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VOL. 32, 192 WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, VERMONT
By LOIS GOODWIN GREER
 
 
If I were asked to write a commentary upon the proverb, "Great oaks from little acorns grow," I should use exactly two words...Maple Grove, for surely no better example could be found which would more comprehensively cover the topic than this enterprise which, begun some thirteen years ago in a farm house kitchen, has today not only become one of Vermont's most prosperous and prominent industries but has successfully invaded the commercial world of New York and many foreign countries. And the dynamic force behind this achievement is, contrary to the regular rule, a woman.
 
Katharine Ide Gray is a person of rare ability and attainment. She is blessed with an independence of thought, a fine graciousness and a keen business sense. These would have been as naught to her, however, had she not also possessed a remarkable clarity of vision which is happily combined with an integrity of purpose which the years seem to have increase rather than diminished. It is probably true that back in 1915 Mrs. Gray did not visualize herself, twelve years later, as president of three great corporations, two in Vermont and one in New York city, but she must have foreseen the potential possibilities of that summertime venture which she aided and abetted.

"My daughter was a student of Home Economics at Columbia University," she told me. "The professors were always urging the girls to try out at home the things which they were being taught at the school. Helen thought she would like to do a little experimenting with maple sugar, and incidentally she hoped to find some occupation which would keep her at home. She interested a friend, Miss Ethel McLaren, in her scheme, and I told them to go ahead and do whatever they wished and that I would help them all I could. We worked all one summer, and finally produced some maple candies that were quite delicious. By experimenting we made our own recipes, which policy we have always pursued. Even today we use no recipes but our own. It was rumored about that the girls were making candy to sell, and finally we had our first customer.

"Mrs. Henry Fairbanks telephoned down that she would like some candy, and we were all so excited over it," she said laughing quietly, "that it required the three of us to pack and wrap the box, and even when Mrs. Fairbanks arrived late in the afternoon we did not have it exactly as we thought it ought to be, and kept wondering all the evening how we could have made it nicer.

"We built over a back shed into a candy kitchen and worked diligently. Very shortly we were making and disposing of more candy than our quarters allowed, and the demand exceeded that which we could do alone. Therefore, we had to enlarge our working force as well as our kitchen. In fact we had to enlarge our kitchens twice during our four years at the farm."

"We soon realized," Mrs. Gray went on to say, "if we were to develop and expand, as seemed possible at the time, we must have larger accommodations. Several places were considered, but finally the Governor Fairbanks mansion in St. Johnsbury, which was for sale, was chosen, and in 1920 we moved." No more lovely spot could have been found in all Vermont than this fine old house with its traditional splendors, its winding drives, its emerald lawns and spreading maples; a place where sunshine and shadow vie with one another to lure the weary traveler within its sheltering embrace.

This undertaking meant a large investment; it meant doing things on a much larger scale than had been attempted heretofore; it meant an intensive campaign of advertising; it meant an organization which must be directed and guided in a businesslike manner-in short-it opened up wonderful possibilities. In order to make it a paying proposition many things had to be considered which had never been thought of before. For instance, in the farm house the chief pursuit had been that of maple candy making, and now with this huge establishment upon her hands Mrs. Gray had to devise devious ways and means by which the tremendous "overhead" would be diminished. And thus it was that there was born the Maple Grove Tea Room and later Maple Grove Inn, not because it was the original intention of these women to cater to the public in any way except as to tickle the sweet tooth, but because it became a necessity to take advantage of every lucrative opportunity and contingency.

Consequently, the spacious rooms in the front of the house were converted into guest rooms upstairs, while the lower part was used for waiting room and dining rooms all having fine old fireplaces and many windows "looking out upon spacious lawns, huge spreading trees and inviting nooks among the shrubbery." An ample guest house was built adjacent to the main house which provided for an overflow. The rear of the building was re-modeled into modern, well lighted and well ventilated quarters for the candies. One has but once to partake of the genial hospitality, the delicious food and to feel the quiet dignity of this charming house to be converted forever to its spell.

