Contributed by Sara Miller, Historic Village Program Administrator
Did you know that February 27th is National Pancake Day? I can see a plate of warm pancakes drizzled in maple syrup and my stomach starts to rumble. Yum! But maple syrup is a relatively new thing in a tradition that spans back centuries. Let me take you on a journey through time as we explore the American tradition of maple sugaring.
Before we look at the tradition of maple sugaring, let’s get a little bit of information on the tree that makes this all possible, the sugar maple (acer saccharum). The sugar maple is distinguishable from other trees due to its bright red and yellow colors in the fall, and its helicopter seeds in the spring. They thrive in the Northeast where winters are cold, but can be found as far south as Tennessee and as far west as Missouri and Minnesota. Throughout the summer months trees gather sunlight in their leaves through the process of photosynthesis and use this to create basic starches (mainly sucrose) in order to maintain the normal functions of the tree. In the fall when the trees’ leaves begin to fall, the tree enters into a hibernation state where it is not growing but still living. Some of the basic starches are stored in the tree to facilitate the budding of leaves in the spring. Over the winter months however these starches freeze. Once the tree begins to thaw in the early spring the starches begin to flow again within the trees. This is the sap which sugar-makers gather each spring. While this process happens in all trees, the sugar maple is quite unique in the fact that it has a relatively high level of sucrose (sugar) in its sap. How did people figure all of this out and start making maple sugar and maple syrup? Well, let’s find out!
Native Americans are credited with being the first human sugar-makers and according to Iroquois legend they learned from squirrels. It is believed that a youth watched a squirrel one day as it broke a twig off of a maple tree and licked the sap. Curious, the youth imitated the squirrel and found that the sap was sweet. This youth went on to become the first sugar-maker. Using what they had available to them, stone and wood-carved implements, the Native Americans would cut diagonal slashes into a maple tree with a tomahawk and then insert a piece of bark or twig. This piece would direct the flow of sap away from the tree and down into a water-tight birch bark basket. They found however, that sap in its liquid form would quickly go bad and was difficult to transport. Therefore, they had to come up with a way to boil out the excess water and create a hard sugar which was both easy to carry and able to last. Again, using what was readily available, which was hallowed out tree trunks, they would heat a specifically chosen type of rock in a large fire and then place them inside the hallowed out trunk containing the sap. The sap would begin to steam and boil causing the water to evaporate and the remaining sugar to become solidified.
Early European colonists learned maple sugaring from the Native Americans and it became one of the first “crops” harvested. They would set up camps out in the sugar-brush and similarly slash the trees with an ax. By 1790 however, they began to realize that slashing was not good for the tree’s health and that they were actually killing the trees. Maple sugaring was too important to give up for it provided an income at a time of year where nothing else could be planted and growing; so a new and better way had to be developed. It was found that using a drill to make only a half-inch hole would not harm the tree and this method has stuck since then. Once a hole was drilled into the tree, a wooden spile (tap) was placed into the hole which allowed the sap to flow into hollowed out logs. Sugar-makers would gather the sap daily using a yoke and wooden buckets and bring it to their camp for boiling. The women would already have three large kettles set up over a fire and as the sap in one bucket reached a certain temperature it would be ladled into the second and then the third where once it began to thicken it would be ladled into wooden molds to make maple-sugar.
This was the process until roughly 1850 when technology brought us metal taps and buckets, and large metal flat pans for sugar making. Flat pans were placed onto stone arches under which a fire was built. The sap would be poured into the flat pan and the greater boiling surface area allowed for greater efficiency in sugar making. Once again, things stayed pretty much the same until the 1920s with the advent of refrigeration. Refrigeration allowed sugar-makers to preserve and therefore lengthen the life of syrup. This coupled with the decrease in cane sugar prices eventually led to the transition away from sugar making and to syrup making. Now that the focus has shifted onto syrup making, improvements needed to be made in the sap collecting itself. Due to the amount of water in sap, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make a mere 1 gallon of syrup! That is an awful lot of hauling sap back and forth in buckets, and many sugar-makers felt that it was a waste of time and energy. Hence the invention of tubing systems; why not let gravity do the work for you. This is still how sap is collected today.
Now if your stomach is now rumbling for pancakes worry not, at our lumberjack breakfast during our upcoming Maple Weekend (March 24-25) there will be plenty of pancakes and maple syrup available. Once your stomach is satisfied make sure you visit me outside as you walk the maple history trail. You will be able to see first-hand everything that I’ve talked about here and even get a chance to try your hand at tapping a tree yourself. It is sure to be a fun-filled and memorable weekend.
 Eleni Angelos Healey; Maple Sugaring: Tapping into an American Tradition; (Middletown: Connecticut, 2011); 15.
 Ibid; 17-18.
 Ibid; 55.
 Ibid; 56-59.
 Ibid; 63-65.
 Ibid; 68.
 Ibid; 53.
 Ibid; 70.