While I consider February to be a dull monotonous month here in the mountains of Western Maryland, it was a month my dad always looked forward to because it was Maple Sugar Time! Dad loved many times of the year, but when the Maple Sugar Trees started running – he was happy, and in his later years it was still his main topic of conversation during this time.
My dad was born and raised in a high elevation (at least for Maryland) farm on the Maryland – West Virginia border very near the headwaters of the great Potomac River. That farm was home to a large lot of sugar maple trees and since you lived off the land in the middle 1900’s if you were a farmer, these maple trees were a source of income in these parts of the world during a time of the year when there was a lag or a wait to begin the process of preparing the land and planting for the next growing season. Along with the money came syrup for home use, as well as maple candy and other treats. Dad would talk of taking the warm syrup from the boiler, pouring it on snow, and eating that as taffy. He loved it. Many times February had lots of snow covering the land, but you could begin to expect some warmer days arriving by the middle to late part of the month. (Warmer days – I am saying 30’s and low 40’s here.) The nights would dip down below freezing and then warm up some during the day – perfect weather for making maple syrup especially after the snow melt. This could continue into March or even early April depending upon how fast spring arrived. The best syrup was always early in the year and it progressively got darker as more sap would start flowing in the trees along with the water, and when the Maple Trees bloomed, dad said it was time to stop.
Making maple syrup is Hard Work! I really can’t speak much from experience here, but I do have some very early memories of helping dad in the late 60’s on the farm. I also helped him some in later years when he would help others boiling the water. During the peak of the season, this is a 24 hour a day job with lots of preparation going in before you reached this point. You had to gather the firewood, get the buckets ready, prepare the boiler and other supplies. Then, when the time came, you had to drill the trees (sometimes two or three times per spring), and hang the buckets, and when the trees started dripping, gather the water on a regular basis. This was done by horse and wagon when dad was a boy. Then you boiled the sugar water down to syrup, and if the trees were running well, this boiling process took all day and night. It can take up to 100 gallons of sugar water to make a gallon of syrup, so this was a lot of gathering and boiling. They would sell the syrup in 50 gallon barrels I believe, so just imagine! This is not a one person job – it took the entire family to make this happen. My dad has been a night person since he worked second and third shifts at the coal mines, so in his later years he would volunteer to help sugar makers by boiling during the night.
As I have stated before, I don’t have a lot of experience here but really enjoyed hearing dad talk about making the syrup when he was a boy. He would talk about the grades of syrup, how the goal was to make the fancy grade, seal it in barrels, take it to the train station in Wilson or Bayard, then wait for the money to arrive. This money helped maintain the sugar camp, bought needed groceries ,and purchase seed for that year’s crops. It was a very important part of the farm’s life, and again a time dad loved. After my grandad passed away, the kids (and let’s just say there were a lot of them,) kept the sugar camp going for several years. As a teenager there would be many times I would walk to the old sugar camp that was falling down and just wonder about the busy times that were had there, and if dad was along enjoyed the old stories, and sometimes new ones, about the times in that sugar camp. I wish I could remember them now.
There is still a lot of Maple Syrup made in this area, but not many use buckets to gather the water anymore. Tubing is run from tree to tree (unless the trees are in an area where this process is difficult, then buckets may still be used.) The water goes to a central gathering tank, then transferred to gravity feeding tanks for the boilers. There are even boilers now that run off propane gas, making the process of keeping the water at the right temperature much easier. Many still use those wood boilers though.
Last year as principal of a small high school in West Virginia, I helped the Ag Teacher and Classes purchase a small boiler and watched as they made syrup during the day as a project, until this damned virus came along. The kids absolutely loved doing this and classes visited the boiler often during the day to watch the process. It brought back good memories of the wood smoke and the sweet smell of the steam and boiling water! I hope they can do that again this year and really, Maple Syrup is the best with all natural ingredients, and Iced Tea made from sugar water (notice I didn’t say syrup here but the unrefined water) is the best!
We are having more of a normal winter here in Western Maryland and there is still over a foot of snow here in the Maple Sugar woods, and the temperature isn’t going above freezing yet, but that is coming and many farms here in the area are prepared for it and ready to go! I am ready to see the steam and smoke coming from sugar camps soon this year – COME ON SPRING!
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