Thetford Academy Senior Builds His Own Evaporator for Sugaring
Isaac Barker pours sap into a reservoir for warming before it is boiled on the evaporator he rebuilt in Thetford Academy’s school shop. Barker has been backyard sugaring with his family for at least five years. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
Isaac Barker, 18, of Strafford, adds wood to the fire box in the evaporator he recently rebuilt. The cast iron front and back — called the arch — was found by a neighbor in the woods. It dates back to the early 1900s. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
Working his way up a frozen slope, Barker carries one of the 49 buckets collecting sap for boiling at his family’s Strafford home. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
Barker talks with his friend Rozy Isquith, 18, of Thetford, while he boiled sap in the evaporator he recently rebuilt. It was the first time Isquith saw Barker’s sugaring operation. “Most of my friends boil sap on their stoves,” she said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
The Barker family canned two gallons of syrup in the first 10 days of sugaring in their Strafford backyard. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
Thetford Academy senior Isaac Barker, 18, of Strafford, became interested in maple sugaring while helping neighbors and relatives as a young boy. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
From left, Isaac, 18, Terry and Ian Barker, 12, watch sap boil in the pan in the family's backyard in Strafford, Vt. Isaac Barker rebuilt the evaporator in Thetford Academy's school shop, replacing a smaller unit his father made in 2008. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
Matt Barker, left, talks with his son, Isaac Barker, 18, about whether or not to borrow sap from a neighbor in Strafford to continue boiling at the end of the day. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
A wooden frame covered on two sides with a blue tarp isn’t much protection when spring winds come whipping through. But Isaac Barker, 18, says he doesn’t get cold while he’s making maple syrup.
Between feeding the fire, splitting wood and hauling buckets of sap, “there’s very little standing around,” he said.
The senior at Thetford Academy has been doing his own sugaring for at least five years. As a child, he’d frequented his neighbors’ sugarhouses, enticed by the maple cream and doughnuts that were always on hand. Eventually, he took an interest in the process itself.
Barker started off boiling sap in a soup pan on his family’s gas grill. Later, he and his father built an evaporator, the metal contraption used to cook sap down into syrup. Recently, his neighbor and mentor, sugarmaker Gerard Stevens, offered to give him a remnant from an old sugaring rig — a 2 ½-foot wide piece of cast iron that served as part of the arch, the area beneath the boiling pan.
Barker loves a project and used the century-old iron as the basis for his new evaporator, now in its first season. He worked on it “for a good semester” in shop class at Thetford Academy. Along the way, he checked in with Stevens.
“He designed it ... by looking at my rig,” his neighbor said. “He really did a good job.”
Barker fabricated much of the metal frame, including the sides and doors, and custom built an adaptor for the smokestack.
It’s just one of many projects he’s been working on lately.
He recently restored a 1969 Ski-Doo snowmobile that had belonged to Stevens’ father. He has also helped his father, Matt Barker, repair an excavator, welding plates onto spots where the metal had worn thin.
As a landscaper, he learned the skills out of necessity, to fix his own equipment, Matt Barker said. But his son’s story is different.
“Isaac loves it,” he said. “He loved it from the first time he was exposed to it.”
Barker, who plans to study mechanical engineering at Vermont Technical College, is most interested in precision work. He hopes to become a machinist like his grandfather.
“What really interests me is the actual setup of machining and making the tools that make the parts,” he said. “I’m the kind of guy who lies awake at night thinking about what I am going to do the next day. Maybe if I do it this way, it will be easier.”
During the summer and after school, he works alongside his father, who owns Maple Hillworks, a landscaping and dirt work company. But when the sap is flowing, things are different.
“We all work for Isaac,” said his mother, Terry Barker.
Isaac and his parents, and sometimes his younger brother, Ian, share various tasks, like checking the buckets, watching the evaporator and canning, Isaac Barker said. “It’s a family effort.”
As the season progresses, a kitchen counter fills up with their reward — glass jars of amber colored liquid. So far this year, they have made 6 1/2 gallons of syrup, he said. They generally give it to family and friends, and also eat it on pancakes, in baked beans or as a ham glaze. “Any excuse we can find,” Isaac Barker said.
Outside, the trees in their yard are studded with galvanized buckets. Stevens’ Sugarhouse is just down the road, and the land behind the Barkers’ house is crisscrossed by long blue hoses leading back to Fifield’s Sugar House. As a sugarer, Barker sees his place within that web.
“It’s been a part of this hill for at least three generations,” he said. “I’m pretty proud to be able to be a part of that.”