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Oil Painting entitled "Grandfather's Sugar Bush" by Cecile HERZIG "Moore".
Maple Syrup Time
Looking Back
March 2009
Joyce M. Tice

In 1737 when native populations occupied this area, Conrad Weiser, an Indian interpreter “on an embassy from the colonial government to the Six Nations at Onondaga,” obtained “the juice of the maple” from the Indians. The Oscalui tribe lived in what is now North Towanda where the name Sugar Creek reminds us of the abundant maples from which they made the sweet product they shared with him.

From the earliest days of settlement in our area, maple sugar was an important agricultural product both for use on the homestead and for trade. In fact, when early spring came and other provisions had run out, beans, even those saved for seed, and the freshly made maple sugar might be the family’s only source of sustenance remaining in the larder. It was also their cash crop by which they could obtain essential staples at the trading store when all was depleted. The men would carry the first batch of newly-made sugar to the trading post on their backs while the women stayed on the homestead producing more. March was a desperate time for early homesteaders, and this first product of the new year saved their lives.

Maple sugar season is the first event in the agricultural cycle. That has scarcely changed in the two centuries we have been here. It comes when it is too early to start anything else. December through January wood can be cut and made ready for the sap to flow. Buckets and kettles can be washed, cleaned and sterilized. Most farmers kept a sugar bush of several hundred maple trees, and they built their fires in the area of the trees so that they did not have far to carry the buckets.

In earliest times, wooden buckets were hung on wooden spiles to collect the sap. The sap was boiled over a fire in a great iron kettle. In later times, metal buckets were used for collection, and shallow metal pans were arranged on stone arches under which the fire was built for the evaporation process. These tools resulted in a product that might not look familiar to us. It was much darker than we see now, more the color of chocolate in fact. The wooden buckets discolored it, and the leaves and other debris that fell in the open buckets might not be completely removed. As early as 1841 articles in local papers talked about the filth that discolored the product and the necessity of cleanliness to produce a finer lighter sugar.

The sugar bush was the scene of great socialization. It was party time. Couples courted and friendships were renewed after a long winter of isolation. In 1852, Catherine Ludyard commented in a newspaper article, that one might be surprised at the number of friends they had when the first sugaring off was announced. Everyone gathered for that first taste of warm sugar. Scarcely a one of the several hundred diaries I have collected fails to mention the first warm sugar of the season, and they list every guest who came to share the treat.

In 1891 Ephraim Smith of Sullivan Township produced 1000 pounds of sugar, and that was not unusual for a serious operation.  Clymer Township in Tioga County floated thousands of pound annually down river to Elmira, Corning and Painted Post. Emerson Smith’s 1904 diary recounts that a peddler came by selling books on doctoring horses, cows and such and that he paid for it in maple sugar.

Maple sugar production was serious and important business, but that did not keep anyone from enjoying it. 

Additional Articles below
As the following newspaper excerpts demonstrate, some as early as 1841, the process of producing maple sugar has scarcely changed.

1841 April 21

The Farmer
From the New Genesse Farmer
Maple Sugar
The following communication contains excellent hints on the subject of making maple sugar. The two leading requisites for success, we believe to be, boiling the sap as fresh from the tree as possible, and the most punctilious cleanliness in all the  different operations. ---- We recommend the remarks of our correspondent to those interested, as well as A.S. Chew, from the Ohio Farmer, published last year on page 45 of this journal. We believe it to be as easy and economical by proper management, to make beautiful, white, crystallized maple sugar, as the common, dirty looking, brown substance, which is not generally in fact, the very cleanest production of the material world.
Messrs. Editors:--- Having seen in your paper an enquiry for making a vat or box for boiling sap, and having long wondered that so little attention was given to making maple sugar, I give some of my own experience in relation to it. I have been surprised to see so little disposition to improve the usual mode of catching the sap in troughs, and boiling it in kettles hung on a pole, by which it is filled with all manner of filth, and the article of maple sugar, the purest of all sweets, rendered unwholesome and forbidding as it comes into market.

From twenty years’ experience and observation, using kettles in various ways, I have adopted sheet iron pans, which are here coming into common use, and have been used for ten or twelve years with good success. Pans with sheet iron bottoms and wooded sides did not succeed well. The pans are simply a sheet of Russia Iron, turned up at the sides and ends about three inches, and will hold about three pails while boiling. A rim of band iron is riveted around, about one inch wide, with rings as handles. The cost of a pan is about $4. Two or three are set lengthwise on an arch, built of stone; from one and a half to two feet in depth, and about twenty inches in breadth, the pan being about twenty-two inches. The arch should be even on top, and a wide bar of wrought or cast iron across the arch between and under the pans to prevent the heat from the fire reaching the sides. The pans are slid off when empties. One of these will boil about as much as a cauldron kettle.

