Maple Syrup

It is the second week in March, the temperature outside is thirty-five degrees and the snow banks along the driveway are still three feet high. There seem to be very few signs of spring's coming.

But it "smells like spring", and neighbor, Bernie Ranz had a flock of robins in his yard last week. A month ago I put ten bean seeds between two wet sponges to check the germination percentage. Most of them sprouted. I think about tapping the sugar bush, and I feel the urge to go up the hill to the woods and start boring holes..

Just spring fever? March fifteenth the bluebirds should arrive in this area, followed by the robins, red-winged blackbirds and the great flocks of geese flying north. The robins came to Bernie's yard early this year, and will eat the berries from the red sumac "candles" until they can find bare ground to get worms. The sap is starting up in most other trees as well as the maples. I look at the compost heaps and the raised beds, but there is still six inches of snow on them

Do the birds feel spring fever? Is that why they leave the warm climates at just this time of year? And the trees-- they must feel their version of spring fever!

I think back when making maple syrup was part of our subsistence farming. I contrast the cost of living back then with the costs now. We lived well, then, with almost all of our needs supplied by our labor at very little cash expense.

Making maple syrup is an example. We produced almost of all our "sweet needs" at little cost. It still sort of amazes me that just by putting in your labor you can produce something where nothing existed before.

Using a hand-cranked brace and a 7/16-inch auger bit, we bored two holes a few inches apart, waist high in each of the sugar maple trees. We could bore several of these pairs of holes in one tree if the tree was large enough.

Then, with a hammer we drove spouts snugly into the holes. In early days we used whatever we had for spouts [spiles]. By the 1920's you could buy metal spouts. If you didn't have enough, or couldn't afford to buy them you could make wooden spouts by poking a hole through the pithy center of a six-inch long piece of elderberry bush. One end of the stick was sharpened on a slant or bevel so that it would drive neatly into the hole in the tree and wouldn't leak. When the wooden spouts were used we would set the bucket on the ground where the sap would drip into it. Hopefully it would not be too windy, so the drops of sap would not miss the bucket. Of course you know that sap does not "run" out of the trees, but comes out drip by drip. On warm days the drops come fast and close together.

The newer metal spouts were a great improvement. Some of the earlier metal ones had built-in hooks as part of the spout on which to hang a bucket. The later ones had a separate eye-ring and hook that fit over the spout. Thus a can or pail could hang from it up close to the drip.

"Metal Sap Spouts"

We didn't spend much money on sap buckets or pails. We collected used two-gallon motor-oil cans, cut the tops out, and after they were well cleaned, we made a hole near the top of one side to hang it on the spout hook. We also cut foot-square pieces of old metal roofing to use for covers. For many years we didn't use covers, but when it rained or snowed overnight, in the morning we would taste the collected sap to see if was sap-sweet or predominantly water. If it was too watery, we just dumped it and started fresh. If the temperature were favorable for the best syrup weather, any sap collected in the buckets overnight would freeze. We would then suck on some of the ice to see if it tasted sweet. [Warm days and freezing nights was the best sap weather]. Oftentimes while walking through the woods in the spring, you will see an icicle hanging from a broken maple branch. We always break it off and suck on it to see if it is a "sap-cicle" of just plain ice.

In the early days we boiled sap in a big iron kettle that was mainly used to heat water on butchering day. Hot water of the right temperature was used to loosen the bristles on the pig, so they could be scraped off easier with the knife or hog scraper. [Hog scrapers were called "candle sticks" because the shape resembled a candlestick.]

Later we used a flat pan about three feet wide and six feet long and about eight inches deep. I bought that at a farm auction along with about twenty two-gallon oilcans for next to nothing. Because of the large surface it evaporated a lot of sap in a relatively short time.

"Alberta and Dan Checking the Sap Level in Bucket"

I also made a small "finishing pan" about forty inches long and eighteen inches wide. This was made by bending a flat piece of tin [galvanized iron] in such a way that there were no soldered seams to leak in the hot fires. One rivet in each corner near the top of the sides held the folded ends in place. There was a handle on one end and a temporary handle, a stick put through the side brackets, used when emptying the pan.

"Finishing Pan"

In using any boiling containers we had to keep watch all the time to prevent "boil-overs" or scorching the syrup. When the thickening syrup, especially near the end of the process, would boil wildly up the sides of the pan, it might stick to the sides and burn black. My grandfather had taught us kids, if the sap threatened to go over the sides while we were watching, we should stick a piece of a hemlock branch into the sap. It would then go back down for a time. I guess the theory of that was there was oil in the hemlock leaves that would break up the bubbles. [Pour oil on the troubled waters?] Maybe it was just the cooling effect of the branch. Of course such things along with pieces of bark, dried leaves, and flying ash would make the syrup darker than the light colored syrup the professionals make today. But we boiled it down thick and sweet. Great on pancakes, cereal, and ice cream!

We seldom cut wood for the fire ahead of time. Since we had to be watching the sap all the time all day, we gathered limbs from the forest floor and sawed it up with a small bow-saw as we needed it. This meant working steadily all day.

Alberta with Grandson, Dan, learning to saw"

For many years we made at least a little maple syrup each year. In later years after we moved from the Butler's Corners farm to our present place in Hoboken, N.Y., and I had retired, we built a small six by six shelter at our "boiling place" in the woods. This made boiling all day a little pleasanter on the cold rainy or snowy days. At least when there was a lull in wood cutting, and carrying sap we could get inside to rest a while or eat lunch without freezing to death.

"The Boiling Place in the Sugar Bush"

Since the boiling place was located in the most distant corner of the farm, we needed an outhouse there. We dug a hole in the ground in the middle of a thick grove of hemlocks, set a chimney tile over it, and had us an outhouse. Since there was no house to go with it, we called it our "out".

About five years or so ago the physical labor involved had become too much for us and we had to give it up. We had made up our minds to stop when sometime during the winter, vandals broke down our shelter and fireplaces. Through the years it was lots of fun, but it was time to quit. But the maples call us every spring. Charles E. Page March, 2003