When you think of maple syrup, perhaps you get the picture of a lazy Sunday morning with pancakes or waffles, with the kids all around the table. Maybe you imagine the annual community pancake breakfast with the family at long folding tables, rubbing elbows with neighbors and friends as local church members or Boy Scouts wait on tables. Whatever the case, did you ever wonder about the history of maple syrup and how that sweetness ended up at your table and onto your pancake?
Do you imagine the humble backwoodsman stirring a large cast-iron kettle over an open fire? Perhaps a snowy Maine woods where workers in plaid empty metal buckets into huge vats are being pulled by impressive workhorses. Whatever you imagine, you might be surprised that the innocuous little bottle in your hand (no, not those imposters made from corn syrup) has had a long, sweet—sometimes dark and sticky—history.
Maple sugaring goes back to time immemorial. The Chippewa and Ottawa tribes have a legend about the origin of maple sugaring. The story goes that the syrup, not sap, would flow from the trees year-round and did not need to be processed to enjoy. They would break a branch off and lie underneath as the sweet syrup dripped into their mouths. A “great spirit” saw this and rebuked the people who had grown fat and lazy, and diluted the syrup down by pouring a lake on the trees, thus making it the watery sap that we see today. This spirit also said that the people would not have it year-round, but only for a short time between winter and spring, that they would have to work for their sweet treat and then showed them how to turn the sap into syrup and sugar.
Now, while this is all legend, we do know that the Native peoples were using maple trees for a very long time. It may have started after the long hard winters when food was scarce by chewing on strips of the inner bark of maples as a source of energy. But eventually, the Native Americans began to refine their sugaring technique, cutting long gashes into the trees and collecting the sap that ran out into woven birch baskets. This sap would be left out to freeze and the ice discarded. What was left would be boiled in large wooden troughs where stones heated in fires were dropped into the sap. The sap would often be boiled down to a solid state and used to preserve meats and other foods in a similar way to preserving with salt.
When the European settlers arrived in the New World, they learned the process of maple sugaring from their new neighbors. The earliest known record of maple sugaring from a European source was from one André Thevet the “Royal Cosmographer of France,” in 1557. The Europeans were quick studies, and put their own knowledge and technologies to work in the “sugar bush.”
The Europeans had access to metal tools and pots, which helped to further streamline the process of collecting and boiling. They would drill holes, as opposed to the traditional gashes, into the trees and collected sap into metal or wooden buckets. Once collected, the sap was boiled in a metal kettle directly over a fire, making this process significantly faster.
While the process was sped up, getting a decent yield still required a lot of work. On average, it takes about forty gallons of sap to produce about one gallon of syrup, and a person is still completely at the mercy of the weather. For sap to run, there must be freezing temperatures at night, and above freezing during the day. These fluctuations in temperatures cause pressures to build in the trees which forces the sap to run out of cracks and cuts in the bark. The best time for this is the few weeks as winter gives way to spring.
The early settlers would often head into the sugar bush during the sugaring season with their whole families and not leave until the season was over. They often took security precautions to protect their hard work and precious sugar, such as setting armed guards around the camps or sneaking off in the middle of the night to the sugar bush to avoid detection. The sugar bush itself was often a closely guarded secret and the location of it would not be readily shared.
Once again, sugar was the goal, not necessarily syrup, as it was a rare and expensive commodity, considering that sugar was usually imported from the Caribbean. Tea, coffee, and chocolate were coming into the Colonies, helping drive the sugar demand, but also with that demand came increased taxes. The Molasses Act of 1733 and the Sugar Act of 1764 helped boost activity at the local sugar bush, as drinking tea or coffee sweetened with British sugar was considered downright unpatriotic.
Maple sugar, on top of being used to fight unfair taxes, was also promoted by the Abolitionist movement. The Caribbean sugar was produced on vast sugar plantations using slave labor. The work was hard, hot, and dangerous. Tragically, it was estimated by the British East India Company that it would cost one slave life to produce about 450 pounds of sugar. For the abolitionists, locally-made maple sugar and honey were the chosen sweeteners.
As the Civil War decided the issue of slavery, maple sugaring slowly declined and cane sugar made without slaves began to be the sweetener of choice. This caused the maple sugar producers to switch from sugar to syrup. With this switch came new technologies as well.
As time went on, the often lead-soldered buckets of yesteryear were replaced with plastic bags and tubing. Vacuums are attached to the trees to draw out more sap than a simple hole could ever produce. No longer is the workhorse pulling a vat in the snowy Maine woods; pumps can make the sap run uphill. Tubing can be run from the trees directly to the boiling place, or “sugar shack,” replacing the need to empty containers manually by those plaid-clad workers.
Sap left out to freeze so the ice may be thrown away has been replaced by reverse osmosis equipment which removes some of the water from the sap even before any boiling takes place. The massive black kettles over open fires have been replaced by large flat evaporators which are more efficient and reduce boiling times. Even the wood fire has changed to propane, gas, electric, or steam.
From its humble origins as something to chew on while waiting for spring’s bounty, to the large commercial operations that now pump out those cute little log cabin bottles that grace our breakfast tables, the long rich history of maple sugaring and syrup might be savored best upon a stack of pancakes, or a crepe, in my case.
“Colonialism, maple syrup, and ways of knowing”. Active History. (2018, July 8).
“Celebrating the history of Maple Syrup”. Kendra Wills, M. S. U. E. (2021, March 10). MSU Extension.
“Maple syrup production and slavery”. The Adirondack Almanack. (2015, March 26).
“A brief history of Maple Syrup”. Time. Pickert, K. (2009, April 16).