NORTH GRANVILLE, N.Y. — New York and Vermont maple producers sometimes razz each other about which state makes the best syrup.
Rathbun’s Maple Sugar House has made the best of both worlds by tapping 10,000 trees on parcels stretching from West Pawlett, Vt., to northernmost Washington County, N.Y., on the west side of Lake Champlain.
Owner Matt Rathbun has invested $150,000 this year alone on upgrades including a new LaPierre evaporator ($70,000); lines, pumps and tanks ($40,000) and a new truck ($40,000) to haul sap with. Next year he plans to replace an older reverse-osmosis machine with a new model costing another $40,000.
“You can spend a lot of money quick in this business,” he said. “No more drilling a hole, sticking a bucket under it and boiling the sap.”
Modern maple production is a high-tech operation, a far cry from the one his father, Bill, started in 1961.
But Matt Rathbun, whose first grandson was born nine months ago, is taking a long-term view into the future, doing everything possible to put the family-run business on solid ground.
One of the biggest turning points came in 1986, when Bill Rathbun opened a restaurant featuring breakfasts with fresh maple syrup. The only problem was that the site was located on rural Hatch Hill Road, on the Whitehall-Granville town line, almost 10 miles from both villages.
Bill’s cousin, John Tanner, remembers it well.
“I said, Bill, you’re crazy! How in the devil are you going to get people to come here?’ ”
“But they did,” he said.
Something about the rustic setting, cozy atmosphere and friendly hosts draws people from many miles around.
“In March, they’re parked way down the road,” Matt Rathbun said. “I’ve been in the Bahamas, people have seen the logo on my shirt and said, Hey, we’ve been there!’ ”
Occasionally, celebrity guests stop in for a visit, too.
Last year, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, took part in ceremonies at Rathbun’s to kick off the 2013 maple season. Legislation he sponsored is included in the recently passed Farm Bill that provides tax breaks for landowners that open their property to maple production.
Bill Rathbun is a lifelong Red Sox fan, who has rubbed shoulders with the likes of the late Ted Williams. Bill’s friend, former Boston pitcher, Bill Lee, a Vermont resident, has been known to stop in from time to time for pancakes and fresh syrup.
Visits are an educational experience for everyone involved, especially children who watch videos about maple production, sample cotton candy and see how sap was collected with buckets in years gone by. The gift shop also has children’s books that show kids where sap comes from and how syrup is made.
“We get a lot of school groups,” Matt Rathbun said. “They’re fascinated with it.”
Learning isn’t limited to elementary school pupils, however. Recently, a group of students from Green Mountain College in nearby Poultney, Vt., visited Rathbun’s for a breakfast outing coupled with coursework.
Inside the sugarhouse, visitors see how sap is boiled down into syrup, part of a self-guided maple tour and guests may also take a horse-and-wagon ride led by a team of huge Clydesdales.
The restaurant’s interior is almost like a country museum with all kinds of old farm implements and antiques lining the knotty-pine walls — everything from milk cans to old railroad lanterns. An old-fashioned potbelly stove warms the dining area, and large paintings of winter scenes help people reflect on years gone by.
There’s even an old wheat thresher and horse-drawn wooden sleigh outside. Kids love climbing on an early model pickup truck to have their picture taken.
When not out working in the sugarbush, Matt Rathbun raises Christmas trees, runs a landscape business and his wife, Wendy, teaches school. Their daughter, Katelyn Taylor, and her husband, Christopher, are also heavily involved and their baby, Jackson, represents the future.
“I started out making maple snow cones when I was 7 years old,” Katelyn said. “At 13 I was bussing tables. I’ve been here ever since. Now I’m 25.”
She’s one of the busy kitchen hands that keeps hot platters of pancakes, French toast, and bacon and eggs moving for guests to enjoy. Long-time employees Laurie Wilbur and Gail Donaldson have been with Rathbun’s for nearly 30 years each.
Aside from maple season itself, the restaurant is busiest on Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and in late September when thousands of people visit the area for the annual Adirondack Balloon Festival, in Glens Falls, N.Y., the oldest and largest ballooning event on the East Coast.
Rathbun’s is especially picturesque in autumn with a large selection of mums and pumpkins to choose from, set against the backdrop of colorful maple trees that are turning all shades red and orange.
“We sell whatever the season allows,” Matt Rathbun said.
However, he knows all too well that March is the busiest, most stressful time of year. So he and Wendy recently took a mid-winter vacation to Mexico to rest up for the season ahead.
“You have to take a break,” he said. “Now I’m ready to go.”
Rathbun’s is one of many sugarhouses in the area that host open houses in March. This year’s are scheduled for March 15-16 and March 22-23.
For a complete listing see the website: www.upperhudsonmaple.com.