Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on March 3, 1973.
Sugar making time is at hand and it won’t be long now before great piles of steam will waft from under the raised roof areas of sugar houses all over northern New England.
We used to boil sap “down on the farm,” but those days are gone, for a while at least.
When we first came to Swansey, Dad and I used to make maple syrup. Dad had a real gentle touch with the skimmer. When the sap was boiling just right and foaming up pretty strong, he’d skim the sediment foam into a pail while watching for just the right time to take off the syrup.
Since we were doing our boiling on an old wood stove in the back shed we had to constantly stoke the fire with fresh wood. When a new stick was added, the first went down and the boiling slowed considerably. But when that new wood caught and the stove pipe roared, how the sap would tumble itself into foam once again needing skimming. A drop of cream would tone down the foaming for a while, but it wasn’t long before it would need more skimming.
As those of you who have done this work may already have assumed, we used an oblong galvanized pan of the right size to cover the top of the stove. In the beginning, the fresh gathered sap was put in and brought to a boil and kept boiling all day. From time to time we would add more sap until, by the skimming, Dad would decide that we should finish off the batch and start another. Maple syrup should weigh 11 pounds to the gallon to be legal, but Dad’s syrup always went generously over that weight — sometimes there would be sugar settle at the bottom of the glass mason jars we put it in.
Some there are who think maple sugaring is fun — and for them it could well be — but I guess I am just a bit too lazy to go at it in such a crude way again. It is much nicer to look back and marvel as what was accomplished, and brag a little, than to look forward to getting out the equipment and going at it again.
But I would know how — and I still have the equipment and the maples to boot. Just to prove it, I’ll review what we did.
When the first scent of spring wafted from the woodlands in early March, we would let down the stairs which led to the attic storage over the carriage shed (now called a garage), climb up and hand down the buckets. We had some made of wood which had to be soaked so they would swell up and hold the sap. We also had some made of metal with covers which had to be washed, even though they had been put away clean the year before. We’d bring down the sap spouts and make sure there were enough hooks to hold the buckets. These had to be washed also. The old sap pan some called the “sugaring off pan” got the same treatment.
After the equipment was ready, Dad would go to the shop, take down the bit brace, select a bit the right size for the spout, and then take off to tap the trees. We would pile the buckets, what covers we had, and a pail of spouts and hangers into a wooden sled that Grandfather had made and start for the edge of the woods where our sugar maples were waiting.
What an arm-wrenching time drilling into those rock maple trees! I was certain before my part of the drilling was done that the maples were first cousins to the granite rocks clustered on the ground in the area. After the hole was bored a spout was hammered carefully into the fresh hole, making sure the hook was not put on backwards. If all was right, then we’d hang the bucket. Some trees could take two, maybe three buckets, depending on their size, but the younger trees could only handle one. When you get to know your orchard well you know which trees flow best and which trees have the sweetest sap. Actually there is a great deal of difference between trees in this respect.
It is always exciting to come back the first morning after the sun has started the sap to flowing and gather the first run. On a good day we’d have to collect the sap twice, for the buckets would be filled to overflowing. We used to use a sap yoke to gather the sap. This is a rig not unlike an ox yoke except it is made of lighter wood and is carved so as to fit around a man’s neck, resting on his shoulders. When a full bucket of sap is hooked on the ropes which hang from each end, it makes it quite easy to carry a rather heavy load.
We would dump the yoke-carried buckets of sap into an old copper wash boiler on the sled, then drag it to the house and empty it into a half-barrel. It was stored there until we could boil it down. Sap will spoil if it gets too warm, so unless the temperature was rather cold we would have to boil it, and sometimes that meant all night. What a marvelous smell came from the back room when the boiling was going on! How tasty was the finished syrup!
This old process sure took a lot of wood, but it was wood that either needed cutting from the forest or was what we called waste wood. Some of this waste wood came from slats used to hold baled shavings. I used the shavings in the hen pens and in the brooder houses, and after a while the slats piled up. So “sugaring” was a practical way to get rid of the bulk of them.