The History of Maple Syrup

Friday December 8th is Pretend to be a Time Traveler Day. This fun holiday asks that you dress up and stay in character as a time traveler for an entire day. The only rule is that you cannot tell anyone you are a time traveler. Sadly, no one at Maple Valley was able to prepare to celebrate this year.

However, the day inspired us to take a look at the history of maple syrup. After all, how can one pretend to be from another era without knowing more about it? No one knows exactly when maple sugaring began, but whatever era you choose to represent, we hope to provide you with a little more knowledge about our favorite food.

Legendary Origins

"Indian woman tapping maple sap"; Reed, Roland, 1864-1934, photographer; 1908; courtesy of Library of Congress
“Indian woman tapping maple sap”; Reed, Roland, 1864-1934, photographer; 1908; courtesy of Library of Congress

The origins of maple sugaring (the practice of making maple syrup from sap) are steeped in legend. Native Americans began the practice long before Europeans arrived in North America. However, no one knows what tribe first discovered it. There are multiple legends regarding its discovery.

One story states that Prince Glooskap found his people lazily drinking maple syrup right from the trees instead of working. As punishment, he added water to the syrup and made the sap only available in spring. Now, the people would have to boil down the sap instead of being lazy. Similarly, another story puts Kokomis, the son of the Earth Mother, in the role of Prince Glooskap. A third story, from the Chippewa and Ottawa tribes of Michigan states that the god NenawBozhoo cast the spell. [1]

"Indian sugar camp / Capt. S. Eastman, U.S. Army" ; John C. McRae.; McRae, John C., engraver; 1853; courtesy of Library of Congress
“Indian sugar camp / Capt. S. Eastman, U.S. Army” ; John C. McRae.; McRae, John C., engraver; 1853; courtesy of Library of Congress

A different legend, retold in The Atlantic Monthly’s April of 1896 issue, tells of a woman named Moqua. It states that she was cooking moose for her husband Woksis. When her boiling pot ran out of water, she refilled it with maple sap. The boiled down sap formed syrup in the pot. [1]

There is one other legend that tells of a chief who threw his tomahawk into a tree. The tree began to drip with sap. This sparked the idea for his wife to cook meat in the sap. The final result was a delicious syrupy meal. It is said that this chief was the first to use the word Sinzibuckwud which means “drawn from trees”. Native Americans often used this word to refer to maple syrup. [1]

Early Methods

"Native Americans collecting sap and cooking maple syrup in pots, tilling soil into raised humps, and sowing seeds, North America"; 1724; courtesy of Library of Congress
“Native Americans collecting sap and cooking maple syrup in pots, tilling soil into raised humps, and sowing seeds, North America”; 1724; courtesy of Library of Congress

Early Native American methods of sap collection involved cutting a V shape into the bark of the maple tree and placing a wedge at the bottom of the cut. Sap would flow out of the wedge and into baskets that were placed at the base of the tree. Sometimes, Native Americans made these baskets of wood hollowed out with a hatchet. They used these year after year. Others were made of bark and were only used for one season. The sap was collected and slowly boiled until it became syrup. At this point, they would allow it to cool and it would be kept in baskets. Generally, the gathering and boiling of sap was done by women in the tribe. [2]

Colonist Methods

"Bringing in the sap in a maple sugar camp"; Detroit Publishing Co.; between 1900 and 1906; courtesy of Library of Congress
“Bringing in the sap in a maple sugar camp”; Detroit Publishing Co.; between 1900 and 1906; courtesy of Library of Congress

When European colonists settled in the area, they learned how to tap maple trees from the indigenous people. However, instead of using a wedge to extract sap, they would drill holes in the trees using augers. They would then insert wooden spouts into the holes and hang buckets from them to collect sap. Colonists made these buckets by hollowing segments of a tree to create a seamless container. [3]

"Making maple syrup in the good old fashioned way"; Detroit Publishing Co.; 1906; courtesy of Library of Congress
“Making maple syrup in the good old fashioned way”; Detroit Publishing Co.; 1906; courtesy of Library of Congress

Draft animals were used to haul larger sap-filled containers to a central point (the sugar shack) where it was boiled down to make sugar & syrup. Maple sugar was much more popular in those times due to the huge expense of importing non-native cane sugar from other locations. [3]

1800s and Beyond

"Gathering and processing maple syrup, ca. 1900"; 1900; courtesy of Library of Congress
“Gathering and processing maple syrup, ca. 1900”; 1900; courtesy of Library of Congress

The 1800s saw many innovations in sap boiling. Around the year 1850, large flat metal pans became available. The increased surface area proved to be much more efficient than the previously used iron kettles. In the late 1800s a two pan evaporator became available which cut even more time from the process. Then, around 1900, the tin in the bottom of the pan was made to form flues which increased surface area even more. [3]

Wood Fired Evaporator

Because of the increased availability of cane sugar during the 1800s, producers switched their focus from maple sugar to maple syrup. Further technological innovations made it easier for them to produce larger quantities of this syrup. Soon, plastic bags replaced the buckets that were hung from taps. Also, tractors began to replace the draft animals used to haul large quantities of sap from trees to the sugar shack. In addition, producers sometimes used motor-powered tappers and metal tubing systems to simplify the transfer of sap from trees to evaporator. There were also more fuel options available for heating; in addition to wood, oil, natural gas, propane, and steam were also available. Finally, filtration was also improved for a purer final product. [3]

The Modern Era

Modern R.O. Machine

In the 1970s, technical advances gave producers even more options to streamline their process. For example, newly available vacuum pumps moved sap through the now popular plastic tubing systems that stretched from tree to sugar shack.  In addition, producers started using reverse osmosis machines to remove water from the sap before boiling occurred. Storage containers became larger and more effective. Finally, they created pre-heaters to reduce heat loss. [3]

Jim Neidel tying lines

Today, there are many options available to producers. Depending on which method they use, they are able to greatly increase production and efficiency in their production, thus lowering cost for customers. However, at it’s most basic level, the process has not changed much from the original method used by early Native Americans.

The Future

The immediate future of maple sugaring could bring more innovations as the process grows in popularity. The Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont has an entire staff dedicated to maple research and the advancement of the trade. For example, in 2016 they published a study done on collecting sap from saplings. This new method could make maple syrup production possible in small acreage without naturally occurring maple forests. If you could time travel in to the future, perhaps you would find this method to be the latest trend in maple sugaring.

References

  1. “History” Michigan Maple Syrup Association. Retrieved 5 December 2017. https://web.archive.org/web/20110525093903/http://www.mi-maplesyrup.com/about/history.htm
  2. 2. Zeisberger, David, 1721-1808; Hulbert, Archer Butler, 1873-1933; Schwarze, William Nathaniel, 1875-1948; David Zeisberger’s History of the Northern American Indians. Columbus, O., Press of F.J. Heer. pp. 48-51. https://archive.org/details/zeisbergerhistnaind00zeisrich
  3. 3 Melvin R Koelling; Randal Bruce Heiligmann; Timothy D Perkins; Ohio State University Extension; North American Maple Syrup Council; North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual. [Columbus] : Ohio State University Extension, ©2006. http://estore.osu-extension.org/North-American-Maple-Syrup-Producers-Manual-PDF-Only-P320.aspx

One thought on “The History of Maple Syrup

  1. As a long time lover of maple syrup, this was most interesting and educational. One of the things on my “bucket list” was to go to Vermont for a “sugaring off”. With the modernization of the process, I am sure it won’t be quite the same as when I first read about it as a kid growing up in Massachusetts.

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