Monday, March 12, 2012

The Maple Sugar Season--A Nostalgic Look



Sugaring gets in your blood. When the first thaws of spring arrive, it’s time to get out in the woods and start making maple syrup. After being cooped up all winter, the outdoors and the sometimes heavy exercise of the sugar operation are most welcome.

I sugared for many years in Cleveland, and that is the activity and time of the year that I now miss most living in Taiwan. Looking at nineteenth-century and other early sugaring photographs, I can temporarily trade my all-too-real wool gathering for some imaginary sap gathering.



Everything needed to get started—a sugar house with a ventilator on top, a covered woodpile, early spring weather with some leftover rags of snow, and a ready crew.
  

These willing workers from Sutton, Quebec are standing by with their sap buckets. Notice that the woman on the end is a giant—literally head and shoulders above the rest!

 The sugaring process is very straightforward in essence. Maple syrup is simply the watery sap of the maple tree boiled down, nothing added except heat. To tap the trees, a small hole is drilled in the trunk of the tree, and a metal tube called a spile is inserted. A bucket is hung on the spile to collect the dripping sap.

William Augustus Balliet (1828-1918) from Woodcock Township, Pennsylvania, demonstrates his tapping technique.

The sap is laboriously gathered by carrying the full buckets through the spring woods. Because the trees are usually some distance from the sugar house, intermediate gathering tanks are employed. In the past these were placed on sledges and drawn by horses. The inverted-cone shape helped prevent sloshing when dragged over the uneven ground.

Murray C. Benjamin of Utica, New York checking a sap bucket. What sugaring stories this old-timer could tell.

Children love to help, but this one is bundled up so tightly I doubt he can move much.

The sap ultimately ends up at the sugar house. At first thin and watery, it is boiled down in large flat pans placed over the roaring fire of the evaporator, until the familiar syrup emerges. With a water-to-sugar ratio of roughly 35 to 1, so much steam is driven off that sugar houses are built with large ventilators on top for the steam to escape. These plumes of steam, visible for a considerable distance, are the surest sign that the season is underway.

Ready for a big season with plenty of wood, all cut by the Mr. Benjamin mentioned above. Clouds of steam show that the evaporator is already at work.


Oxen instead of horses, a better roof to protect the woodpile, and a clear view of the top ventilator before the evaporator has started.
 

These huge iron kettles, not to mention the old-fashioned costumes, were already archaic when this photo was taken. A romantic recreation of Colonial-era sugaring techniques.


In addition to processing the sugar, the maple season is a wonderful time to be out in the woods. In the early spring, everything is just beginning. The buds on the trees and the earliest spring flowers such as coltsfoot are starting to make an appearance. Small creeks run swiftly with melted snows, and one hears the sound of flowing and dripping water everywhere. The odor of the spring woods in unforgettable: sweet, fresh, rank and damp all at the same time. The maple-laden steam from the sugar house adds to this, and when one steps inside, the sweet fragrance is mingled with the sharp smoke and odors of burning wood.

With all the beauty, health and fun that the sugaring season has to offer, the bonus of the maple syrup itself seems almost superfluous. However, each drop of syrup that you have made yourself is imbued with the happy spirit of that all-too-brief time when the sap flows and fleeting opportunity gives a direction to your outdoor activities.



With no leaves or ground cover as yet, one can appreciate the undulating contours of the ground in the Spring woods.


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All photographs from my collection.

15 comments:

  1. Hello:
    What an absolutely fascinating account this is of 'sugaring' and so beautifully complemented by such brilliant archive photographs. This is a process about which we have scant knowledge but we can well imagine that frisson of excitement when the sap begins to rise and the Maple Syrup season starts for another year.

    As you say, there must be something incredibly liberating about being out in the Maple forests taking part in hard labour after being contained indoors through the long winter months. And oh, what delight it must be to taste that syrup!!!

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  2. Hello Jane and Lance, Yes, sugaring indeed is an exciting operation. England and Europe also have maples, but somehow the weather patterns over there are not conducive to success.

    In this post I never even got to the qualities of the syrup, or to describe the operations inside the sugarhouse. I have a lot of photos back in Ohio of the sugar bush I used to work in, and this summer I plan to scan them and plan a sequel to this post for next year.

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  3. Hello, Parnassus -

    Your posting evoked happy childhood memories of French toast served with Vermont Maid Maple Syrup! Your vintage photographs and wonderful descriptions certainly transport one to the season and the process (my toes are already getting cold!). I imagine the smells within the sugar house could be pretty intense.

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    1. Hello Mark, That's one of the features of sugaring. When you get chilled, you can warm up in the sugar house, with its wood-burning evaporator and clouds of steam. You mention Vermont Maid--my own memories are of Log Cabin syrup. Incidentally, I hope you have graduated to real maple syrup by now!

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    2. Ooops! Well, I wasn't the one buying the syrup (or a semblance of it) in the 1950s, but I have in fact graduated. A former coworker has in-laws in Canada who make the real deal, and I've benefitted greatly from that!

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  4. How fascinating. I did not know about the production of maple syrup, although I have often pondered on it when I eat it on my French toast some Sunday mornings. Your own participation in the activity is an interesting one too; multi-talented obviously.

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    1. Hello Columnist, Yes, it is a fascinating process. The product must be highly valued to go to all this effort to get it. Luckily, sugaring comes more under the category of "having fun" than "requiring talent", so I am not let out.

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  5. I spent several weekends over the years helping family friends sugar off at their gentleman's farm in Vermont. Most enjoyable, wonderful smells, lovely heat and sounds. And all that marvelous nature. Oh, and the perfect opportunity to sample maple syrup-based cocktails, too!

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    1. Hello Reggie, As you suggest, sugaring is just as much a social occasion as a productive one. Unless you are one of the few that are addicted to high technology, sugaring is one of the few remaining occupations for which the technology of the 19th century is still in use, and even that of the 18th century for some small operations.

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  6. Love those photos. I'm not fluent in the process but we switched to using only honey and maple syrup for our sweeteners a couple years ago. Sometimes I go crazy and feather in agave... at any rate, wonderful to see the process come alive! The midwest produces some great syrup, my favorite currently is Klebenow's of Wisconsin! http://www.klebenowssugarbush.com/

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  7. Hello Ann, Although not as well-known as New England, the Mid-West is also an important producer of maple products. I just read a book by Susan Hauser about syrup production in Minnesota, and she expresses the same feeling that time seems to stand still when the short maple season arrives.

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  8. What wonderful memories you have evoked. I grew up in Montreal, Quebec. Every spring we would go "sugaring off" Remember the treats we would make with syrup swirled on snow?

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  9. Hello Sandra, The syrup-on-snow (also called maple wax) you remember is a classic, and I also recall brewing tea with partially boiled sap. I tried crystallizing down to maple sugar a few times, but candy making is a real art, and I never really developed the knack for it.

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  10. Hi Jim, I can't help but be reminded of my recent lessons in sugar cane processing down in Florida. I always wonder when I read something like this just who the first person was to figure out there was such a precious substance in a maple tree. And do you know if a maple tree can be sugared year after year? And the giantess!! Wow. Barbara

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    1. Hello Barbara, Those great naturalists the Indians were the ones who first made maple sugar. The same trees can be tapped each year--one should look for older healing tap holes and drill in a new area.

      The boiling down process does have similarities with the sugar industry in the South. In the old days, however, maple was emblematic of the small, independent farmer, while cane sugar symbolized the slave-plantation system of the South. --Jim

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