I have for some years past used six, set three on an arch, side by side, and have about six hundred trees with buckets for the same, and average about twelve hundred pounds per year of sugar, which fetches eleven cents per lb., and the profits are from $80 to $100. This is done at a season of the year when little else can be done on a farm.

The sugar boiled in pans, I believe to ----------- better than in kettles, other things being equal. To make maple sugar as it should be, much care is needed to keep every thing used about it clean and sweet, and the sap should be boiled as soon as it can be to prevent fermentation. Maple sap of itself has no color, and if it could be crystallized without stain, would be white and transparent, and the sweet of the purest kind. Much is said about cleansing sugar, but the better remedy is to keep it clean. Pearlash[?] or saleratus put into the syrup while over the fire, will remove the acidity caused by fermentation.

Tioga Eagle 1852 29 April
Maple Sugar
By Catherine Ludyard
Those correspondents who write from Paris, Washington, or other localities of note, always describe the amusements, occupations and topics of the day and place, so I, writing from ________, feel myself in duty bound to touch upon the theme which just now absorbs so large a share of the public attention, viz., maple sugar. People who have never tasted the article, save in the shape of the hard black cakes sold under the name at a distance from the site of manufacture, have little conception of its excellence. I met with a person of that sort lately, one to whose palate “wax,” “syrup” and “molasses” were utter strangers, and to whose ear the words ‘warm sugar’ conveyed an adequate impression. I immediately took from the cupboard shelf a bowl of inky looking fluid and proceeded to enlighten him as to the merits of at least one phase of the subject.

Sugar making is carried on in the short interval between the winter work of chopping and drawing wood and the spring labor of ploughing, sowing, etc. The day before the trees are tapped is devoted to purifying operations on the g----dest circle, all buckets destined for the reception of the pan being washed and rinsed and scalded and rinsed again, till they are clean and “sweet” as hands can make them. They are then conveyed to the woods, the trees are tapped, and the sap has liberty to run as freely as it chooses. Warm days and freezing nights are most favorable for sugar weather; this season, however has been unprecedently cold, and the flow is in consequence extremely lazy. When the buckets are full which they generally are in a day or two “the boys” set out with all necessary means[?] and ammunition in the way of kettles, skimmers, Lucifer matches, etc. Those who are bookishly inclined, carry along a pamphlet, novel or a newspaper, by way of mental pabulum during the interval of their labors, and all agree in bearing with them as many dozens of doughnuts and ginger cookies as the larder can furnish forth. Wonderful is the consumption thereof, and appetizing must be the effect of the soft spring air, since the well filled basket comes home at night quite guiltless of anything more substantial than a few scattered crumbs.

Arrived  in the “bush” the “boys” aforesaid [who comprise all the male members of the household] unload their kettles, build a fire under the big caldron and empty the sap into it -- the kettle I mean, not the fire. Their labors for the first day or two are comparatively light, being confined to watching the fire, giving an occasional look at the boiling sap and emptying such buckets as are overflowing with the liquid treasure. But after that, if the “sugaring off” is conducted in the woods, as it ------ fine weather their cares increase. The syrup, which is merely sap that has undergone a certain amount of evaporation, must be carefully strained into one of the smaller kettles, and an extra fire of hard wood built under it, once the refuse stuff used for the first boiling would fill the sugar with coals and ashes, an indefinite number of spoons are then carved from the nearest chips it being quite out of order to ear sugar with a spoon of silver, iron, or brittania[?] metal or in fact with any spoon save the spatula shaped article in question.

When matters are in this state of preparedness, word is dispatched to the house for all who choose to come and they are not a few. A number of guests are frequently in waiting [“sugar time” being as good as a legacy for refreshing the memory of forgetful friends] and gladly do all obey the summons and proudly do they bear the saucers that are to hold their share of booty.

O those delightful afternoons in the bush. The dead leaves rustling beneath the tread, the fallen trees, whose mossy trunks offer the most luxurious of cushions, the golden sunshine and blue sky, the soft airs wandering everywhere, the pleasant odor of the boiling sweets, the saucers of replenished with syrup and molasses, the sugar warm and creamy, melting in the mouth, the merry voices of the party, and the heated faces of the -luckless wag to who tend the kettle, all these form a picture whose remembrance, this cold day, causes a pang of regret, as I compare it with this year’s proceedings.

