WHEN SPRING WARMED the
maple trees sufficiently the sap began to flow, and Vermont farmers who
were fortunate enough to have sugar bushes, began preparations for sugar
making. Harvesting the maple sugar crop is a combination of hard labor and
spring festival; more of labor than of festival. John Burroughs called
sugar making, "that fascinating half-work and half-play pursuit."
Those who have been initiated into the rites of
sugar making approach the ceremony with an attitude of mind peculiar to
it. To begin with, the flow of sap in the maple trees is one of the first
harbingers of spring. It is in the nature of a proclamation that winter
with its short cold days and long cold nights is giving way to the
influence of the sun. When the sun shines brightest, the sap flows most
freely. On warm sunny days when the cold of the night has been dispelled
by the rising sun the sap runs into the spout and drips into the pail in
fast succeeding drops as if in gratitude for the warming rays and in haste
to do its part.
Though Vermont farmers issue no engraved
invitations to village boys bidding them to their sugar bushes and to help
themselves to sap, sugar and syrup to the fullness of their capacity, it
is well understood that sugar-making time is the farmer's one prime
opportunity to relax the customary and necessary rigor of his thrift and
establish himself in the good graces of the boys. The spring vacation was
the period of treks to the sugar bush. In rubber boots we waded through
every swale along the valley road; then over the fence we went and up the
mountainside while the sun shone as if to make up for lost time.
When a snowfall came late in March, after winter
snows, except patches that had drifted into protected places, had melted
away, folks used to call it the sugar snow. That was the equivalent of
saying that Providence had caused the fall of snow in order to make it
good sledding in the sugar bushes on the mountain sides so that the
farmers could collect the sap with less difficulty. The sugar snow was
supposed to be the last of the season but it did not always prove to be
so; it often had to yield that honor to other light falls of snow coming
as late some years as the middle of April.
Newly fallen sugar snow enabled rapscallions to
study the ways of the little wild creatures of the hills and the valleys.
Here, one would find the cautious footprints of a woodchuck; there, the
halting, irregular print of the browsing rabbit, and sometimes even the
many gaited fox would have left the prints of his soft pads upon the snow.
The partridges and crows left their own private brands on the white sugar
snow and the delicate tracery of the feet of tiny field mice could be seen
almost anywhere as they emerged from their covers of tangled grass and
crusted snow. There were squirrel tracks beyond number but they were not
of much interest because, high up in the branches of the trees, one could
see the impudent creatures themselves and hear them scolding and watch
them chasing each other in spirals up the trunks of the aged oaks and
beeches to the dismay of redheaded woodpeckers and chickadees searching
for their breakfasts.
Occasionally a blue-coated, brown-breasted
bluebird could be seen, and, not so frequently, a precocious robin high up
in the treetop making observations perhaps as to the weather and giving
pre-auditions of the songs he was to sing when lovemaking time came. Lazy
crows, high in the air, cawed either in felicitation as to the change God
had made in the weather, or in derision of the humans creeping along the
surface of the earth far down below.
Perched on outcropping rocks, we feasted our eyes
on the panorama spread before us and then we made search for the sweetest
tree, frequently wastefully emptying the buckets of solid ice formed
during the night in order to get at the extra sweet residue left in the
bottom of the bucket. Vandals indeed we were during sugar-making time. It
required approximately forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup so
there should have been no sap wasted upon the ground.
In compensation for stolen sweets, and other
things to follow, we helped the farmer to gather the sap, lifting the
buckets from their spouts and pouring the contents into capacious
hogsheads on the low ox-drawn sleds for transportation to the sugar house,
either to be boiled down in huge iron kettles, according to the old
process, or separated in gigantic rectangular pans, according to the then
new way of making sugar. Sugar making was a night and day occupation for
the energetic fanner; sap had to be gathered in the day time but the
boiling down process or the evaporating process could be done as well at
night. The period during which sap flows is not a long one and ambitious
farmers owning and operating sugar bushes have to make the most of it.
The supply of wood with which to keep up the fires
was near at hand. The lusty farmer, skilled in handling an ax, could, with
amazing speed, fell dead trees and cut the trunks and limbs to suitable
size for use in the sugar house for keeping fires hot beneath the huge
pans of liquid sweetness. The swift, sure stroke of a well-sharpened axe
in the hands of a farmer in the sugar bush, was fascinating to wide-eyed
boys from the village; no missed strokes were respectable; the blade had
to fall within an infinitesimal fraction of an inch from where it had
fallen on the preceding stroke. To fall on precisely the same spot would
be to miss the mark, as would also a stroke too far from the landing place
of the preceding stroke to permit of the slicing off of a good clean chip.
