Maple syrup farmer Max Leonard, of Berkshire, NY, moves with his grief after the death of Esther, his wife of 69 years. Max lost the love of his life, but his overwhelming ethic is that a person “withers away” if he or she ever stops moving forward. He describes his visits to Esther’s grave as almost unbearable, but works nearly every day, heading out into the woods to fix lines, sometimes boiling a little maple syrup, while taking in the beauty of the land that has been in his family for more than two centuries. He is also an authentic Central New York Regional Market legend, one of the most revered and beloved people there. He arrives at the market very early on Saturdays to sell his maple syrup, with his grandchildren accompanying him in Esther’s place.
Maple syrup farmer Max Leonard, 89, of Berkshire, NY, heads back to his house for lunch after fixing lines on his maple trees. His wife of 69 years, Esther, recently died and Max moves through his grief with the help of his work.
Max gathers lines for his maple trees. Of Esther’s death, he said, “You never know how much it hurts, until you experience it.”
Max and Esther met in the 1930s. “We met in school,” he said. “I was in 7th grade and she come down from a country school for 8th grade and I looked back and she had a blue sweater on. She filled it out nicely. She caught my eye because she was a beautiful young lady.” They married many years later, in their 20s.
Max and Esther raised two children, Bill and Sue, on land that belonged to the Leonard family since it was awarded to Max’s great-great-great grandfather for service in the Revolutionary War. About himself and Esther, Max said, “We didn’t always agree, (but) it never got very serious, any disagreement.”
Max, 89, has lived on the same land since birth and started operating the maple syrup business with his father during World War II, when rations made sugar difficult to find. Max took over the business and grew the farm to about 340 acres. “I wouldn’t move,” he said. “Even for a million bucks.”
Max secures tubing attached to a sugar maple tree.
The leaves of the sugar maples turn from green to yellow, orange and red in the fall. Max enjoys autumn, but looks forward to winter, when those same leaves are covered in snow. Sugar maples start flowing in February and March, when the night temperatures are in the 20s and the day temperatures are above freezing.
Max spends hours working on sap lines beneath the trees, partly because he likes seeing the woods changing color.
“The hills get a little steeper every year,” Max says, but he’d rather be in the woods than sitting in a chair in his house “staring at the ceiling.”
Max stops by a diner for lunch during a work day.
Max prepares maple syrup at his home in Berkshire, NY, for an upcoming trip to sell it at the Central New York Regional Market.
Max bottles syrup in preparation for his upcoming trip to the Central New York Regional Market. Max and Esther, familiar faces at the market for decades, became friends with many of their customers. “I’ve got to have something to do to take up my mind and the maple syrup has been the ideal thing for me.”
Max says older generations seem to prefer lighter amber maple syrup, while the younger people tend to go for darker syrup.
“I have a lot of friends up at the market and I love to chat with them,” Max said. “Very few of them, I know their name, but a lot of them stop every week and chat for a minute.”
Max keeps track of his sales of maple syrup at the Central New York Regional Market in a small spiral notebook.
An excerpt from Esther’s journal, a few years before she and Max were married.
Max returns to his house after working. Without Esther, he said, “It’s just a house, it isn’t a home.”
Max takes off his boots and puts on his slippers after chopping wood as a young neighbor throws some of the wood into his basement through a window.
“She died August 5th,” Max said. “The 4th was a Sunday. The grandchildren were there, great grandchildren, and our two children… son-in-law. There was quite a bunch there at the hospital. The one thing that was kind of comical to me was she said to Bill, ‘Don’t you let Dad fool out a lot of money on the casket.’ The next morning I went down and she’d passed away.“
“There’s nothing you can do,” Max said regarding grief. “You’re so helpless.”
“You know, what’s strange? We could sit here half an evening, not saying a word, just watching TV, but she was there.” Max Leonard died peacefully at home on July 26, 2017.