“Few Things on Earth Taste So Good” as Malabar Farm’s Maple Syrup

One of my favorite historic sites is Malabar Farm, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Bromfield’s Colonial Revival home. While the original 1940s wallcoverings are the feature of the house that I admire most, I find something new to love there each time I visit.

After 13 years living in Senlis, France, Bromfield and his family decided to return to his native Mansfield, Ohio. In 1939, Bromfield purchased three farms located 13 miles southeast of Mansfield, planning to return the run-down land to sustainable farmland by experimenting with new farming practices.

Bromfield named his new farm Malabar. The setting for Bromfield’s novel, The Rains Came, was the Malabar region of India. Since Bromfield used the revenue from the successful book and its corresponding movie starring Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power to acquire the land and build the house, he wanted to acknowledge the book and the setting which made it possible. The word “Malabar” roughly translates to “Pleasant Valley.”

Malabar Farm has been an Ohio state park since 1976. During the first two weekends in March, the park holds its Maple Syrup Family Festival. So, after seeing maple sugaring at Slate Run last weekend, a field trip to Malabar was in order.

Last Sunday’s mild temperatures and sunny skies were replaced by chilly conditions this past Sunday, with frequent flurries and snow showers making the event very picturesque. The Central Ohio Draft Horse Association provided horse-drawn wagons to take us from the working farm to the sugar camp. We rode uphill through a forest of maple trees that sported both traditional metal buckets and modern plastic bags for sap collection. Arriving at the camp, we took a self-guided tour to learn the history of Ohio syrup-making and how sugaring equipment has evolved over the years.

At our first stop, an Indian explained and demonstrated how tossing fire-heated rocks into a log trough filled with sap was an early method of using heat to evaporate water from sap.

Next, we heard how early settlers improved on Indian practices by using iron kettles to hold the sap as it boiled over an open fire. The kettle required constant stirring to prevent syrup from burning. After a settler described the process behind making maple sugar, a park ranger gave everyone a wooden-spoonful of Malabar-made maple sugar to try.

Then came the sugar house. As we waited to enter, we read a couple of quotes about maple sugaring from Pleasant Valley, Bromfield’s autobiographical account of his return to Ohio.

“Few things on earth taste so good as the syrup of the first sugaring off,” Bromfield wrote in Pleasant Valley. “It is fresh and new, the very essence of the earth and the budding trees and the wakening spring. You can smell it in the steam from the evaporator and taste it in the hot syrup lifted from the vat in the big ladle.”

“There is a kind of excitement which tinges the whole ceremony of sugar making,” Bromfield also observed. “Even the dogs and horses feel it. The mares stomp the earth and toss their heads and their breath steams as they snort in the frosty air of early morning or evening. And the dogs go mad running in circles round and round the sled chasing rabbits and squirrels that never were save in their imaginations.”

Inside the steam-filled room, we sampled Malabar maple syrup as we listened to another park ranger explain how a modern-day evaporator works.

In 1938, Jim and Georgia Pugh, friends of Louis and Mary Bromfield’s, built a log cabin in Malabar’s sugar bush as a year-round weekend retreat. Ten years later, it became their permanent home. During the festival, the cabin serves as the sugar bush’s gift store. Inside, we bought maple syrup and maple fudge, both made at Malabar from sap from Malabar maple trees. Maple cotton candy, maple popcorn, maple tea, maple sugar candy, and other maple products were also for sale in the cabin.

Behind the cabin is the summer bell house, which was set up as a pioneer’s cabin. Inside, volunteers from the Richland County Museum talked about daily pioneer chores and invited visitors to try baked beans and cornbread that they had just cooked over the fire.

No visit to Malabar is complete without a tour of the “Big House,” Bromfield’s historical 32-room mansion. During this visit, we had the luxury of having the house to ourselves, so we could spend as much time as we wanted in each room.

After my favorite park ranger greeted us in the front entry hall, we progressed to the Red Sitting Room, where we admired one of two original Grandma Moses oil paintings that the artist gave to Bromfield in thanks for his writing an introduction to her autobiography (Grandma Moses: American Primitive, Doubleday, 1947). In Mrs. Bromfield’s bedroom, a hand-painted headboard displays titles of her husband’s books. We saw the study where Bromfield wrote Pleasant Valley and Malabar Farm, including his semi-circular desk built of local walnut and the pull-out bed for Bromfield’s favorite boxer, Prince.

Upstairs, we walked through the room of George Hawkins, Bromfield’s manager and editor. To make Hawkins feel more at home in rural Ohio, Bromfield commissioned a painting that depicts the view from the bachelor’s room at the St. Regis Hotel in New York. We continued through several guest rooms, including the one used by Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart after their May 21, 1945 marriage that took place by the open staircases in the home’s entrance hall. As we walked around the sitting room and bedrooms used by Bromfield’s three daughters, Anne, Hope and Ellen, the docent pointed out two animation cells hanging on the sitting room wall. She explained that Bromfield collaborated with Walt Disney on the screen adaptation of “Ferdinand the Bull.” Bromfield wrote the script as an adaptation of Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand, while Disney oversaw the animation.

We concluded our tour downstairs. A watercolor of Oak Hill Cottage, the Mansfield home that Bromfield used as the setting for his first novel, The Green Bay Tree, hangs in the living room, above an annotated typescript of the poem about Malabar Farm that E.B. White wrote for The New Yorker. In the dining room, we saw two more examples of Mrs. Bromfield’s collection of rooster figurines. Sadly, the freshly painted swinging door on the way to the kitchen no longer shows the marks left behind by the Bromfields’ boxers.

Malabar’s Maple Syrup Family Festival will continue this weekend, from 12:00 to 4:00 p.m. both days. To learn more about how Malabar illustrates Colonial Revival architectural themes and how its architect, Louis Andre Lamoreux, collaborated with I.T. Frary (author of Early Homes of Ohio) to incorporate design elements from early Ohio buildings into the Bromfield home, read “Louis Bromfield’s Big House at Malabar Farm: Form Follows Function,” a chapter that my friend Barbara Powers of the Ohio Historic Preservation Office wrote for Recreating the American Past: Essays on the Colonial Revival.

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One Response to “Few Things on Earth Taste So Good” as Malabar Farm’s Maple Syrup

  1. Cindy Spikowski says:

    Thank you for mentioning that Louis Bromfield wrote the introduction to Grandma Moses’ autobiography. I was able to get the book today via Ohio Link and am enjoying reading it. I thought it interesting that he compared Grandma Moses’ artwork to Pieter Breughel. Your accounts of the maple sugraing remind me of Tasha Tudor’s and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s accounts.

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