No pleasant wood walks, no joyous guests, no mild spring weather have we had, only a kettle of syrup has hung above the kitchen fire, and  J--------- and I have tried a spoonful now and then to see if it were “thick enough.” O miserable contrast. But it is early in the  season yet, and better days may be in store, when we shall have our friends about us, and in their good company lose the memory of our solemn dread.

And now, having trespassed long enough on your forbearance, I will say good day.

1875 - 0316

Whole No. 1,103
Useful and Suggestive
Maple Sugar Making
In the New York “Homestead” we had reported the following discussion of “The Best Method of Manufacturing Maple Sugar.” by the Deerfield Valley Framers’ Institute: D. Canedy, of Heath, stated that the soil where the sugar maple grows, in his opinion, makes a vast deal of difference in the quality of the sap and sugar. The most important point to be observed in making sugar is cleanliness, perfect cleanliness. He set 230 tubs last season to his 160 trees, and made 1,000 pounds of sugar. -- Bores the holes one to one and a half inches, and leaves all the chips in the hole to prevent it from drying up; and would gather the sap as soon as possible after it runs, and boil it to sugar without ever letting it cool, and in this way he gets the whitest and best sugar. Uses the common pan and heater, preferring them to the evaporator, and used sweet milk to cleanse the syrup before boiling to sugar. Daniel Gale claimed maple to be the best of sugar, and has been engaged in its manufacture all his lifetime; has been experimenting the last two seasons on one instead ot two spouts to a tree, and is satisfied that one is the best. Sets 100 small trees, and used the galvanized iron spouts, and prefers them to wood, as the trees will run more sap than where wood is used. -- Boils his sap as soon as possible after it runs, in an evaporator with the patent regulator, and cakes the sugar into five-pound cakes, and when they are cool turns them over to dry; stirring sugar when it is cooling makes it whiter, but destroys the grain or crystals. Iron spouts cost $3.50 per hundred, and should be driven in carefully and perfectly tight. E.M. Smith, of Buckland, thinks he can get more sap from a tree by tapping just above where a large root prongs off; and puts in two spouts some distance apart. -- Agreed with the other speakers that the sooner sap is boiled after it runs the better, and never saw any cleansed or strained so clean that there would be no sediment at the bottom of the pan. He cleanses his syrup with eggs at the rate of two eggs to forty or fifty pounds of sugar. The best, and largest quantity of sugar, in his opinion, is made from trees growing on an eastern slope. Thorough cleanliness is indispensable, and the pan or evaporator can best be cleaned with a piece of coarse sand paper. Would bore the trees an inch and a half deep, and put two spouts to a tree, but Mr. Gale said this is too deep, and he would use only one spout, except in large trees, and would tap these only on opposite sides.

D. Canedy said he did not like to let the syrup coop and settle, for the oftener it cools the darker it will be. Has an orchard on a western slope that makes ten pounds of sugar to a barrel of sap; and the best sugar is from the first run for the last of the season; it is from sap just from the ground, and is darker colored. Finds it takes from one-half to three-fourths of a cord of wood to boil down 100 pounds of sugar. D. Gale gets an average of four pounds of sugar to a tree, and finds it takes nearly as much wood to boil a pan that is six feet long as one that is twelve. His greatest trouble is from a dirk sediment that burns on to the bottom of the pan, forming a hard coating that colors the sugar and needs to be scoured off often with sandpaper. S. Ward said he found it necessary to have a good draft to his chimney to keep up a good fire, so as to boil rapidly, for he agreed with the others that to make good sugar it must be boiled as soon as possible after it has run from the tree, and sugar it before it ever cools. Trees that are thrifty, and the wood white to the heart of the tree, will made the whitest sugar. Cleanliness is necessary in every particular, but he does not believe in putting in either milk or eggs to clease the syrup, as he had always had poor success when he used them. When the syrup is impure why add another impurity to cleanse it? L. Richmond agrees with the other speakers that cleanliness is the principal thing necessary to make good sugar, the same as to make good butter. J.J. Johnson spoke of the manner of cleansing cane sugar by using beef blood, and filtering it through bone black or charred bones, and of the old way of doing it with clay; suggested that the sediment, that nearly all complained of, that burns on the bottom of the pan and colors the sugar dark, is lime or some other mineral held in the solution of the sap that only chemical analysis can determine. D. Gale prefers trees that grow on a dry soil to make the whitest sugar, while R.M. Smith prefers those that grow on a gravelly soil near a clear running stream of water. Said he made 750 pounds from 100 tubs. E.E. Cooley thinks the difference in the color of the sugar is owing to the color of the wood. Old trees with dark wood will make dark sugar, while young trees with clear white wood will make white sugar. Prefers to put but one spout in a tree, and the best of the syrup rises to the top of the kettle or pan while boiling.

