For 20 years the wooden pieces for every Scrabble set in North America were manufactured in Fairfax, Vermont. This is the last of a three-part series that explores the factory’s history through the stories of the people who shaped its fortunes. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
The building is long and low, set back in its clearing on a flat parcel of piney woods. Its brown sheet metal walls blend with the sandy parking lot. It could belong to any industrial park in suburban America, circa 1985.
Inside, however, the place feels brand new. The front door opens into a cavernous office, freshly painted, bright and busy. Across the room, two young women laugh together at something on a monitor. A man paces with a phone at a raised desk. In a display area by the entry a woman arranges stylish bottles: clear glass, embossed with white etchings of barrels, herbs and flowers. It could be another Vermont microbrewery — in some sense it is — but these are bottles of syrup, the products of Runamok Maple, which moved into its Fairfax facility over the summer of 2018.
On a recent afternoon a man in his 50s with glasses and a moustache waited at the visitors’ table by the front door. His accent marks him as a native Vermonter, and he’s particularly native to this spot: Stephen Bessette graduated high school in Fairfax in June 1980, turned 18 on July 7, and came to work in this building on July 8. He stayed on, employed by a succession of businesses as the facility changed hands, for more than 30 years. In the building’s heyday Bessette had been the chief molder technician, overseeing the machines that produced the tiles and racks for every Scrabble set in North America.
Bessette’s career ended abruptly in 2014, while he was employed by one of the woodworking businesses that operated here in the years after the Milton Bradley plant shut down. One February day, as he moved around a machine to the measuring table, he got tripped up. He was carrying a pair of sharp cutting heads, and threw them away from his body as he fell, but before he could brace himself he crashed headlong into a shelving unit, breaking his neck. He emerged from surgery and 10 months of rehab with a walker and two forearm crutches.
Five years later Bessette still can’t feel much in his hands or feet, but he has plenty of energy and gets around on his own, stopping now and again to lean on his cane. He has a ready laugh, and on this day he radiated enthusiasm and curiosity. He was taking a tour of his old workplace, and it was already clear that a lot had changed.
A compact, genial man greeted Bessette in the entry. Zak Hayward, the director of operations for Runamok Maple, is another Vermonter, from Montpelier. He’s a generation younger than Bessette, and didn’t come straight from high school — he attended Tufts University and studied sugar maple physiology and production at Sterling College — but they share a profound interest in this place. Hayward is responsible for every square foot of the facility Bessette knows so well. For Hayward, the tour was an opportunity to learn a few things, and he was curious to hear about the building’s glory days.
Standing in the entry, Bessette remarked that the walls in the front section had been rearranged. Hayward pointed toward the far end of the room. It was there, he said, when they took down the wall between the old bathroom and the building’s exterior, that they had discovered a single Scrabble tile, the last one left in the whole facility, as far as he knew.
“It was an A,” Hayward said. “Not for production, I think. It had blue paint on it.”
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Bessette was looking around, taking in the changes. “We used to make millions of ‘em,” he said.
Hayward had Bessette stop off in a washroom, put on a hairnet and remove his watch on the way to the factory floor. Inside, the spaces were larger and more open than in the Scrabble days. Hayward said that when Runamok arrived every surface was coated with fine hardwood sawdust; now the facility is spotless, steel trusses painted bright yellow against the white walls.
Bessette and Hayward walked out toward the bottling line, a string of gleaming steel machines at one end of the room. Here the syrup is heated in two 400-gallon kettles before it’s infused with one of a wild array of flavors — elderberry, makrut lime leaf, cinnamon-vanilla, cardamom, hibiscus — on its way to the filler machine, where it’s poured and capped in bottles.
Bessette raised his voice over the machinery.
“There were two machines, side by side, just making Scrabble racks,” he said. “There was the 17, which was for the standard game, and there was the 71, which was smaller, so it could fit under the turntable for the deluxe version.”
