In 1860 the United States produced more than six and a half million gallons of maple syrup. In 2019 only about one and a half million gallons were harvested. What’s wrong, Americans?
My husband “sugars off” the sap alone at our house after the one year he slipped out of a church function to tap trees and left the rest of us to endure an awkward after-church potluck and games gathering. As a family of introverts, we (as one) revolted. Soon after our two strong sons disappeared into adulthood and far from the sugar bush. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I’ve had weird luck with broken arms and hands in March so I’m never much help and stand by the fire only now and again to see how things are progressing (I am the main imbiber of the golden sweetness though).
My husband is not 100% selfless. He loves to plan, to improve, to go bigger, to make more, to give away more, and especially how by the second or third week the sun warms the chair he sits in as he listens to the bubbling sap. There is nothing like the smell of maple on the wind. The dogs instantly lift their noses to it when I take them outside on their little rambles. Nala the farm dog used to lounge with my husband until a local marathon runner started jogging by. Nala hates fast moving people and makes it very plain. Nobody likes a big white wolf-dog snarling and hopping at their heels.
In pioneer days the young people loved a good sugaring-off party for sweets and sparking. We do that too when I remember to bring my husband out coffee. Here’s how native New Yorker THURLOW WEED remembered it:
This is a season to which the farmer’s sons and daughters look forward with agreeable anticipations. In that employment toil is more than literally sweetened. The occupation and its associations are healthful and beneficial. When your troughs are dug (out of basswood, for there were no buckets in those days), your trees tapped, your sap gathered, your wood cut, and your fires fed, there is leisure either for reading or ‘sparking.’ And what youthful denizens of the sap-bush will ever forget, while ‘sugaring-off,’ their share in the transparent and delicious streak of candy congealed and cooled in the snow? Many a farmer’s son had found his best opportunities for mental improvement in his intervals of leisure while ‘tending sap-bush.’ Such, at any rate, was my own experience. At night you had only to feed the kettles and keep up your fires — the sap having been gathered and the wood cut ‘before dark.’ During the day we would also lay in a good stock of fat pine, by the light of which, blazing brightly in front of the sugar-house, in the posture the serpent was condemned to assume as a penalty for tempting our great first grandmother, I have passed many and many a delightful night in reading. I remember in this way to have read a history of the French Revolution, and to have obtained from it a better and more enduring knowledge of its events and horrors, and of the actors in that great national tragedy, than I have received from all subsequent readings. I remember also how happy I was in being able to borrow the book of a Mr. Keyes, after a two mile tramp through the snow, shoeless, my feet swaddled in remnants of a rag-carpet.Thurlow Weed, History of the Town of Marathon
Here’s the way the season goes:
When the days of the thaw and nights of cold are balanced perfectly (days 40-52 degrees/nights 24-32 degrees) the sap starts flowing — for how long nobody knows so you have to be ready!
My husband has a source of free pine which is the preferred wood for boiling. He cuts, stacks and ages it all year long.
In late February we tramp through the snow, falling in when there’s a layer of ice on top, looking for the maples marked for tapping the previous summer. In the old days farmers would sit by their hearths in winter whittling sumac spiles (spouts). to tamp into the bored holes on the sunny side of trees at least 10-12″ in diameter and 1-4ft from the ground. Nowadays you can buy metal or plastic spiles online (but do it early!).
The average farmer in the olden times relied on a good cooper for his buckets. My 4x great grandfather was a master cooper until the drink dulled his skills. A leaky bucket then was very bad indeed. I imagine my poor grandmother doing her best to keep the family in funds with her spinning, but from what I know, the children suffered. Drink sap to play it safe. Sweet water (before it’s boiled down) can give you a bad stomach ache so don’t be greedy!
Millions of sap buckets were required in the mid-nineteenth century and each one was made by hand and sold for six cents a piece:
They were shaped not for finish nor beauty, but solely for utility, and not one unnecessary stroke went into their construction. Almost invariably the material was the very best old, free-splitting white pine … Neither the inside nor outside of the staves was touched with any tool, but left with the grain showing as rived from the block. The edges of the staves, however, must be beveled and jointed with almost perfect accuracy, and the bottom must fit the chine, the groove cut to receive it, with the same preciseness.”The Golden Age of Homespun by Jared van Wagenen, Jr.
Some say that Native Americans boiled down sap and showed the process to the first pioneers, others disagree and say it’s only folklore because the Native process in the way that it’s spoken of doesn’t seem to get the sap quite hot enough to be true. Maybe they just drank the sweet water as-is which with the minerals may have seemed a healthy tonic. Who knows?
The first year we tapped trees, we boiled sap over a metal grate sitting on cinder blocks. My husband’s set-up improved over the years and now he boils on a converted fuel oil tank.
HOW TO BUILD A MAPLE EVAPORATOR FROM FUEL TANK
In the last month he picked up two old oil tanks, some angle iron and a welding machine off Craigslist. I steered clear of the sparks that he said could blind me until the tank looked like this:
The tank was empty so my husband welded the shelf within–I had no idea what it all meant until it began to come together .
First we put in some sand and leveled it:
Then I had the job of cleaning old mortar from the bricks also gotten off Craigslist while husband cut a door into the tank.
Carrying the full buckets of sap back to the evaporator is a test of endurance when snow is still on the ground (some years a foot or two of it). The pioneers used to have yokes to wear over shoulders with hooks on the end for buckets or big barrels as reservoirs on sleds to bring the sweet water to the fire. We lug the buckets out of the woods (the reason the boys go AWOL). Some people have intricate systems of plastic tubing running into a reservoir at an easier location to access the sap. We’ve had years where we’ve had to climb snowy hills to retrieve the buckets –a lot of splashed out sap! We’ve also dug out snowy trails in February. The boys did not approve. Now my husband uses a mix of human and tractor power to get the sap. It’s not as picturesque, but I’m not complaining. I like my coffee sweet.
Once the maple trees start to bud and the peepers come alive in the puddles and ponds of melted winter, farmers know the Frog Run has come, the final sap drips just as the daffodils begin to stretch from the garden beds. And just like that the robins arrive and the buckets go away for another year.
The neighbors greet my husband with grins as he tramps up their driveways with gallons of the real deal.
Yet, haply, in some lull of life, Some Truce of God which breaks its strife, The worldling’s eyes shall gather dew, Dreaming in throngful city ways Of winter joys his boyhood knew; And dear and early friends—the few Who yet remain—shall pause to view These Flemish pictures of old days; Sit with me by the homestead hearth, And stretch the hands of memory forth To warm them at the wood-fire’s blaze! And thanks untraced to lips unknown Shall greet me like the odors blown ... John Greenleaf Whittier
Maple Equipment Suppliers:
Some of this post comes from my old farm blog at RAISING MILK AND HONEY
We no longer raise milk or honey. After too many bee swarms my husband realized how much he hated seeing bees die. I felt the same about my goats. Despite years of vet bills and consults we just couldn’t figure out why our goats always failed to thrive. We have some theories about our sulfur water preventing uptake of copper in goats, but who knows? Our sheep are much healthier and just as cute.