Image by Cornelius Krieghoff
Maple syrup is one of those delightful treats that everyone enjoys. What a lot of people think is that maple sugaring was new to Massachusetts when the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock around 1620. Native Americans were the ones that were preparing sugar from the maple tree sap for many years before that. The first written documentation of this fact was by a French author named Marc Lescarbot in 1606. In his book, Histoire de la Nouvelle-France, he describes the collection and distillation of the maple sap by the Mi'kmaq Indians living in Eastern Canada at the time.
How did Natives prepare maple syrup?
Natives collected sap by cutting a V shape into the maple tree's trunk. Then they added a wedge at the bottom of that cut. Naturally, sap flowed out of the wedge and right into the basket at the base of that tree. The natives created wooden baskets out of the bark of birch trees. Along with oak log buckets, using a hatchet to hollow them out. Once the sap was collected, they put all the sap in a large hollowed-out log and boiled it with hot stones until it turned into syrup.
Image by Minnesota Historical Society
How did colonists prepare maple syrup?
Once the colonists arrived in America, they started using similar sugaring methods that they learned from natives. The colonists quickly replaced the wedge method with holes that were drilled using augers. After that, they inserted wooden spouts and then hung buckets. The buckets were made using hollowed-out trees, just like the natives.
After collecting the buckets full of sap, they used draft animals to bring all the sap to a central location. There they would boil the sap down in large iron kettles to make syrup and sugar. Maple sugar was significant at that time since cane sugar was costly, so syrup was a great, more affordable alternative.
Late 19th-century postcard image of a large tapered wooden sap gathering tank pulled by oxen on a sled.
After the 1800s
Once the 1800s arrived, numerous different inventions appeared in the sugaring world. For example, in 1850 people had access to larger, flat metal pans. That allowed them to achieve a much more efficient boil when compared to the regular iron kettles. Towards the end of the 1800s, large two-pan evaporators and enclosed fire arches helped boost boiling efficiency even more. These innovations listed above and many others were beneficial because you could process maple syrup a lot quicker. Plastic bags soon replaced the buckets and tractors replaced the draft.
The first version of Cook’s Portable Evaporator
After the 1900s
In the 70s, researchers invented vacuum pumps to help move sap through plastic tubing. In addition, thanks to reverse osmosis tools, sugar makers had the opportunity to remove water from the sap before boiling it. As you can see, the world of maple syrup has evolved immensely over the years. While the process itself hasn’t changed much from the early method used by Natives, it was heavily streamlined and adapted to modern times!