Maple sugaring was not new to Massachusetts when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. The Native Americans had been making sugar from the sweet sap of the maple tree for many years. From the journals of early explorers we know that the Native Americans had a process for making maple sugar as early as 1609. There are many Native American legends about how maple sugar was first discovered. One Iroquois legend tells how Chief Woksis had thrown his tomahawk into a maple tree one late winter evening. After he removed it the following morning, the weather turned sunny and warm. Sap began to flow from the cut in the tree, and drip down into a container, which was at the base of the tree. Chief Woksis's squaw used the sap to boil the meat for dinner. As the water in the sap boiled away, a wonderful, sweet maple taste was left with the meat.
Most likely the Native Americans discovered the sweetness of the maple tree by eating "sapsicles," the icicles of frozen maple sap that form from the end of a broken twig in winter time. As the ice forms, some of the water evaporates, leaving a sweet treat hanging from the tree.
As winter started to turn into spring, and the days got longer and warmer, the Native Americans would move their whole families into a spot in the forest where there were plentiful sugar maple trees. There they would establish "sugar camps" for the month or so that the maple sap would flow. The most common early method of collecting this sweet sap was to make V shaped slashes in the tree trunk, and collect the sap in a vessel of some sort. Not having metal pots in which to boil the sap, the Native Americans boiled away the water from their sap by dropping hot rocks in the containers made of hollowed out logs, of birch bark, or of clay.
From the journals of early New England explorers we have learned that there were three types of maple sugar made by the Northeastern Americans. "Grain Sugar" was a coarse granulated sugar similar to that we know as "brown sugar"; "Cake Sugar," sugar poured into wooden molds to become hard cakes or blocks; and "Wax Sugar," which was made by boiling syrup extra thick and pouring it over snow. This wax sugar is what we know today as "sugar on snow."
In the early days maple sap was boiled down and made into maple sugar, instead of the more common maple syrup that we see today. There was no easy way to store syrup as a liquid, but hardened, dry maple sugar was easily stored for use later in the year. The Native Americans of New England used their maple sugar as gifts, for trading, to mix with grains and berries and bear fat. During the heat of summer a special treat was a drink made of maple sugar dissolved in water.
The early European settlers who came to New England made maple sugar in the way that they learned from the Native American population. The settlers set up sugar camps in the woods where the maple trees were most plentiful, and the trees were slashed with an ax to allow the sap to drip out and be collected. As early as 1790 it was suggested that slashing the trees was not good for their health, and that a better way was to drill a half inch hole in the tree and insert a "spill" or spile to allow the sap to run out. The early spiles were made of a softwood twig such as sumac that had a soft center. The center was pushed out leaving a hollow wooden tube that could be inserted into a hole drilled into the maple tree. The sap would then drip out through the hollow tube or "spile", and into a collection vessel such as a hollowed out log.
These early sugarmakers gathered their sap in wooden buckets as they went from tree to tree. The sap was then boiled down in a series of large iron kettles hanging over a long open fire. As the syrup got thicker in one kettle it was ladled into the next one and fresh sap was then added to the first kettle. In this way, they always had the last kettle full of nearly completed syrup or sugar. When it was finally thickened enough, the liquid sugar was stirred until it began to crystallize, then poured of into wooden molds. These blocks of maple sugar could be broken up or shaved later in the year when needed.
This sweet product of the New England forests was very important to the colonists of early Massachusetts. In addition to providing a homemade source of sugar, the maple sugar was also used for trade or was sold. Many colonists made far more maple sugar than they could use themselves, sometimes as much as a thousand pounds per family. This excess was valuable to the early settlers as it provided some income or could be traded at local stores for other food and supplies. This locally made sugar was also important to the New Englanders because it was a sugar not made by the slaves of the West Indies. Our third President, Thomas Jefferson, was so much in favor of the United States producing its own maple sugar that he even started a plantation of sugar maples at his home, Monticello.
Over the next hundred years or so, maple sugar producing went through many changes. Metal buckets and spiles (spouts) replaced the wooden ones; metal tanks became available for sap storage instead of hollowed out logs or wooden barrels. For boiling, large flat pans soon replaced the three open kettles that were hung over an open fire. A contained fire could be built under the flat pan in a furnace or "arch", thus becoming more efficient because of the large surface area exposed to the fire. Other improvements included the building of shelters for boiling the sap, which became known as "sugarhouses." However, the process still involved an incredible amount of time and labor.
As the price of imported cane sugar declined, more New Englanders bought cane sugar instead of maple sugar. By the late 1800's a Vermont man built what he called a Maple sugar "evaporator." This especially designed flat pan had channels for the sap to flow through as it boiled. In this way fresh sap could always be added to one end of the evaporator, and finished syrup could be drawn off at the other end. Today pure maple syrup is still made in an evaporator with much the same design.
Shortly before 1890 the import tax on white cane sugar was removed, and cane sugar soon outsold maple sugar. What happened in the maple industry however, was that maple syrup became popular. Soon the New England "sugarmakers" were making maple syrup instead of maple sugar, and were selling it in cans and bottles. Now over a century later we still seek that special flavor of pure maple syrup that the original settlers of Massachusetts learned about from the Native Americans over 300 years ago.