Published in the Sunday Journal Gazette
MAPLE SYRUP MAKING NEAR-LOST FARM ART
By Forest J. McComb
Note: It’s a hectic, raw time when the sap is running but nature’s uncomparable confection – maple syrup – can be savored at leisure the your ‘round.
Using the hard-maple tree as source of sugar was a product that came to the white race from the Indians along with corn and tobacco. It is so easy to purchase sugar in stores that the maple syrup industry is fast becoming a lost farm art, along with butchering and applebutter making. About 60 years ago, a camp was opened on almost every farm blessed with the hard-maple tree.
This year, we were fortunate in having two neighboring camps open in Northeast Perry Township, Allen County, in what is known as the Dutch Ridge country. One of the two, on the WILBUR HARTUNG farm on the County Line Road has been open for the past 70 years.
The other camp on the LOYAL YODER farm, Chapman Road, hadn’t opened for the past three years. The camps in 10 and 20 acre groves at the rear of the farms, are only about 40 rods apart.
A son, LARRY YODER and wife ILSE, came home from Indiana University, Bloom-ington, to open the camp this year. Larry is taking a course in botany at the university, and it tied in well with the maple syrup camp. Larry expects to complete the dissertation and get his degree sometime this summer.
The maple sugar industry has been well-known throughout Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and extending on east to Vermont, and New Hampshire. Legend has it that it was first discovered by Indians quite by accident, as the sap only flows upward into the trees for a few weeks of spring.
An Indiana brave, coming home from a long hunt, found nothing prepared to eat by his lazy squaw. Becoming very angry, he threw a tomahawk at her. The squaw jumped to one side and the tomahawk slashed into a maple tree behind her, from which sap started to flow. She tasted the sap by licking some from a finger and found it good.
The lazy squaw, instead of carrying water from a faraway spring, quickly fashioned a deerskin to catch the sap from the tree. She then cooked some venison in the sugar water for the brave. He pronounced it the best meat he’d ever eaten and demanded to know how she did it. From that experience the Indians expanded the use of maple sap and it finally became about their only source of sugar.
The first product of boiling the sap is maple syrup; longer boiling produces taffy candy, and more boiling brings it to sugar. The Indians had no brick and metal pans for the sap and the best they could do was hollow out a half log and boil down the sap by heating stones and throwing them into the sap – a long and tedious process.
It didn’t take the white men long to improve the methods of tapping trees and boiling down the sap. The first spiles were made of wood. The part that went into the tree was hollowed out to let the sap through. The balance of the 15-inch spile was split in half and a center trough carried the sap away from the tree.
Larry has a sample of one made of ash wood. Someone then invented the modern metal spile and it hasn’t changed much over the years. The metal spile is 3 ½ inches long, has a tapered base and a flange set in about ¾ inch. A 7/16-inch hole is bored waist high in the tree about 2 ½ inches deep – through the outer bark, then the phloem which is the plant tissue that conducts tree food downward from leaves to roots – then into the inner tree. The full part of the spile goes into the tree ¾ of an inch and is hollow, while the outer part is a trough with notches or hooks on top to hold the bucket snug after the spile is tapped lightly into the tree with a hammer. The buckets have a hole under the flange that slips over the spile, hold two gallons of sap, and lids can be used to keep out rain and snow. When the hole is bored into the tree the bit is tilted up slightly to let the sap flow by gravity.
About the only thing that differs today is, instead of using horses and a sled to gather the sap, the farmers now use a tractor. Much labor is involved in making maple syrup; tapping the trees and gathering the sap from tree to tree; but most of all comes in boiling it down at the evaporator. It takes from 30 to 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, depending on the quality of the run.
At the Yoder camp, they have a firebox made years ago by SOL YODER, Larry’s grandfather. It is laid up with brick, about five feet long, three wide, and 30 inches high. The metal pan sits on top of the firebox and extends over it at the far end and is divided into five sections with baffle plates. All the raw sap enters the pan at the front and works its way through the pan sections to the last one where the final boiling takes place. This section isn’t directly over the fire but gets heat from the smoke and gases passing underneath before it enters the chimney at the far end. They have a cylindrical instrument, something like a thermometer, to test the sap and when it registers 32, the sugar water is maple syrup.
