The sweet taste of spring

Vermont Maple Sugar Camp, 1900-1906, Photo from the Library of Congress- the Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection.

Laura Dean Bennett
Contributing Writer

No one knows for sure how long people have been making maple syrup.

We do know that no where else in the world is maple syrup made except in North America and that Native Americans were already collecting and boiling maple sap for food and drink when European settlers arrived.

The first written description of maple syrup being made in North America was written in 1634 by a catholic priest, Father Paul Le Jeune, in his journal, Jesuit Relations. 

Le Jeune described members of the Montagnais and Innu tribes of Ontario “[eating] the shavings or bark of a certain tree, which they call Michtan, which they split in the spring to get from it a juice, sweet as honey or as sugar.”

The Native Americans taught the French settlers how to tap the trunk of trees at springtime, how to collect the maple water and how to boil it down. 

The Indians collected maple sap by slashing the tree bark with a hatchet and allowing the sap to flow down through wooden spouts of hollowed sumac or elder stems into a hollowed out log. 

Then they would boil off the water by adding heated rocks to the log container.

This practice rapidly became a part of frontier life for the settlers. The syrup and the sugar cakes made from it were an important source of sugar in the 17th and 18th century.

In Montreal, by the 1670s, there was a thriving manufacturing business of making maple sugar “loaves” to be shipped home to France, where it was considered a great delicacy.

During the 1850s, seven hundred members of the Ottawa tribe at Ft. Michlimackinac, Michigan, produced for export 325,000 pounds of maple sugar in one year.

The English were a bit slower to adopt maple sugaring in the Americas. Consumption of maple sugar among the English didn’t become commonplace until the mid 1750s. 

By the 19th century, maple sugar produced in North America may have totaled more than 10 million pounds annually.

Native Americans told many wonderful stories about how their people began making maple syrup. 

One of the most popular is the Algonquin legend of Glooskap. 

The story goes that the Creator had originally made life much easier for man. 

He gave the people maple trees filled all year long with sweet syrup – all they had to do was cut a hole in the maple tree and the syrup dripped out. One day the young prince, Glooskap, came upon a village of his people that was strangely silent. 

There were no dogs barking, no children playing, no women minding the cook fires and no signs that the men had been hunting. 

He finally found everyone in a nearby maple grove. They were all lying at the bases of the trees and letting the sweet syrup drip into their mouths. Even the dogs were enjoying the syrup. 

“Get up, people,” Glooskap called. “There is work to be done.” 

But no one moved.

Now Glooskap became angry at the people’s laziness. He made a large bark trough and, as he had special powers, he flew to the lake, filled the trough with water and flew back over the maple grove. 

He poured the water over the maple trees and it magically diluted the syrup so it was no longer sweet. 

Glooskap then admonished the people. 

“Now, people, you will get up! Because of your laziness, the maple trees will no longer hold syrup, but only sap. Now, if you want the syrup, you will have to work for it by boiling the sap. What’s more, the sap will soon run dry. You will only be able to make syrup at one time during the year – only at the end of winter, just before spring.”

Yet another legend tells the tale of a chief who removed his tomahawk from the trunk of a maple tree, where he had thrown it the night before. 

As the sun got higher, the sap began to drip from the gash in the tree. The Chief’s wife tasted it and decided to use it to cook a piece of meat. 

As the meat was cooked, the sap boiled down to a syrup. The delicious sweet scent and taste of the maple-cooked meat so delighted the Chief that he named it Sinzibuckwuda, meaning “drawn from trees.” 

This became the name used by many Native American tribes when referring to maple syrup.

Some made maple sugar and packed it into birch bark containers that each could hold 20 to 30 pounds of maple sugar for storage. 

The Ojibways of the Great Lakes, the Wyandots of the Detroit River, and the Indians at Pidgeon Lake, were similar in how they processed the maple sap. 

Each spring, as winter began to lose its icy grasp, the maple began to rise. Native American families migrated to the maple forests where they erected camps and lived in wigwams made of bark. 

They prepared troughs, collected the sap, and brought it to the fire, while the most experienced women regulated the heat under the boiling maple water.

Sometimes the sap was made to boil by placing hot stones in the mixture. Freshly heated stones were constantly added, while the cooler ones were fished out and reheated. 

Early Native Americans preferred the taste of maple sugar to salt and when possible, used maple on meat and fish.

The early settlers observed the Native Americans and imitated their methods. 

Just as we do today, they boiled 40 gallons of sap until it became one gallon of syrup. This was a time consuming and labor intensive operation. 

Things didn’t change much for the first two hundred years of recorded maple making. 

Then, during the Civil War, an invention called the tin can arrived.

Tin was made of sheet metal. 

It didn’t take syrup makers long to realize that a large flat sheet metal pan was more efficient for boiling than a heavy rounded iron kettle which let much of the heat slide past.

Most of the first American syrup makers were dairy farmers who made syrup and sugar during the off season of the farm for their own use and for extra income. 

These farmers looked at a process and said to themselves, “There has to be a easier way to do this.” 

In about 1864, Canadians borrowed some design ideas from sorghum molasses evaporators and put a series of baffles in the flat pans to channel the boiling sap. 

In 1872, a Vermonter developed an evaporator with two pans and a metal arch or firebox which greatly decreased boiling time. 

Seventeen years later, in 1889, another Canadian bent the tin that formed the bottom of a pan into a series of flues which increased the heated surface area of the pan and further decreased boiling time.

Maple syrup technology stayed at this point for almost a century. 

In the 1970s, there was a surge of technological breakthroughs. 

Tubing systems, which had been around experimentally since the early part of the century, were perfected, making it possible to bring the sap directly from the tree to the evaporator house. 

Vacuum pumps were added to the tubing systems. Pre-heaters were developed to “recycle” heat lost in the steam. Reverse-osmosis filters were developed to take a portion of water out of the sap before it was boiled. 

Several commercial producers even obtained surplus desalinization machines from the U.S. Navy and used them to take a portion of water out of the sap prior to boiling. In fact, one is still in use by a producer South-East of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

In northern regions it is possible to collect maple water and make syrup even in the fall after there have been hard frosts and even during a mild winter.

But maple sugaring in fall and winter is very uncertain because there can be a cold snap at any time. It is usually not worth the effort and is hardly ever done, unless out of necessity, to provide sugar for the household. 

Molasses, brown sugar and white sugar were available to early Americans but they had to be purchased and were usually very expensive. Honey was collected from beehives but honey was difficult to store and transport. 

White sugar was the most expensive and was reserved for only very special occasions or guests. 

Since it was often a year or more between trips to a town, settlers were lucky to be able to make their own sugar. 

And these days, we are still lucky. 

Right here in Pocahontas County, our maple syrup producers are making some of the most delicious elixir a person ever tasted. We can go to their farms and watch the sugar water being rendered, we can buy the precious liquid and take it home and pour it over our pancakes.
I think Pocahontas County maple syrup is the best tasting maple syrup in the world. Of course, I may be somewhat biased in this opinion, nevertheless, I know I am right.

Many Native American tribes called the March full moon, the Maple Moon. And some held gatherings during the Maple Moon time to celebrate the gift of the trees which give sugar.

For them, making maple syrup was, as it still is for us today, a sweet annual ritual that heralded the end of winter and the arrival of spring.


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