Maple Sugaring A Time of Gathering

Sap Isn’t the Only Thing Coming Out of the Woodwork in Late Winter

Our family looks forward to sugaring time every year. Even in the heart of winter, when the nights are bitter cold and long, I can close my eyes and almost feel the warmth from the fire under the syrup pans and smell the strong, sweet smell of the maple sap cooking down. Right now the sugarhouse seems as dormant as the maple trees around it, but it won’t be long before the weather takes a turn and our springtime home is once again bustling with activity.

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I’ve done quite a bit of research on the history of maple in our country. It goes farther back in the past than one might think. In fact, maple sugaring is one form of agriculture that is indigenous to North America. Europeans did not bring this tradition over the Atlantic Ocean; the Native Americans were harvesting sugar from the trees long before the colonists arrived.

There are many folktales and legends that tell the story of how sugar was discovered in the maple tree. One of my favorites is about a warrior who was angry and threw his axe at a tree. A birch bark container happened to be at the base of the tree and later that day, as the warrior’s wife went to go and get some water to cook dinner, she noticed that the container was already partially filled and decided to use it. The meal turned out to be so delicious that slashing the maple trees, inserting pieces of bark, and collecting this “water” became a very popular spring ritual. The Native Americans did not have iron kettles, so they would heat rocks in the fire and put them into their containers to evaporate the water from the sweet sap.

The method of how sap is collected from mature maple trees has changed considerably over the centuries. The Native Americans shared their knowledge with the colonists and the practice of collecting sap was improved with the use of hand-carved wooden spouts and buckets that eventually evolved into metal taps and pails. Whole families and sometimes even entire towns would set up camp for weeks in the maple wood to tap, gather, and cook the sap down. Large kettles over open fires would boil for days before the final product, syrup, or back then, more commonly preserved was maple sugar, would be put away for the year’s supply. If there was a surplus, the sugar would be bartered for other amenities that the family needed.

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Like most other agricultural endeavors, sugaring time is both a form of harvest and also a time of gathering. Back then, everyone worked together for a common goal while at the same time socializing with each other. There was food, music, and camaraderie in the midst of all the hard work during the weeks at sugar camp.

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Today, sap collection methods have become so technologically advanced that in most small to medium-sized operations there isn’t as great a need for large labor crews to tap the trees, gather the sap, and boil it down. Modern tubing systems with vacuum bring the sap right to bulk tanks and sometimes straight to the sugarhouse. Reverse Osmosis machines cut both the boiling time and energy needs down by many hours. One thing that hasn’t changed much, though, is that maple sugaring is still very much a time for gathering and socialization. When the maple trees start to run, we literally live in our sugarhouse. I think this is why sugarhouses are not called ‘barns’ or ‘sheds’. They are more comfortable than that, more like our very own homes.

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It’s hard not to notice that sap isn’t the only thing coming out of the woodwork in late winter. Our family has more visitors during early March and into April than we do at any other time of the year. Friends and neighbors we haven’t seen in months will see the lights on in the sugarhouse at night or the smoke and steam billowing from the stacks and stop in to see us. Even strangers will pull in to check out our operation and buy some fresh syrup.

We work hard to make our maple syrup, but we talk and joke in there, eat our meals together, and sometimes we even sleep in our chairs (yes, everyone has their own to rest or sleep in). Whoever comes to visit is welcomed like family. Amidst the local gossip and banter, stories are told late into the night and memories are made. In our family-and hundreds of others in the United States and Canada-making maple syrup is surely a time-honored tradition.

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Get in on the fun by stopping in to your local sugarhouse this spring and see for yourself why so many people have carried on this custom for centuries!        

~Joy Herfurth Trombley
  Brandy Brook Maple Farm
  Family owned and operated
  Ellenburg Center, New York

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