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Maple sugaring, a brief history

March 23, 2011
By RICHARD GAST, Franklin County Cornell Cooperative Extension

Collecting the sap that brings sugar maples out of winter dormancy and boiling it down to the right consistency for pure maple syrup has signaled the arrival of spring for generations. As a Native American tradition, sugaring is prehistoric in origin.

According to Chippewa lore, there was a time when all one had to do was break twigs off of the limbs of maples and syrup would drip from the broken twigs. Upon learning this, the Chippewas stopped hunting, fishing, gathering and gardening, and instead spent their days lying on their backs, letting the sweet maple syrup drip into their mouths.

When the Chippewa creator, Nanabozho, saw that his people were becoming lazy, he repeatedly filled his birch-bark basket with river water, climbed to the top of the maples and poured water into the trees until what came out of the broken twigs was thin, watery sap. What's more, Nanabozho made it so that the sap would flow no more than a few weeks each year.

Iroquois legend tells of Chief Woksis' wife, who used sap flowing from a wound in a sugar maple in place of water, inadvertently boiling down the first maple syrup.

North America's indigenous people slashed the trunks of sugar maples on a diagonal line with axes and collected the dripping sap in birch-bark containers. Boiling involved removing hot stones from a fire and dropping them into the sap. The process was painstakingly slow. An alternative method allowed collected sap to freeze. The ice was discarded. The process was repeated until all that was left was maple syrup.

The Native Americans had no way of storing syrup, however, so they boiled sap to make granulated sugar, cake sugar (sugar poured into wooden molds to form blocks) and wax sugar (sugar on snow).

The Native Americans shared their sugar-making techniques with the North American settlers, teaching them to set up sugar camps in natural stands of sugar maples during the month of sap flow. In return, the settlers showed the Indians how to drill holes with iron bits and make taps from softwood or reeds. The settlers used wooden pails or hollowed-out logs to collect sap, which they boiled in large iron kettles hung over open fires.

Over the years, metal buckets replaced wooden ones. Metal storage tanks replaced hollow logs. Flat pans on stoves or in furnaces proved more efficient than large kettles and open fires. Sugarhouses eventually housed boiling operations.

The use of maple sugar remained widespread until inexpensive white cane sugar, produced using slave labor, became readily available in the North. Although abolitionists promoted the use of maple sugar, white cane sugar quickly became the sweetener of choice in most North American households. Maple sugar producers began making maple syrup instead, selling it in bottles and cans.

The first known maple sugar evaporator, built in Vermont in the late 1800s, was made of a series of boiling pans within a flat pan. Heated and boiling sap was ladled from one pan to the next. Today's evaporators are manufactured with compartments and channels that allow the sap to be moved through as it reaches graduated stages of evaporation. The evaporator sits on a firebox, and flames are drawn along the underside of the pan, heating and eventually boiling the sap as it travels from one compartment to another. As the sap boils, the water in the sap evaporates as steam. Finished syrup is filtered through felt funnels, lined with heavy paper, before it is bottled.

Networks of tubing have replaced metal buckets. Tubing allows sap to be collected in the most efficient and hygienic way possible. Large commercial producers, employing the most advanced technologies, utilize airtight vacuum systems, which improve sap flow without taking adverse amounts of sap. By keeping the sap moving through the tubing, airtight vacuum systems effectively lessen the likelihood of bacteria growth while allowing the highest-volume production of maple syrup. The collected sap can be pumped through a reverse-osmosis machine that filters out up to three-quarters of the water before boiling even begins, saving fuel and time without taking anything away from the finished product.

Centuries later, we still enjoy the same maple flavor that the early Native Americans and the original North American settlers enjoyed. Maple syrup production remains a popular and important part of farming to many families in the Northeast.

There is scientific evidence, however, that indicates a decline in the overall health of sugar maples in the Northeast. It is possible that acid rain and other industrial pollution may be endangering the health of the sugar maples and thereby posing a threat to the maple sugar industry.

But that's another story.



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