It takes lots of fuel for the evaporating and the grove of woods offers this from fallen trees and limbs. They have the fuel gathered and on hand and Yoder’s have an antique one-cylinder, six-horse gas engine that still runs like a ribbon, belted to a buzz saw for cutting up the wood. (Over at the Hartung camp they use a chainsaw.)
The engine has a covered shelter and so does the evaporator. In fact, this shelter is large enough to store tools and wood, but also has a table and chairs, a davenport, and locker cabinets for food and dishes, all on a wooden floor. Workers could both eat and sleep here if they prefer.
Larry’s wife, Ilse, and sister, SHIRLEY YODER, both helped out at the camp and their specialty is, when the work slackens, to serve pancakes with the new syrup right at the camp.
Larry goes in for antiques and he has three steam whistles mounted on the roof. One sounds like the Wabash Cannonball, one like a steamboat coming round the bend, and the other like an oldtime steam thresher.
The Yoders this year had 210 trees tapped and the best days for the sap to run is after a night freeze, followed by a warm, still day. When the syrup is done it is dipped from the evaporator and strained through felt with a cotton liner to take out granules and any foreign substance.
The Hartung Camp is an old one with 500 trees tapped. It is a very clean grove, as underbrush is all cut out, and the large trees show up beautifully. Wilber has an advantage too, as the level of the woods drops off and the evaporator is at the bottom of a hill. The sap barrel when coupled to the pipes feeds the sap into the evaporator by gravity. They have a much larger evaporator – 20 feet long – divided into six sections. Wilbur and daughter, FERN SALTSMAN, operate the camp. Three gener-ations back, Wilber’s grandfather had a 1,200 tree camp. Some days, they couldn’t boil the sap fast enough and had to store the surplus in a cistern.
This camp made 200 gallons of syrup last year, and has run as high as 465 gallons, but Wilber boiled down only around 100 this year. When the sugar content is low it does not affect the quality of the syrup; it simply takes more boiling.
There was much enjoyment and satisfaction derived from the sugar camps of long ago. It was the first “crop” of the new year, and families enjoyed socializing after a long winter. The men worked back and forth, being joined by the womenfolk who brought foot and cooked more at the camps. The food, eaten outdoors, in the fresh air of the grove beside a warm fire, never tasted better.
An 86 year old friend, FLOYD BRADLEY, Lima Road, tells how he and two more lads once opened a camp on shares in the Huntertown area. One day a neighboring farmer stopped in to see how they were doing.
“You have plenty of fire, don’t you do any cooking?” he asked.
“Sure! Tonight, we’re having scrambled eggs and hot beans,” Floyd said.
“Eggs and beans! Don’t you ever cook chicken out here?”
“Why, no – but, if you’ll come tomorrow night for supper, we’ll have some.”
The visitor was back the next evening at the appointed time. The youths had dressed two chickens and boiled them in maple sap, and their guest was delighted with the feast.
“This is about the best chicken I’ve ever tasted,” he said, wiping off his chin and helping himself to another piece. “Where’d you get such good chickens?”
“Right out of your chicken coop,” was the bland answer.
Even though the crop this year wasn’t large, LARRY YODER, feels that the camp was a success in many ways. Besides his wife and sister, who enjoyed every bit of it, six students from Indiana University at Bloomington, were here for four days and pitched in mightily to help. And locally, he was helped by CLIFTON SCHWARTZ and JOHN DEWOOD, both good men around a sugar camp. And, many sight-seers were attracted to the camp. Two were a young Doctor Sinclair and wife from South Africa, here on a year’s exchange at a Chicago hospital.
It is surprising how much interest is shown in a declining industry. On a Sunday afternoon, 60 people were at the camp and more coming to see just how it is done, and many were children. When Larry demonstrated how to tap a tree, the amazed kids crowded in so close so as not to miss a single detail. Of course, some came just to blow the whistles!
One pretty young girl hanging onto her husband’s arm, looked around the camp and at the trees, then asked, “Did you say they make fresh maple syrup here?”
The husband looked into the woods where the tractor was coming with a barrel of sap, and replied, “Fresh, did you say? They got the tractor coming in high gear, ain’t they?”