When Bessette realized this system was inefficient — “53% of that block we used was waste” — he talked through the problem with the plant’s manager, Tom Fetters, then designed a universal rack to be used with both games.
The two men crossed the cement floor to Runamok’s other production line, for candy. Here syrup is heated in pair of steel kettles, set up high off the floor, then quickly cooled and stirred to form the right crystals for fondant (a thick, toffee-like substance) before it’s heated again to fill eight cavities at a time on mold sheets,160 molds per tray. Workers chip the candy out of the molds into baskets, dip the baskets in liquid syrup (adding a crystal coating that extends shelf life), spread the candies out on trays to dry, and pack them into boxes for shipping.
The maple tree has several rival uses. As the market dictates, a tree could become furniture, firewood, or lumber; it could be tapped for sap, cleared for building (or left alone) by private landowners. In Vermont, many trees are protected, drawing tourists to public lands. In Hayward’s time, as in Bessette’s, the factory steers a commodity derived from the tree — syrup, or wood — toward its most valued use in the market.
In the old days, Bessette said, demand for Scrabble was basically constant, but at various times, the plant also produced everything from Parchisi pawns — “a pain in the ass to make,” he said — to the Playskool Cobbler’s Bench. Its last major product line, in the mid-’90s, was Jenga. One of Bessette’s ongoing challenges was to retool the machinery to accommodate the shifting mix of production.
The scale of production for Scrabble is hard to fathom: for years the Fairfax plant manufactured a million tiles a day, and tens of thousands of racks. Four or five tractor-trailer loads were shipped each week to the Milton Bradley plant in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, where they were packed with their playing boards into boxes for sale. That’s 10,000 Scrabble sets a day, absorbed for decades into the North American market. The plant ran around the clock, with as many as 150 employees spread across three shifts.
On this afternoon, as it approached five o’clock, most of Runamok’s workers were cleaning up to go home. Bessette and Hayward came to the back of the building, to a long, narrow warehouse full of syrup, stacked in 55-gallon drums. Runamok maintains 80,000 taps in Cambridge, in Lamoille County, producing 40,000-45,000 gallons of syrup each year, but they’ve outgrown that supply — today they purchase a majority of the syrup from outside producers.
The two men passed a room where syrup aged in oak barrels. Here and there syrup oozed between the staves to form sticky puddles on the cement floor.
“There’s a little bit of syrup here,” Bessette said, “enough for one or two pancakes.”
Hayward laughed. “Turns out wooden barrels aren’t too syrup tight.”
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Hayward patted an exposed stud with his hand. This was where the walls had once stood for a 10-by-12 room used for planing lumber, he said. The room was a box holding a planing machine, insulated on the inside, with small holes cut in two walls so workers could pass boards through from one end and retrieve it from the other without entering.
“That baby used to bark,” Bessette said. “When you’re planing maple, it’s loud.”
They stopped at the loading dock in the back, looking out at the empty lumber yard. Bessette leaned out to look at the huge steel dust collector that still stood against the building: “When we were hopping, we’d fill two big dumpsters with sawdust a day.”
Finally they came to Hayward’s office. The old wooden desk was once Bessette’s, it turns out. Hayward pulled a piece of maple from the corner, maybe one inch square and a couple feet long. He’d kept it aside, thinking it could have been a leftover blank for Scrabble racks.
“Nope,” Bessette said. “That’s just a random piece somebody made.”
Hayward produced another, shorter piece of maple. “How about this?”
Bessette laughed. It was just a piece he had rigged up as a “hold down” for one of the old machines, he said.
Hayward threw up his hands. “It could have been Scrabble letters!”
Bessette, standing in his old office, resting a moment on his cane, was still laughing. He took the piece of maple from Hayward.
“OK. I give it my blessing: it was!”
Dedication: For my father, Nick Heintz
Corrections: Runamok Maple does not produce a pecan-flavored syrup; it does produce a syrup smoked with pecan wood. Also, the location of its sugarbush was incorrect in the original version of this article. Its taps are in Lamoille County, not Franklin County.