The examination of a tree that has been felled by an experienced woodsman
reveals true economy of effort; no slovenly workman he. The blade is swung
high and at the apex of its flight, it pauses for an instant, and then
descends in a graceful curve to its mark.
Sometimes when tramping through the woods, one is
startled by a whir of wings and the flash of a bird descending from
somewhere in the sky. The curve described at the end of its flight, when
landing on the edge of its nest or elsewhere, is very like the flight of
the blade of an axe in the hands of an experienced woodsman; it is poetry
of motion. Many farmers make their own axe helves evenings in the winter,
fashioning them to their respective tastes and as delicate in balance as
the bow of a violin.
The sleds were built low to keep the center of
gravity down and thus avoid upsets when they were drawn over huge rocks
and down precipitous declivities in roadless forests. How to get between,
under, or over trees and rocks, involved the solution of geometrical
problems possible only to the minds and practiced eyes of New England
sugar bush farmers.
I have seen sleds with hogsheads full of the
sweetish liquid, after herculean tugs by whiplashed but patient oxen, come
hurtling down a rocky declivity in a manner which threatened to break the
necks of the oxen in their wooden yokes and yet I have never seen one of
the hogsheads upset or one of the oxen injured. The runners of the sleds
were made of tough wood instead of iron or steel and could be hauled over
rocks or turf or through snow or water with almost equal facility.
Improved methods have done away with much of the
drudgery of sugar making and oxen are seldom seen in the sugar bush now.
One more picturesque feature of former days has vanished into the past.
The maple tree is a worker of miracles beyond the
ken of man. Who understands the force which draws the sap against the law
of gravity up to the billions of chemical laboratories at the tips of tiny
I have heard folks ask whether the tapping of the
maple trees, and the drawing off of great quantities of sap, injured the
trees as the pine frees of the south are frequently injured by drawing off
their sap for the manufacture of turpentine and rosin. So far as I have
been able to learn maple frees are never injured by their annual tappings;
nature seems to have made provision for them. They give sap much as cows
give milk; the sap is the milk of the maple tree, not its life blood.
I remember well the struggle for supremacy between
the old-fashioned boiling down process and the modem evaporating process
of making syrup. The old-fashioned product was much darker than the new,
differing somewhat as buckwheat honey differs from honey gathered from
sweet clover. My own preference was for the old-fashioned syrup; it seemed
sweeter and heavier. The process of sugar making and syrup making has been
greatly improved in recent years. The sap goes in at one end of the
evaporating pan, passes automatically through successive chambers and
passes out the other end as pure maple syrup.
Cousin John Fox married the daughter of a pioneer
in the manufacture of sugar-making equipment and the business still
continues. Farmers as a rule prefer to make payment for their equipment in
maple syrup and that makes it necessary for the manufacturer to dispose of
the product. The Rutland company and another company in St. Johnsbury
divide most of the honors as purveyors of pure Vermont maple syrup.
Graining syrup and waxing it were processes dear
to the hearts of the boys and girls of my day. To grain it, one heats the
syrup and then whips it in a saucer with a fork until it becomes hard and
white. To wax it, one pours the hot syrup on hard-packed snow where it
stiffens into a delicious stickiness and can be picked up with a fork.
Butternut maple candy was another product of the sugar-making period in
the good old days. Oh, me! Oh, my!
Maple syrup was an essential for the enjoyment of
buckwheat cakes-maple syrup and plenty of butter. Grandfather was fond of
the combination, and so was his grandson. Grandfather personally attended
to the procurement of the buckwheat flour and the maple syrup for use in
After having taken infinite pains in selecting the
flour and the syrup, grandfather didn't permit all to go for naught due to
a preparation of the cakes not in accord with his ideas on that subject. I
heard him say to grandmother one morning at the breakfast table
"what's the matter with the buckwheat cakes, Ma?
They don't appear to be up to snuff this morning!"
"I don't know that there is anything the matter,"
grandmother answered. "Delia fried them just as usual except that I put a
little baking soda in them. I thought they were getting a little sour."
"Sour!" exclaimed grandfather. "That's just what
they are supposed to be. Take the sour out of buckwheat cakes and they
might as well be thrown to the dogs as far as I am concerned. That's what
distinguishes buckwheat cakes from other cakes, their sourness. To
preserve the sourness is just why we carry the batter over from day to
day, isn't it?"
"I suppose it is," admitted grandmother. "Well,
I'll have them made just as sour as you want them, Pa-sour as pickles if
that's what you want."
never could be too sour for me," said grandfather. I agreed with
grandfather in that. If there is anything that will spoil buckwheat cakes
and make them look as if they had an attack of jaundice, it is baking
soda. The above conversation settled the matter of soda in our buckwheat