple sugaring process throughout history. Various maple sugaring tools are scattered throughout the exhibit, highlighting the technological advances made in the maple industry. The exhibit includes a vast collection of spouts, boiling pots and sugar molds which date back to the 19th century.

Technical improvements, like the tools on display, have changed the sugaring industry for the better. I found one innovation particularly striking; before development, a lucrative maple industry was stalled by the absence of an efficient shipping container.

“When the tin can was invented in 1906, it revolutionized the maple industry because for the first time they had enough containers to put their maple syrup in to ship,” said Olson.

Additionally, the museum features audio samples from Vermont maple producers that were collected by the Vermont Folklife Center in the late 1980s. All of the farmers interviewed were Addison County residents aged 85 or older. These accounts offer a glimpse of how the maple sugaring process worked in the early part of the 20th century. One interviewee’s anecdotes are narrated by a robotic host, Mr. Doolittle, who introduces guests at the museum’s entrance.

Due to the brevity of the maple harvesting season (only six weeks in late winter and early spring) early 20th-century maple sugaring producers were industrious farmers who participated in a slew of seasonal operations to keep profits coming.
After visitors learn the history and modern techniques of maple sugaring production, it’s time to taste the end result! The museum’s gift store sells anything maple. Four different grades of maple syrup, maple peanut butter, maple butter and maple candy are just a few examples. In addition, the gift shops sells local Vermont crafts and artwork.

Since Olson is friendly with many of the producers himself, he buys most of his products from local maple producers all over the state of Vermont.

“I buy from producers up in Northern Vermont, Southern Vermont, Central Vermont, Eastern Vermont” said Olson. “You never know which part of the state will have a good sugaring year.”

The museum is located on Route 7 south, about 30 minutes away from the College. If you’re on campus this summer, stop by the Museum on Wednesday afternoons to observe candy demonstrations and taste-testing. And if you happen to see Tom Olson, make sure to stop by and ask him about his passion. His personality is more wholesome and sweet than the maple syrup itself.