Envision for a moment your idea of what the perfect down-home, small town experience might be like…imagine the interaction with family and friends, strangers who become friends quickly, worn wooden chairs next to a heated stove, comfort, warmth and lots of fellowship.
Now intertwine the aroma of warm maple syrup, the sublime taste of maple butter and bubbling maple baked beans in the crock. Can you picture it?
That is the perfect description of Bob’s Sugar House in Dover-Foxcroft.
Bob and Barbara Moore were kind enough to let me come visit them early this morning, and an hour and a half later I still didn’t want to leave. Bob treated me so kindly and comfortably, you’d have thought I was family. Everyone was super nice, excited at the upcoming weekend’s activities, and busily running to and fro stocking, prepping and arranging. Bob himself, in spite of his hectic schedule, made the time to walk me through the entire process of sugaring – and trust me when I say, it IS a process. It’s not just pouring the sap into a pot and watching it boil down all day. These guys are busy year round, and on hyper-speed for 1-3 weeks during sugaring season.
Now, I’m always fascinated with the many aspects of farming and a huge proponent of shopping locally. You can’t beat the freshness and quality of locally farmed products, and Bob’s Sugar House syrup is without a doubt – stellar tasting. But what makes it better – what defines this company is far more than maple syrup. The story behind the business is both heartwarming and fulfilling – and will make you love it even more.
Bob was a typical ten-year old boy, trudging along behind his neighbor Tom Hughes as he made syrup ‘back in the day’. Mr. Hughes, amused that Bob was so fascinated, and even let him tap a tree. That was all it took – young Bob was hooked.
After that season, Mr. Hughes left a handful of taps in place and let Bob try to make his own syrup. He emptied the metal buckets into a ten-gallon milk can loaded on his wagon, and then dragged the precious cargo 1/2 mile back to his house. There, he set up his own miniature sap processor – including using his mother’s beloved cake pan, much to her dismay.
Flash forward fifty years or so. The Moore’s have built up their business from an outdoor, wood-fire operation, moved to the garage attached to his house using primarily home-made equipment, and eventually moved to the former greenhouse next door. They added newer specialized equipment and streamlined the processes, and by all accounts things were chugging along nicely.
And then tragedy struck. Hard and fast, and knocked the breath out the Moores.
On Maine Maple Sunday in 2001, after all the visitors were tucked home in bed, and after a weary (but happy) Bob had triple checked everything in the shop before locking up and falling into bed himself, the sugar house caught fire. The blaze was so high it ignited the plastic tubing stored in the loft area and rained melted plastic inside on the firemen as they tried in earnest to put out the inferno. The evaporator unit fell through the floor. Bob and Barbara stood by and helplessly watched their business – their heart and soul – completely and utterly destroyed. The season was just beginning, and everything they owned for the business had been in that building. Even worse – they weren’t insured. It was a total loss.
But, buck up campers – Bob is not the kind of guy to fall into a sap vat of self-pity. Oh, surely not! With a tenacity known to many Mainers, he did not give up, and neither did his friends and neighbors.
See, Bob and Barbara Moore have been involved within the community of Dover-Foxcroft for decades. Barbara worked for the town, and Bob for Hannaford (back when it was Shop ‘N’ Save). They are active in Kiwanis, and if there’s a fundraiser in the town for the firefighters, police, school and many others, they most assuredly are involved in some capacity and have been for many, many years.
When I was doing my research for my interview, I pulled all the archived articles I could find from the time of the fire. The fire chief at the time, Joseph Guyotte said, “We’ll do something for them.” Oh boy, did they! The whole community jumped up and got to work. One regular customer even drove from New York to attend a fundraiser and present the Moores with a check to ensure their legacy continued.
Now here’s an even more amazing part – something that sets New England apart from many other areas of the country. Not only did the people in the community come together to help and hold fundraisers for the Moore family – but other producers called him up. Their competitors called to offer use of their equipment, so the Moores could still produce syrup and fill their orders.
In addition, an equipment company in Vermont – one that’s in direct competition with Bob (he’s a dealer) called and asked him if he had the equipment he needed. Bob replied no, not yet – and the next thing he knew, the company had driven the equipment up to him at his temporary location at the fairgrounds.
How beloved is this family, how much a part of the culture are they? This legacy will live on for many, many more generations – the family will be sure of it. Bob and Barbara have touched far more lives than they ever expected – and their gratitude and humility abounds.
Now, fourteen years later (almost to the day), Bob’s Sugar House is back in full sugaring swing, bigger and better than ever. With the help of everyone, they have rebuilt the sugar house, installed new, technologically advanced equipment, and can process 1600 gallons of sap an hour to make 40 gallons of sweet, delicious syrup.
They have close to 6000 taps from rented trees within a fifty mile radius to the sugar house. The whole family is involved in placing and collecting the sap (in an old fire department water truck) to unloading, processing, bottling and selling. And if you think the process is complete at the end of sugaring season, think again.
Once all the sap is collected, then the process of boiling it down and bottling it takes place. Next comes marketing and selling (online, the store, fairs and more) all the syrup, until late fall when they prep the lines for the upcoming spring. A farmer’s work is never really done.
As of 2015, the new grading system goes into effect, and all maple producers in the United States and Canada will all be using the same grading system. Each grade indicated the color and flavor. How you choose a grade of maple syrup depends on your use. For instance, I love maple syrup for cooking and pretty much for anything. I like dark amber syrup that’s a little less sweet but has a stronger maple flavor. So, I typically buy Grade A Dark. If you use syrup for pancakes and waffles, you might want a medium grade.
I am ashamed to say, I have lived in Maine for over 35 years, and I have never once experienced Maine Maple Weekend. I can assure you, that after today, this will become a regular family tradition for us. If you like maple syrup and are looking for a great place to visit, you should stop in and visit Bob’s Sugar House. Take a tour, talk to Bob, learn all about the process. Bob clearly loves what he does – as does everyone there. They’ll welcome you warmly and if you are interested in the process, they’ll show you everything you ever wanted to know about making maple syrup. If you go early, you can swing in to Foxcroft Academy for the Maple Pancake Breakfast fundraiser first. Pancakes, real maple syrup, conversation and charity – how can you go wrong?
When I left today, I had a smile on my face the whole ride home. I may or may not have been eating a container of “Barbara Jean’s Maple Baked Beans’, ever so carefully while I was driving. Cold and right from the container, I don’t even care. I’m told there’s quite a story behind the beans, but no one was talking.
Perhaps a story for next year.