Maple History

Maple History

Maple sugaring was not new to Massachusetts when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. The Native Americans had been making sugar from the sweet sap of the maple tree for many years. From the journals of early explorers we know that the Native Americans had a process for making maple sugar as early as 1609. There are many Native American legends about how maple sugar was first discovered. One Iroquois legend tells how Chief Woksis had thrown his tomahawk into a maple tree one late winter evening. After he removed it the following morning, the weather turned sunny and warm. Sap began to flow from the cut in the tree, and drip down into a container at the base of the tree. The sap was used to boil the meat for dinner. As the water in the sap boiled away, a wonderful, sweet maple taste was left with the meat.

Most likely the Native Americans discovered the sweetness of the maple tree by eating “sapsicles,” the icicles of frozen maple sap that form from the end of a broken twig in winter time. As the ice forms, some of the water evaporates, leaving a sweet treat hanging from the tree.

native american maple sugar production

As winter started to turn into spring, and the days got longer and warmer, Native Americans would move their whole families into a spot in the forest where there were plentiful sugar maple trees. There they would establish “sugar camps” for the month or so that the maple sap would flow. The most common early method of collecting this sweet sap was to make V-shaped slashes in the tree trunk, and collect the sap in a vessel of some sort. Not having metal pots in which to boil the sap, the Native Americans boiled away the water from their sap by dropping hot rocks in the containers made of hollowed out logs, birch bark, or clay.

From the journals of early New England explorers we have learned that there were three types of maple sugar made by the Northeastern Americans. “Grain Sugar” was a coarse granulated sugar similar to that we know as “brown sugar.” “Cake Sugar” was sugar poured into wooden molds to become hard cakes or blocks. “Wax Sugar” was made by boiling syrup extra thick and pouring it over snow. This wax sugar is what we know today as “sugar on snow.”

In the early days maple sap was boiled down and made into maple sugar instead of the more common maple syrup that we see today. There was no easy way to store syrup as a liquid, but hardened, dry maple sugar was easily stored for use later in the year. The Native Americans of New England used their maple sugar as gifts, for trading, to mix with grains and berries and bear fat. During the heat of summer a special treat was a drink made of maple sugar dissolved in water.

Maple sugar and early settlers

The early European settlers who came to New England made maple sugar in the way that they learned from the Native American population. The settlers set up sugar camps in the woods where the maple trees were most plentiful, and the trees were slashed with an ax to allow the sap to drip out and be collected. As early as 1790 it was suggested that slashing the trees was not good for their health, and that a better way was to drill a half inch hole in the tree and insert a “spill” or spile to allow the sap to run out. The early spiles were made of a softwood twig such as sumac that had a soft center. The center was pushed out leaving a hollow wooden tube that could be inserted into a hole drilled into the maple tree. The sap would then drip out through the hollow tube or “spile”, and into a collection vessel such as a hollowed out log.

These early sugarmakers gathered their sap in wooden buckets as they went from tree to tree. The sap was then boiled down in a series of large iron kettles hanging over a long open fire. As the syrup got thicker in one kettle it was ladled into the next one and fresh sap was then added to the first kettle. In this way, they always had the last kettle full of nearly completed syrup or sugar. When it was finally thickened enough, the liquid sugar was stirred until it began to crystallize, then poured of into wooden molds. These blocks of maple sugar could be broken up or shaved later in the year when needed.

This sweet product of the New England forests was very important to the colonists of early Massachusetts. In addition to providing a homemade source of sugar, the maple sugar was also used for trade or was sold. Many colonists made far more maple sugar than they could use themselves, sometimes as much as a thousand pounds per family. This excess was valuable to the early settlers as it provided some income or could be traded at local stores for other food and supplies. This locally made sugar was also important to the New Englanders because it was a sugar not made by the slaves of the West Indies. Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, was so much in favor of the United States producing its own maple sugar that he even started a plantation of sugar maples at his home, Monticello.

changes in maple sugar production

Over the next hundred years or so, maple sugar producing went through many changes.

  • Metal buckets and spiles (spouts) replaced the wooden ones;
  • Metal tanks became available for sap storage instead of hollowed out logs or wooden barrels.
  • For boiling, large flat pans soon replaced the three open kettles that were hung over an open fire.
  • A contained fire could be built under the flat pan in a furnace or “arch”, thus becoming more efficient because of the large surface area exposed to the fire.
  • Other improvements included the building of shelters for boiling the sap, which became known as “sugarhouses.”

However, the process still involved an incredible amount of time and labor.

the economics of maple sugar

As the price of imported cane sugar declined, more New Englanders bought cane sugar instead of maple sugar. By the late 1800s a Vermont man built what he called a maple sugar “evaporator.” This especially designed flat pan had channels for the sap to flow through as it boiled. In this way fresh sap could always be added to one end of the evaporator, and finished syrup could be drawn off at the other end. Today pure maple syrup is still made in an evaporator with much the same design.

