It's been a sweet 90 years



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A photo of Lazarre and Armand Bisson, graces the commemorative 90th anniversary label of the maple syrup produced this year at Bissonís Sugarhouse in Berlin. Melissa Grima. (click for larger version)
March 23, 2011
BERLIN — In 1921 Lazarre and Amanda Bisson built a sugarhouse on Cates Hill. Today, a third generation Bisson along with her husband, Muriel and Lucien Blais, continue to operate the last agricultural business in Berlin. Going into last week's N.H. Maple Weekend, Bisson's Sugarhouse was prepping to kick off their 90th year in business.

Unlike many family sugarhouses that start first as hobbies and then grow into businesses, Bisson's began as a business and has operated as such ever since. In addition to having been in business since prior to WWII, the family has tapped the maple trees on Cates Hill in all but four of those years, according to Lucien. While WWII was fought the taps were not set. Then, two severe weather events kept the Bisson family out of the woods —too much snow in the winter of 1968-69 and then the ice storm of 1998. That epic ice storm delivered a harsh blow to the family business, destroying their sugar bush. To keep the business going, they transitioned to leasing trees just a little further away, but still on Cates Hill.

While Bisson's is operated by a third generation of the family, it hasn't passed along traditional genealogical lines, and the parallels in the transitions are striking. Lazarre left the business in the capable hands of his nephew Armand with his wife Juliette. The elder Bisson had taken a paternal interest in the younger after the loss of the Armand's father at a young age. Similarly, Muriel's father died when she was young, and Armand took a paternal interest in her. Although Muriel and Lucien took over the operation in 1988, Armand remained fixture at the sugarhouse until the age of 90.

Lucien said he wouldn't be surprised if 12 generations have been served by the three generations at Bisson's in the last 90 years. They annually get visitors in their 80s, he said, who tell about their memories of walking up the hill with their own grandparents.

In the time the sugarhouse has been operating many technological advances have taken place, and Bisson's has done what it can to keep up with them. The business has evolved from horses and buckets to tractors and vacuum lines. "We've tried to modernize, but on the other hand we've tried to keep old traditions," Lucien said. "Bottom line is maple syrup and that's the same — it hasn't changed."

The modernizations have helped Bisson's remain a viable business in a competitive market. Lucien said that Bisson's has 2700 taps and is able to haul 400 gallons of sap at a time, which is stored in two 1,000 gallon tanks in a shed outside the sugarhouse.

Visitors to the sugarhouse can get a first hand look at both the changes and the flavor of history present. Lucien is more than happy to show his reverse osmosis set up in the back of the building and the system of holding tanks and lines that carries the sap to a sophisticated wood-fired evaporator with three pans. One of those evaporating pans utilizes the steam from the lower one, he explained — again demonstrating the increases in efficiency that have been implemented. The combined technological advances mean less wood gets burned to make the syrup. Lucien said they went from burning 23 cords of wood two years ago, to using just 7 last year to produce around the same amount of syrup.

What hasn't changed at Bisson's though, is the homey front room of the sugarhouse, where Muriel packages maple candy at a table near the woodstove. Visitors can have a seat on the sofa and thumb through the scrapbook album Muriel and Lucien keep on hand, full of old photos of family, sugaring and the history of their place — including a photo of local priest Father Martel, bringing a bottle of Bisson's maple syrup to the Pope. While much of the equipment in the sugarhouse is state of the art, the couple maintains a piece of history with the 100-year old woodstove still used to make candy.

Their products haven't changed either. Bisson's is still producing syrup, candy, cream and the hard to find maple taffy. A history of the Bisson's business is laid out on the walls of the sugarhouse, museum-style, for visitors to see the process through time, and appreciate what it took to make maple syrup 90 years ago. In addition to information, the walls also hold relics, like tin cups and pans that were used to hold the product in long-ago years, and a warn spoon, used by Lazarre when he boiled and a ladle used by Armand to test the density of syrup.

For Lucien and Muriel this isn't a part-time gig. They, and those before them, have arranged their lives around sugaring. They keep up with the science by attending annual "maple school" in January, where they get reports on research to keep them current.

Lucien has been in the carpentry business for the last 20 years or so, in order to provide himself with the flexible schedule needed to keep the sugarhouse running. "It's kind of a tough business," he said, with a season that runs from only mid-March to mid-April. But that season is just a small part of the time commitment, which starts with preparations in February, clean-up through May and a fall maintenance period.

Like Lucien, his predecessors also were able to find the precious time needed due to their choices of living. Lazarre and Amanda were dairy farmers, and Armand drove pulp trucks, which allowed him to make the most of his time, so he could sugar while the road bans kept him from driving.

Bisson's opened on Friday, kicking off this maple season with commemorative 90th anniversary labels that picture both Lazarre and Armand Bisson standing in the door way of the businesses. They welcomed visitors for Maple Weekend, and served complimentary ice cream with fresh syrup. They'll be open seven days a week now, through Easter, Muriel said, in order to keep to tradition, "We're always open for Easter, no matter when it is," she said, acknowledging that so many people have made Bisson's part of their Easter tradition.

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