Our family has always enjoyed making maple syrup. My father and his brothers remembered being part of the big maple sugar operation at his grandfather’s farm in the 1920s. The project went on for days with the children being kept home from school to help with the round the clock chores connected with making maple sugar.
Making maple sugar is not an effortless undertaking. Suitable maple trees must be located, tapped and the sap carried to the sugar house where huge quantities of firewood are needed to boil the sap down into maple syrup and maple sugar. 40 gallons of sap are needed to make 1 gallon of syrup or 5 to 6 pounds of sugar. A typical farm family can be expected to make 200 pounds of sugar a year, plenty for their own use and plenty to sell. Best of all sugar making takes place in late winter when farm work is slow.
Warm days and frosty nights are necessary for the sugar maple to make sweet water. Twenty degrees at night and 40 degrees during the day is necessary for the sugar maple to produce a good quantity of sweet water. Although maple trees grow in Europe and mountainous sections of our southern states, they do not have the temperature fluctuations necessary to produce the flow of sap.
Early settlers learned about maple sugar from the Native Americans. In a 1751 report, a Swedish botanist, Peter Kalm wrote “The savages from prehistoric times, long before the Europeans discovered America, made maple sugar. The Europeans have now learned the method and nearly all of them, where this tree grows, make a large quantity of sugar each year.”
The Indians discovered maple sugar from observing nature. They may have observed birds and squirrels eating sugar crystals formed during evaporation in the wounds of Sugar Maples trees. Native Americans could have also observed that broken branches dripped sap sometimes forming sweet icicles.
Accounts of missionaries, Indian captives and fur traders as early as the 1550s described the American Indian’s technique for making maple sugar. Native Americans would make a couple of chops across the bark of the maple tree placing a birch bark basket where it would catch the sap. Meat was boiled in the sweet liquid, the sweet water then poured over the snow or mixed with corn meal, chestnuts and berries to make what we might call a granola bar.
Native Americans actually lived on sugar during the winter months when food was scarce or non existent. In the 1800s some Indians poured the sugar into wooden molds making all sorts of shapes such as bear paws, flowers, stars, small animals and other figures.
Europeans refined the process of making maple sugar by using copper or iron kettles in place of birch bark and wood. The settlers also used an auger to bore small holes in the tree rather than the slash of the ax. The small holes did not kill the trees as the ax slashes did. In modern times maple syrup is collected by plastic tubes running from the trees to a central collection point and then directly into the boiling room.
Before the Civil War, most sap was made into the less expensive maple sugar. After the Civil War the cost of cane sugar fell and from then on most of the maple sap was made into maple syrup.
A twist to the story of the history of Maple Syrup involves our second president Thomas Jefferson. Following the colonial period in our county’s history, the Quakers of Philadelphia and Dr. Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson endeavored to promote the production and consumption of Maple Sugar over cane sugar. The purpose of this was to destroy the institution of negro slavery. Cane sugar was produced by Negro slaves while maple sugar was produced by free men. They thought by destroying the consumption of cane sugar, negro slavery would be destroyed.
In 1789, when Jefferson returned to this country from France where he served as the United States Minister to France he joined Rush’s Society for Promoting the Manufacturing of Sugar from the Sugar Maple Tree. Rush and the Quakers were abolitionists and in his own way so was Jefferson. The plan was for farmers to produce maple sugar for the United States and even a surplus to export.
The plan appealed to Jefferson, his love of Botany and his personal admiration for the yeoman farmer whom he believed to be the backbone of the American Republic. It also was a product that could be produced without the use of slaves.
With Jefferson’s help, Dr Benjamin Rush wrote a pamphlet that encouraged farmers to help farmers start their own operation. On a trip north with James Madison, Jefferson spent several months in the New England States. He discussed the production of Maple Syrup with farmers of the area encouraging them to plant maple orchards just as they planted fruit orchards. Jefferson bought 60 maple saplings to start a maple orchard on the slopes of Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia home.
When my children were little, my husband and my father tapped our sugar maples for a little backyard maple syrup project. The maple sap was collected, boiled down on a kitchen stove in our garage and then canned in pint canning jars. We only made enough syrup for our own use, usually just a gallon or two. I will never forget the fragrance of that sap boiling down to syrup. To me it is always the fragrance of spring.