MAPLE SUGAR AND MAPLE SYRUP
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
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
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
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.