Shortly before 1890 the import tax on white cane sugar was removed, and cane sugar soon outsold maple sugar. What happened in the maple industry however, was that maple syrup became popular. Soon the New England “sugarmakers” were making maple syrup instead of maple sugar, and were selling it in cans and bottles. Now over a century later we still seek that special flavor of pure maple syrup that the original settlers of Massachusetts learned about from the Native Americans over 300 years ago.

Maple History Time Line

1540: First written observation of North American maple trees by Jacques Cartier, a French explorer traveling up the St. Lawrence River.

1557: First written record of maples in North America yielding a sweet sap, by French scribe André Thévet.

1606: Marc Lescarbot describes collection and “distillation” of maple sap by Micmac Indians of eastern Canada. (Histoire de la Nouvelle France)

1788: Quakers promote manufacture and use of maple sugar as an alternative to West Indian cane sugar production with slave labour.

1790: “Maple Sugar Bubble” grows, with high hopes among national leaders that a home-grown alternative to slave-produced cane sugar from the British Caribbean had been found. Key advocates include Thomas Jefferson, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and Judge James Fenimore Cooper.

1791: Dutch company buys 23,000 acres of Vermont land and attempts to hire local workers to make sugar to compete with cane from the West Indies. Project fails; Vermonters prefer to work their own land.

Thomas Jefferson and George Washington discuss plans to start “maple orchards” on their Virginia plantations. Most trees die or fail to thrive; Jefferson remains a maple booster.

1810: Augers coming into popular use to drill holes for wooden spouts or sap spiles. Crude gashings or “boxing” techniques becoming obsolete.

1818: Maple sugar selling for half the price of imported cane sugar.

1858: Early patent for evaporating pan to D.M. Cook of Ohio.

1859: Eli Mosher patents first metal sap spouts.

1860: Peak maple production year for U.S.: 40 million pounds of sugar and 1.6 million gallons of syrup, from 23 states reporting to USDA.

1861: Maine Board of Agriculture report says flat-bottomed pans are better than kettles for boiling sap.

1872: Early evaporator design work described by Vermont inventor H. Allen Soule.

1875: Introduction of metal sap buckets.

1880: Cane sugar and maple sugar approximately equal in price.

1884: Early patent for sugar evaporator, G.H. Grimm, Hudson, Ohio.

1888: Leader Evaporator Co. founded, Enosburg Falls, Vermont. Will later popularize “drop-flue” design and become dominant U.S. maple equipment supplier.

1889: Small Brothers of Dunham, Quebec, begin producing evaporator with crimp-bottom pans invented by David Ingalls. Precursor design to modern Lightning evaporator.

1890: G.H. Grimm Company, major supplier of evaporators, buckets and spouts, moves from Hudson, Ohio, to Rutland, Vermont.

1891: Bill McKinley attempts to promote maple sugar manufacture by offering two-cent-per-pound bounty to producers. Bureaucrats and small farmers wrangle, and the effort fails.

1893: Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association formed; instrumental in setting industry-wide standards.

1904: Cary Maple Sugar Company incorporated in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Became largest wholesale sugar company in North America.

1905: U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act makes adulteration of maple syrup with glucose illegal.

1916: Metal sap-gathering tubing invented by W.C. Brower, Mayfield, New York. Proves impractical—prone to freezing at night, leakage, and vulnerable to damage by deer.

1935: Vermont institutes spring Maple Festivals; 134 towns stage events; 1,200 maple frosted cakes are submitted for judging.

1940–1945: Maple prices frozen at $3.39 per gallon during World War II. Production suffers.

1946: First commercial power tapping machine marketed. Proctor Maple Research Centre near Underhill, Vermont, founded by University of Vermont.

1959: Plastic sap-gathering pipeline system patented by Nelson Griggs, Montpelier, Vermont.

1965: Maple leaf, a unifying symbol for both English and French Canada since 1800, becomes central image on new national flag of Canada.

Late 1970s: Reverse-osmosis technology introduced to concentrate sugar content of sap before boiling.

1982: Severe local dieback or decline of sugar maples noted in Quebec. Provincial scientists begin searching for causes.

1985: Sugarmaker Gordon Richardson’s Piggy-Back unit introduced by Small Brothers Company as the first of a new-generation of evaporator attachments to enhance performance “naturally.”

1988: North American Maple Project begins studying health of maple trees to determine progression, if any, of maple decline.

1997: Changes in sap tubing technology offer “permanent” tubing which can be left in the woods year-round without stretching.

1999: Introduction of the “health spout,” using a smaller hole in the tree, which can be drilled by cordless drills. A smaller hole heals faster.