"Nothing is ever attained without a struggle," said Mrs. Gray, "but sometimes our struggles have seemed almost too titanic to overcome. We have had to fling out every possible line in order to get our anchor firmly placed. From the making of a few simple candies we have developed into a business of diversified interests. Today we are making, in addition to our regular maple bon-bons, over seventy different kinds of chocolates, manufacturing maple sugar and maple syrup and maple cream in dozens of different ways, and recently we have been developing another country product which I will tell you about later. Then, too, we needed a large supply base for our syrups and sugar, so we purchased a plant formerly owned by the Vermont Farmers Co-operative Assn., at Essex Junction, Vermont, where all of our syrup is reconditioned. We buy directly from the farmers and they deliver their syrup to this plant. This corporation is distinct from the Maple Grove Candies, Inc., and is known as Maple Grove Products of Vermont.

"Again, in order to get a better New York market for the candies and maple products we opened a restaurant and sales room incorporated under the name of Maple Grove Products, in that city. That enterprise alone requires a manager in which capacity my daughter's husband, Harold Gates Powell, acts most efficiently.

"You see it has meant a continual branching out. Some of the things we have gone into would never have been attempted except as we have been forced into them. You know that old adage, 'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread?' I sometimes think it very aptly applies to us.

" Genuine Vermont dishes, real farm products and maple sugar mixtures are served in the 57th Street shop in New York. To make it all a bit more realistic the walls are decorated with scenes from the Vermont hills in maple sugar time, while rustic maple saplings used here and there add a dash of zest and a breath of the country.

During the winter months when the Vermont roads are clogged with heaping drifts of snow and the thermometer drops perilously lower and lower which causes the travelers to turn southward, there is an additional activity going on within the dignified old walls of the Maple Grove home. Hundreds of barrels of apples, and hundreds of pounds of meat find their way into the kitchens, and with spices and raisins and good maple sugar the great copper kettles are kept busy until tons upon tons of real Vermont mince meat are made and shipped to all parts of the country.

It is a lesson in higher mathematics to go into the store rooms and try to count the tubs and tubs of mince meat, the hundreds of cartons filled with candies or other maple products ready for shipment. It is a revelation to the layman to inspect the different departments where the candies are made from the first stages of simple fondant to the intricate process of chocolate dipping. It is also a pleasure to learn that many of the present employees have been with Maple Grove since the first days of the enterprise at the farm. Mrs. Powell now holds an important official position in each of the three corporations, while Miss McLaren, in addition to her vice-presidency of the Maple Grove Candies, Inc., is superintendent of the candy factory.

Only a woman with a versatile brain, a wealth of imagination and the executive ability of a genius could conceive and maintain a business of such magnitude and multiform character. But more than all this, Mrs. Gray maintains a household with apparently the greatest ease and efficiency which not only commands the deepest admiration of her friends but quite thoroughly routs the one-time theory that a woman cannot 'keep house' and have a career at the same time. The Powells make their home with their mother and the two Powell children, Donald and Katharine, have found a big place in the heart of their grandmother. Her face sparkles with delight when she relates something of their little activities.

To these mature years Mrs. Gray has brought a wealth of experience. Born of one of the finest families of northern Vermont she has had the advantages which social position and prestige always give. During the years in which her uncle Judge Henry C. Ide was Governor General of the Philippines she was one of the first white women, with the exception of the wife of Gen. Corbin, to cross the island of Mindanao through the Moro country in an army wagon when a military escort was constantly necessary. She has traveled extensively in the orient, in China and Japan, and knows her own country from coast to coast. Until the details of her business occupied so much of her time she was actively interested in all civic affairs of her town and community.

With this background of education and culture Mrs. Gray has contributed to Vermont something which is priceless; she is the personification of the truth that a woman can be a devoted mother and home-maker, and at one and the same time assist tremendously in developing the natural resources of her state to such an extent that she is recognized as an essentially outstanding figure in Vermont's economic and industrial world. It is inevitable that a person who has done all this must command and hold the attention of all who know her, or, of her.