1883 Tioga County History. - Maple Sugar Industry in Clymer

The Farmer’s Column
The Sugar Bush
The value of the sugar maple as a farm crop is not often considered when the question of planting trees for profit is thought of. A few years will bring a sugar maple orchard into profitable condition. A 12-year-old maple will yield as much in value of sugar or syrup as an apple tree will of fruit and the maple will last longer, be less pestered with insects, and be quite as productive year by year as an apple tree.

As the maple sugar and syrup harvest approaches the question naturally arises. How can this harvest be best gathered and what is the best apparatus for the purpose? The old barbarous manner of slashing the trees with axes and fatally injuring them is rarely followed now, and the old sap troughs and wooden buckets are laid aside. The modern appliances -- the galvanized iron sap spouts and the covered tin buckets, with the copper evaporation pan, are now used with the very best results as regards the quality of the product and the ease and comfort of the work.

The sap spouts aptly names “Eureka” fit into a small hole smoothly bored into the tree, 1/3 or ½ in inch in diameter, and are provided with flanges which are driven into the hole and fit around the edge of it, by all of which the surface of the hole is kept from drying and the flow of sap from being thus arrested. They have moreover an appliance for holding the bucket, through which the sap passes, and, the bucket being covered, the sap is protected from dirt and the hole in the tree is guarded from the drying wind.

The business of sugar making is thus freed from all the old objections and the product is kept clean and pure and is increased in quantity. There are farmers who have large sugar orchards who make more money from them yearly than all the remainder of the farm produces, and other might well go and do likewise. ---- New York Times.


In the Sugar Bush
Maple Sugar Making - the Modern Processes and Product
Though tons of maple sugar are made, for the most part in New York and Vermont, there are probably many people living on farms throughout the United States who have no more clear idea of how maple sugar is made than they have of the production of electricity, says a writer in Farm and Fireside, from whose description of the process the following items and illustrations are reproduced:

The sugar maple is so called on account of the sugar contained in the sap. The person with no experience can hardly tell the difference between it and water, as it is clear and sparkling and has but a faint taste of sugar. There is just about enough sugar to make it a little sickish.

In the fall the greater part of the sap goes from the trunk and branches into the roots, where, buried deep in the ground, it will not be chilled. In the spring, beginning in the latter part of February or first of March, according as the season is forward or backward, the sap begins to ascend the body of the tree, the greater part in the outer layers of the tree. Securing this sap as it ascends and boiling it down constitutes the work of maple sugar making.

The first thing is to get the sap. In the early days before the bit and brace an oblique notch was cut into the tree near the ground, and from this wound the sap would of course flow. Then under the lower corner of this wound a curved hole wide from one side of the tree to the other, but narrow up and down, was made with a “gouge,” and into this was driven a short wooden spout of the same shape, which caught the sap as it dropped from the cut, and thus carried it to short wooden troughs made by digging out basswood blocks. After the bit and brace came into use a hole was bored into the tree, and a round spout made from a piece of sumac from which the pith had been burned out was driven into the hole to convey the sap to the trough.

Next the wooden bucket came into use. By driving a nail into the tree under the spout the bucket could be hung anywhere on the tree.

In the days of boiling in kettles color was the last thing aimed at in making ample sugar, which was a dull black when finished. Sweetness was the main consideration, and there was on incentive to keep out the dirt and cinders, for black sugar was just as sweet, and sugar lighter than chocolate was looked upon as having been adulterated.

The next improvement was the large pan placed upon an arch made of stone or brick. About the same time tin buckets came into use. A little later the metallic spout was invented. This is now of such shape that it fills but a small portion of the hole bored in the tree, but is held so firmly that the bucket is supported by it. It allows sap to flow from the outer layers of the tree where there is the greatest amount of sap, and that which makes the whitest sugar.

A few sugar makers have their plant so arranged that the sap, or sirup, does not touch wood after the sap leaves the tree. At the present time color is an important factor in the value of maple sugar, and as wood tends to color it wooden utensils of all kinds have been discarded as far as possible. The maple sugar now made is of a light straw color. Any darker than that will not command the highest price, and if lighter adulteration with refined sugar is suspected.

The sap is gathered in a tank holding about three barrels placed on a low sled with wide runners. Roads are made through the sugar bush so the gathering tank can be driven near all the trees.

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Published On Tri-Counties Site On 01/22/2009
By Joyce M. Tice 
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