POWNAL, Vt.—Not many sugarmakers would be smiling after a sugarhouse fire.
Keith Armstrong can’t help it. He considers himself a lucky guy.
“Luck beats skill every time,” he said.
Armstrong, owner of the 4,000-tap Armstrong Farms maple operation in Pownal, Vt. lost almost everything in a fluke fire on July 9, his birthday.
Armstrong was first startled awake by a lightning strike at 1 in the morning, but shrugged it off and went back to sleep.
Two hours later firemen were pounding on his door.
The sugarhouse he built in 1976 with his father on a hillside was completely lost.
Fire inspectors theorize lightning in the woods traveled down the mainline tension wire and jumped to the building somehow, engulfing it.
Still, Armstrong feels fortunate.
First of all he was insured, so he was able to quickly turn around and get to work on a re-build.
Second, he had just moved 6 barrels of syrup out of the sugarhouse to a barn along the roadside, saving thousands of dollars of syrup from the fire. Still, he lost 11 other barrels in the blaze.
Third he has a loving, supportive family of children, grandchildren and friends pitching in to build new state-of-the-art 28x48 sugarhouse.
At age 79, many would consider calling it a career after a loss like that. But not Armstrong.
“Some of the guys at the coffee shop ask me ‘what is wrong with you?’” he said.
Armstrong is quick to share stories of his beloved wife, who he lost to cancer 30 years ago, and his best friend Walt Babcock who boiled with him for decades before he died of cancer too.
Armstrong is one tough sugarmaker.
In great health, he attributes his stamina to clean living and healthy eating.
“I don’t drink, don’t smoke and I eat cornflakes piled with blueberries and blackberries and bananas every morning,” he said.
“I’m not done.”
Neighboring sugarmaker and equipment dealer Kevin Mattison of Arlington, Vt. has been instrumental in helping source new equipment and pitch a hand in the rebuild.
“I can’t thank Kevin enough,” Armstrong said.
“I’ve got grandchildren that are into sugaring and I want to keep this going,” he told The Maple News during a tour on January 20, as he and grandson Evan were fast at work finishing an insulated R/O room.
“I’ve been knocked down before,” he said. “We’re gonna make it better.”