The History of Maple Syrup

The History of Maple Syrup

Alee Parker

The sugaring season is in full swing in upstate New York. The delicious smell of freshly made maple syrup fills the town of Canton, New York as local farmers collect sap and boil the sugary sweetness from nature that we all love. 

The once-a-year practice of making fresh maple syrup is the perfect time to dig into the rich history and tradition that maple syrup inherently holds.

This history dates back hundreds of years and starts with the Native Americans. 

Native Americans

Native Americans were the first to find that the sugary sap becomes a delicious sweet syrup. Most likely, the Eastern Woodland Indians were the ones that discovered how sap can be boiled into a sweet syrup and sugar. 

Legend has it that the chief of a tribe threw his tomahawk into a maple tree outside of his longhouse and a bucket underneath the tree caught the sap flowing out overnight. The next day, the daughter of the chief used sap to boil their meat for dinner and it turned into syrup as it boiled. From then on, maple syrup became an integral part of their diet.

Early Settlers

There are early accounts that date back to the mid 1500s of French explorers and missionaries discussing sugaring and the boiling of maple syrup. The first written account of a settler discussing maple sugar can be found in James Smith's 1799 An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith

Shortly after we came to this place the squaws began to make sugar. We had no large kettles with us this year, and they made the frost, in some measure, supply the place of fire, in making sugar. Their large bark vessels, for holding the stock-water, they made broad and shallow; and as the weather is very cold here, it frequently freezes at night in sugar time; and the ice they break and cast out of the vessels. I asked them if they were not throwing away the sugar? they said no; it was water they were casting away, sugar did not freeze, and there was scarcely any in that ice. They said I might try the experiment, and boil some of it, and see what I would get. I never did try it; but I observed that after several times freezing, the water that remained in the vessel, changed its colour and became brown and very sweet.  

If you're familiar with Little House on the Prairie, you can even read about how Laura and her family harvested maple syrup in the cold winter months in Little House in the Big Woods in the early 1870s.

At last, as Grandma stirred, the syrup in the saucer turned into little grains like sand, and Grandma called: ‘Quick girls! It’s graining!’

Aunt Ruby and Aunt Docia and Ma left the dance and came running. They set out pans, big pans, and little pans, and as fast as Grandma filled them with the syrup, they set out more. They set the filled ones away to cool into maple sugar.

The Maple Industry is Born

In the 17th century, dairy farmers began producing maple syrup during their off season for an additional income. They drilled holes in trees, hung buckets underneath the holes, and called their maple trees "sugar bushes." Once enough sap had been collected, farmers would haul the sap to a larger tank and then up to the sugar house in the woods to be boiled.

Farms would boil the sap in large kettles or pans over a wood fire and watch the sap slowly turn into syrup. FYI, around 40 gallons of sap makes a gallon of syrup, as sap is 98% water. 

Modern Day

As a shift in technology emerged, the sugaring industry became more high-tech and efficient. Aluminum buckets  turned into sap collecting tubing systems. (See image below). Vacuum pumps now pull the sap directly from the tree to a sap storage tank. 

The sugar house transformed from a heavy kettle to an  evaporator that contains a thermometer, a float to control the level and input of maple water and a hood to evacuate the steam.

Maple syrup is a tradition that is woven into the society of Northeastern America. Generations of making this sweet delicious syrup are what bond communities. When sugaring season rolls around, it's neighbor helping neighbor, family helping family. The sweet reward after all of the energy and dedication it takes to harvest this delicious pure syrup in the cold northern winter months is what makes everything worth it. 

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