Edward Hopper’s “Vermont Sugar House” and Bob Slater’s Sugar House

This spring, as Vermont’s maple sugaring season came and went, I thought about the sugar house on the South Royalton farm where Edward and Jo Hopper boarded in the summers of 1937 and ’38. This is the sugar house — then owned by Irene and Bob Slater —  that is the subject of Hopper’s watercolor, Vermont Sugar House. This Hopper painting appeared frequently during the summer of 2013, both online and in print, as the signature image and poster for the then-upcoming exhibition, Edward Hopper in Vermont, at the Middlebury College Museum of Art.

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Edward Hopper, Vermont Sugar House, 1938. Watercolor on paper, 14 x 20 inches. Collection of Louis Bacon.

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The Slaters’ sugar house on Wagon Wheels farm, early 1940s. Courtesy of Robert Alan Slater.

 

What always strikes me in the spring, as the wood stoves are fired up in sugar houses around Vermont and sap is being boiled down to make maple syrup, is that Hopper had painted the Slaters’ sugar house during its downtime; he never saw it operating. In the late summer of 1938 Edward and Jo Hopper were on vacation in Vermont, and so was the sugar house, a workhorse structure that would remain quiescent until the sap ran again the following spring. What Hopper knew of the building’s function would have been hearsay, gleaned from conversations with the Slaters, dairy farmers for whom maple syrup and candy provided essential additional income during the Great Depression.

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The label on Irene Slater’s maple bonbon box carries a drawing of the farmhouse made by Edward Hopper, according to the Slater family. The original drawings, one in pencil and one in pen and ink, are now in a private collection.

As boarding tourists — another source of supplemental income for the farm — the  Hoppers ate all of their meals with the Slater family, and most likely they enjoyed maple syrup on their breakfast pancakes and savored Irene’s maple bonbons as an after-dinner treat.

Bob and Irene would have explained the maple sugaring process and pointed out their maple grove — the trees that they tapped — as well as their sugar house, high on the hillside pasture above the farmhouse.

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Bob Slater and his son, Alan, collecting sap from maple trees, the first step in making maple syrup, early 1940s. Courtesy of Robert Alan Slater.

Hopper’s choosing to make a painting of the sugar house — the only painting of a building among his South Royalton watercolors — surely reflected not only his aesthetic values but also his interest in the workings of Wagon Wheels farm. Hopper also painted a single monumental maple tree on the Slaters’ property, selecting an iconic image of Vermont that represented  a significant element of the Green Mountain economy, in Hopper’s time  as it does now.

I’ve tried to capture some of the flavor of the Hoppers’ stay in South Royalton in the central chapter of my book, “On the Slaters’ Farm.” That I know as much as I do of the Hoppers’ time there is thanks to Robert Alan Slater, who was seven years old when the artists first visited his parents’ farm. Edward and Jo knew the boy as Alan, but as an adult  he called himself Bob, like his father.

I located Bob and his wife, Thelma, when I first began the research for my book, and their help all along has been invaluable to me. Bob provided access to the materials he inherited from his parents, including letters from Jo to Irene, Jo’s watercolor of himself as a child, and Edward’s drawings of the farmhouse, which he made for labels on Irene’s maple products. During our many telephone conversations, Bob shared recollections that enriched my view of farm life in Vermont during the 1930s. His stories also enabled me to add a degree of warmth and humanity to my account of Edward Hopper’s time in Vermont.

Sadly, Robert Alan Slater passed away on May 3, 2013, at age 82, in his home in California. I will be forever grateful for his friendship, for his gregarious nature and enthusiasm for my project, and for his generosity in sharing stories, family memorabilia, and the photographs that appear here, in my book, and in the exhibition at Middlebury.

I know that my gratitude is shared by many Vermonters, who tell me that they have found some of their own history in Bob Slater’s stories and images from Wagon Wheels Farm.  Thank you, Bob. We will remember you!

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Robert Alan Slater (1930 – 2013). Left, about seven years old, ca. 1937. Right, in 2010, holding the watercolor portrait of himself that Jo Hopper painted in 1937.  Adjacent to her signature Jo wrote: “Alan Slater on his 7th birthday, and made to pose on his birthday!”

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