[This week is all about two things- maple syrup and mud. The two are irrevocably intertwined at this time of year in Vermont. SB SM]
From my “Auto-biografitti:”
That’s when it all came together …
writing, woodstoves, and Vermont’s crappy weather
When I joined Vermont Castings in January, 1979 I had a customer service staff of 6. Six months later that had grown to 65! The major intervening event was the 2nd Arab Oil Embargo of 1979.
Overnight we became a changed nation. Without oil, how would we keep warm? There was frenzy to buy woodstoves, and Vermont Castings was at the top of the desirability list. As a nation we were gripped by mentality governed by scarcity.
Shortages became the norm,
at least with woodstoves we’d be warm
Interest rates soared to 16%, then 20%. Vermont Castings became the darling of the business world, one of the few places where things were being done right. This is an excerpt from a short essay I wrote to accompany co-founder Duncan Syme’s receipt of a Lifetime Achievement Award. (I hope he remembered to accept with the left!)
Two guys meet in a bar in Crested Butte, Colorado. It is 1970, and the United States is embroiled in the Vietnam War, trying to comprehend the assassinations of not one, not two, but three of the country’s most charismatic leaders. The two guys are in search of their paths in life. Wouldn’t it be great, they muse after a few beers, to follow Joni Mitchell’s advice to “get back to the garden” and to find a way to do something significant … something real and tangible that they could create with their own hands.
Five years later, the two have taken different paths, but are now linked by marriage … brothers-in-law. Murray Howell has taken the proven path to wealth on Wall St. Duncan Syme in Warren, Vermont is barely eking out a living as an architect. Howell hates his job and wants out. Syme likes his profession and likes Vermont, but will need to invent gainful employment if he wants to escape the most hardscrabble existence.
Necessity becomes the mother of invention. Like many in Vermont, Syme can’t afford the skyrocketing price of oil, so he burns wood, lots of wood. What if? … What if you took the combustion technology from one of these airtight, efficient Scandinavian stoves and put it in the skin of the more traditionally-styled Franklin stove? He broaches the idea with Howell who, from his background in financial analysis, knows that the country’s problems with imported oil will not be solved soon. Count him in.
The Defiant woodstove, named both for its ability to defy the cold of winter and as testament to a legendary defender of America’s Cup, made its debut in 1976 and their fledgling company, Vermont Castings, prospered. So, for a while, did every other woodstove company in the country. When the inevitable industry consolidation occurred in the early 1980s Vermont Castings, fueled by innovative design and engineering, fanatical attention to manufacturing quality, and uncompromising customer service, was able to maintain its momentum while competitors slid back.
By the mid-80s, Vermont Castings had become the worldwide leader in its category.
In an era when America forgot how to make things, Vermont Castings stoves were made by bearded, flannel-shirted Vermonters. While manufacturing facilities were proliferating in whatever foreign land had the cheapest labor, Vermont Castings built a state-of-the-art foundry and enameling plant in the shadows of the Green Mountains. While standards of quality universally were subjugated to the priorities of the bean counter, Vermont Castings stayed true to the exacting standards set by its founders. Best of all, they maintained the youthful idealism of their conversations in Crested Butte.
Before there was Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, there was Duncan and Murray. Before there was Ben & Jerry, there was Duncan and Murray. In the bleak place America had become by the early 1980s, Vermont Castings cast a warm, steady glow. And I thank Duncan Syme and Murray Howell for allowing me to come along on their rocket ship ride.
My self-image had changed, too. As Vermont Castings rose up in the ranks of worldwide stove manufacturers, so did I. Their success became mine. I became a sales manager, then a vice-president.
There was activity on the music front as well. I wrote what I regard as my magnum opus, Mud Season Romance, around 1985. It was a time when the demands of fatherhood, husbandhood, homeowner, artiste, business guy, runner were all running at full throttle. Plus, I had annointed myself with the task of being a full-throated observer of contemporary Vermont culture.
I won’t pretend it was a time without ruts in the road, some deep, some even terminal. My Dad passed away. Murray Howell died. This juxta-position of the elation of Spring and the reality of the mud, is the metaphor of what my Vermont is all about. As the song’s narrator says “Don’t be fooled by the warmth of the daylight … you’ll be in a ditch by night fall.”
You’ll hear two versions of the song later in the week. By Friday you be totally sick of it. I suggest reading through the lyrics first.
MUD SEASON ROMANCE by Stephen Morris
I was thinking about the meaning of life,
Seems you never get the things that you want.
Ah, such a depressing thought on depressing night
During Mud Season in Randolph, Vermont.
I was thinking about the Winter,
And how you never lose the chill from your bones.
I’ve been a slave to my stove since the Tunbridge Fair,
And I’ve felt to be always alone.
Only the liquor,
Only the highs,
During Mud Season,
Keep me alive.
I went down to drown my sorrows at Ashley’s,
A bar where locals run amok for a buck.
I made the most of time during Happy Hour
And stayed on to try my Friday night luck.
She came in like a wind from Jamaica,
Filling Ashley’s with her breath soft and sweet,
And I say unto you with my hand on my heart
This was not your average Friday night meat.
Only the liquor,
Only the highs,
During Mud Season,
Help me survive.
So, I sidled up to her with my Friday night grin
And asked if I could buy her a beer.
Oo-o-o-o she answered me with eyes soft and brown
About the color of a Mud Season deer.
Then I said, “You live in town?” She said, “For all of my life,”
And I said “Why haven’t I seen you around?”
“I guess our paths move in different ways;
let’s be happy that a crossroad’s been found.”
And only the liquor,
Only the booze.
Don’t forget this was Mud Season,
I had nothing to lose.
I struggled to tell the cop who arrived,
“It’s the girl whose condition I fear.”
I couldn’t think, I couldn’t speak, and my heart stood still,
Then he said, “You’re the only one here.”
Then he said, “Listen up boy!” he said:
“Every year when the winter runs short,
all you bucks try to jump the high fence.
I see the same scenes on all the back roads,
I’ll be happy when Mud Season ends.
Only the liquor,
Ok, I admit I smoked some grass.
I had to admit the words of that cop
Saved my ass.
And I still put in my hours at Ashley’s
Though the buds have now appeared on the trees.
And I search the smoky dancehall horizons
For a romance that was never to be.
It was only a Mud Season Romance.
It never really happened at all.
And the lesson is, don’t be fooled by the daylight
You’ll be in a ditch by night fall.
It was on a Mud Season Romance.
It happened between winter and spring,
and I still don’t know the meaning of life,
but at least I’ve stopped wondering.