History of Campbell County, Tennessee

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By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.  This article was published in the Volunteer Times.

While searching through my files I ran across an old article that was written in the early 1900s. It goes into some detail concerning the making of maple sugar and maple syrup in the old sugar camps.

     Generations growing up that have never seen an old-time sugar-camp or a sugar-trough. Today where maple sugar and maple syrup are made is of a high grade and on a somewhat extensive scale; improved methods are steadily being employed. Buckets with covers to keep out the rain and dirt are used in place of troughs hollowed out of split logs. Metal spouts instead of split pieces of elder are inserted in the auger holes in the trees, galvanized storage tanks are used instead of barrels and improved evaporators instead of pots for boiling.

     The making of maple sugar was a most important industry in early Tennessee and it furnished many settlers with the only kind of sugar they could obtain, and it is certainly known that Indians in Tennessee made maple sugar thirty years before the first settlement.

     The Indians probably learned the art of making maple sugar from the whites, and there is no reason to believe that they ever made it by boiling until after they obtained pots and kettles from the white man. The first account we have of red men making sugar is that given by Col. James Smith, a prisoner with a tribe in Ohio. He records that in 1756 the Indians had two large brass kettles, holding about fifteen gallons each and some smaller vessels in which they boiled the sap. These vessels were of course obtained from the whites. It is possible to reduce the sap to sugar without boiling, either by freezing or by natural evaporation, but is not known that the Indians ever practiced either method.

     In the opening of the first settlements, when there were only a few acres of cleared land, the family from the start were able to supply themselves plentifully with sugar and maple syrup. The trees were probably at first tapped with a giblet and wild turkey quills used to convey the sap into the wooden troughs. Afterward a half inch auger was used for tapping and spiles or spouts made of elder were used instead of turkey quills. The sap was at first boiled down in kettles and pots hung over two logs between which the fire was built. In later years, the kettles were placed in furnaces for boiling the sap.
Hon. John Quincy Smith, of Clinton County, Ohio, was the son of Thomas Smith and in an unpublished manuscript has left his recollections of sugar making as it was carried on in his boyhood. So generally was the business engaged in by the farmers of the region at that period that about the middle of February the larger boys would be called from school to assist in the work, and in the early spring the only scholars left in school were girls and smaller boys.

     Thomas Smith had a great many sugar trees, sometimes more than a thousand would be tapped. These trees were bored with a small auger about three and half feet from the ground and an elder spike about ten inches long driven tightly into the hole. At first only wooden troughs were used to catch the sap. These were made by cutting down blue ash trees, sawing the trunks into lengths of about two feet which were split in the middle, and hollowed out with an ax so as to make a trough holding two or three gallons. A first rate ax man could make forty or fifty of these troughs in a day. After 1830 earthen crocks, costing 6 or 8 cents and holding about two gallons each were used. They were cleaner and better than troughs, but if a sudden freeze came when they were full of water, a great many would burst, and nearly every year a new supply of crocks would be purchased to make up the loss from breakage.

     The furnace was built for about a dozen kettles holding ten or fifteen gallons each. The sugar water was hauled to the furnace in a hogshead standing on end and placed on a two horse sled. At the furnace it would be emptied into other hogsheads, or into a large trough dug out of a big log, or into a wooden cistern made of wide poplar planks.

     Sometimes during a very heavy rain it would be impossible to prevent a great waste of sugar water. The vessels would all be running over, and in order to save as much as possible, it was necessary to boil all night. John Q. relates that when he was about thirteen he and his brother Joseph spent several nights pushing the fires and filling the kettles when there was a heavy rain. They had a shanty just in front of the furnace in which was a pile of straw and some bed covers. They slept turn about, one watching the fires while the other slept.

     Making sugar was always a hard and laborious job. The ground was always wet and muddy, and the work had to be done often in rain and snow. The boy remembers to have worked at the sugar camp hauling when the snow was deep and it was raining so hard that for hours he had not a dry thread on him. But the work during a "strong run" was regarded as very profitable.

     The father made sugar not only for use at home, but for the market, some seasons selling several barrels of it. It brought a good price, sometimes as much as 15 or 16 cents a pound. He usually made two or three trips each year to Cincinnati with a wagonload of produce for market consisting mainly of maple sugar, bacon, lard, and sometimes sweet potatoes. He would sleep at night in his wagon. The journey to the city and the return would each take a day and a half, and he would get away from home four days on each trip to market.

     In most places a delicious and wholesome sugar could be made from the sap of the maple tree. Unlike the trees of his fruit orchard, his sugar trees were already grown. Five pounds of sugar could be made from one tree in one season, and it was believed that repeated tappings improved the quality of the sap. No costly machinery or apparatus was necessary. The only implements required for the manufacture of sugar for home use was an ax and a kettle. It required no more knowledge or skill to make maple sugar than to make soap or cider. It was said that one man sold 600 pounds, all made by his own hands in one season.

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