Mike Blanchard is looking for someone who wants to buy a maple syrup museum.
Since 2013, Blanchard and his wife, Mary, have owned the New England Maple Museum at 4578 Route 7. They bought it from Mike’s old friend, Tom Olson, who founded the place 41 years ago.
Blanchard said Tuesday that the museum will close by Christmas and won’t reopen unless a buyer is found.
“We have run it more as a hobby than as a business. We weren’t looking for it to be a huge income source, just something to do in our retirement,” he said. “I have medical problems, my wife is being treated for lung cancer ... . The only reason we’re getting rid of it is health reasons.”
He has no doubt a young person with fresh ideas could run the museum successfully, but finding that person or even an organization, has been a challenge.
“The plan is to have a sale, sell all of our rolling inventory, syrups, food, apparel, anything that’s out in the gift shop we plan on having a discount,” he said. “Hopefully, somebody will come along and buy it as a whole or buy the real estate. I’ve got people looking at the real estate, but there’s been nothing substantial.”
The museum features a host of maple sugaring artifacts Olson, Blanchard and Blanchard’s sons have collected over the years. The exhibit features a great deal of original artwork as well, mainly intricate, hand-carved dioramas and murals depicting maple sugaring operations. Several exhibits are narrated using recordings from real Vermonters, Blanchard said. A big hit with visitors is “Mr. Doolittle,” a mannequin dressed like the quintessential sugar maker who has his own voice-over.
Blanchard said visitors also like the “Wall of Shame,” an exhibit featuring dozens of faux maple syrup products.
The museum’s story begins with Olson, who was with Blanchard for a Tuesday interview.
A Rutland native, Olson said he’s an engineer by trade and always had an interest in maple sugaring.
“You know every kid in Vermont more or less helps the farmers and helps people during sugaring season with various chores, so it was kind of natural,” he said. “I got into the history of maple sugaring, which dates back to the 18th century, particularly here in Vermont.”
He said he got the museum’s first display sugaring equipment from Eaton’s Sugar House in South Royalton.
“I built the business, I built the building back in 1977,” Olson said. “We had all the equipment hauled down here, my father, myself and another guy, and we put some of it over at the Vermont Marble Co. I worked for Vermont Marble Co. at the time, and they had a lot of storage space.”
He needed someone to manage the place, but finding a good manager was difficult, he said. One person he hired didn’t last a week.
“My wife said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’ll manage the place until you find somebody new.’ Thirty-five years later, Dona was the one who ran the museum, and she’s the one who should be given most of the credit,” Olson said.
His wife, Dona, from Olson’s accounts, did most of the work around the museum, managing inventory, catalogues and employees, while Olson handled everything else including marketing.
He said the museum at its peak saw 200 tour buses per year and greeted 30,000 visitors.
“One thing that really helped us at the time was, we got in bed with the Vermont Marble Exhibit and Wilson Castle. Both of them were going very well at the time,” he said. Olson said Vermont Marble Exhibit eventually became Vermont Marble Museum. Both it and Wilson Castle are in nearby Proctor.
“We had what we called ‘One Great Day,’ a promotional thing where you come to this place and you can buy tickets to the other two,” Olson said.
At the end of the month, each business would give the other whatever it owed in ticket sales. The maple museum also had a covered bridge tour.
“And then I got older, and Dona got older, and she started putting the pressure on me saying, ‘Am I ever going to get out of this thing?’” Olson said.
Olson said he and Blanchard “go way back” to about the time each was knee high. Blanchard had told Olson to contact him if he ever wanted to sell the museum.
“We’ve carried on six years, had a lot of fun.” said Blanchard, who was near 70 when he bought the business.
Blanchard said the building is in good shape. When he bought it, he did a number of renovations from the lights to the boiler.
“It’d be a disaster to have the maple museum leave Vermont,” Olson said. “Everything in the museum has been gathered from the far points of Vermont and beyond.”