Two things I can’t resist. Well, more than two, if I’m honest, but these are pretty high on the list: I love a good story, and I love local history.
So, when George and I stopped at Jorns’ Sugar Bush for the first time, and walked into the tiny, crowded little store, I saw stories hanging on every wall and sitting on every shelf. My reporter’s nose quivered, and I itched to ask questions.
Lucky me. When Mrs. Jorns finally emerged from the back room, having given us enough time to load the shelves with tasty items we simply had to take home, I discovered that she loved answering those questions.
“Who is that?” I asked, pointing to a charcoal drawing of a starched-looking couple, and she informed me it was her 85-year-old husband’s grandparents, and then launched into the story about how Grandpa became a ship captain, sailing here, there and everywhere long before there were shortcuts dredged through inconvenient land masses. And, as might be expected, he died young.
She pointed out wedding photos of ancestors two and three generations back, and finally her own. She showed me a case of ancient cameras collected long ago by her daughter who, in high school, convinced the teachers to let her set up a dark room and study photography. All I had to do was casually point at something, or ask a simple question, and she had a long story to go with it. Like the story about the barn with the square, wooden silo.
When she was a young bride, that barn belonged to her father- and mother-in-law,
but they hadn’t built it. A German family before them had put it up, along with unusual silo. Silage had to be added by hand by crawling up a ladder and carefully spreading it and layering it evenly to prevent the silage from molding and killing the cows. I tried my best, but I know I wasn’t quite getting it.
The rest of the story, a potential horror story, I got quite well.
“I told my mother-in-law that she should take a rest from the day’s work and let me go up in her place,” Mrs. Jorns said. “I told her she had trained me well, and I would do it right.”
So up the ladder she went, and stepped out onto the first landing–and froze. There was a hum that didn’t belong, a rather loud, ominous hum. Not knowing what she might find, Mrs. Jorns’ scuttled back down the ladder and ran for her father-in-law, who grabbed a flashlight and went up to investigate.
What he found were bees, thousands and thousands of bees, on every single available surface, including the rungs of the upper ladder, the walls, the floor–everywhere. How so many had accumulated so quickly no one knew, but the narrow escape was almost frightening: Mrs. Jorns’ mother-in-law was very allergic, and might have died if she’d gone up and gotten stung that day.
Someone was called to try and get the bees to leave, but when that didn’t work, her father-in-law climbed up the outside of the silo, wrapped a chain around the entire structure, and fastened it to his tractor.
“He pulled, and the whole thing came down,” Mrs. Jorns said.
Somehow, the bees were then disposed of, the wood was cleaned of wax and honey, and the lumber used to build a small addition to the barn with room for more cows. That was about 63 years ago, and the unique German-style silo is a forgotten memory–except to the Jornses. The barn is still in the family.
The story was no sooner finished than we heard the chug of an approaching tractor, Mr. Jorns perched on the seat, a big metal sap container following along behind. He was bringing in what he’d collected from the buckets hanging on the maple trees that dotted the hillsides. Eventually, he shuffled into the store, no doubt
to check out the owners of the strange car parked outside.
He was a slip of a man with big blue eyes, a face lined by long years spent in the outdoors, and a ready smile.
“Your wife’s been telling us stories,” I said, and he smiled even more.
“Oh yes, she’s got lots of stories,” he said, affection in each word. They glanced at each other in an unspoken exchange only they understood.
Then Mr. Jorns told me he’d built the store we were standing in, as well as the syrup making building–AND the charming stone house I had just admired. It seems that his sister had first built a stone house, and he liked it so much he painstakingly went to a quarry and hauled back a couple dump-truck
loads of expensive stones to build his own. Then he asked someone about the process.
“Well, you’ll need a lot more stones than this,” he was told. Too much money, he decided, and then he remembered the piles of stones on his property, stones collected year after year after year, every spring, as the fields were plowed for planting. Free stones for the taking. And not even ordinary stones.
“They’re fossil stones,” he said. “You can see bits of shells and ancient bird tracks.” The stones told their own stories of an earth far different from the one we were standing on. But they didn’t just tell stories; they also set up another, unexpected business for the Jornses: selling stones so other people could build stone houses, people who saw his and loved the unique materials. Far and wide he sold those stones, until supplies dwindled.
However, no matter what else the couple did, they always made maple syrup every year, with the help of a small crew. On this day, I didn’t see anyone but this wizened, wiry little man. The sun was getting low, persistent snowflakes were falling, and he was still planning to head back to the woods for another load.
He had more stories, I just know he did. So did his wife. But they had their work to do, and Lady was waiting in the car. It was time to leave.
Tomorrow, I’m making pancakes for breakfast–small ones, so we can sample all the varieties of syrup we bought besides the maple. And I’m going to think about the stories, and the history, embodied in one old couple who are still going strong.