Maple sugaring in the old days

Below is more from Philp Tiemann’s manuscript. It’s an excellent record of sugaring in the old days.

“…There were years when the sap ran earlier, but not often. It depended to a large extent upon the location of the sugar bush, which varied from farm to farm. Those balmy days following frosty nights, required to make the sap run, never could be determined in advance, and sometimes boiling continued into April. Always there were interruptions, either by a freeze or snow or rain; buckets might be out for six weeks or longer but with gathering possible perhaps only half the time. The operation commenced with the tapping of the desired number of trees, – boring a hole with brace and bit for the spout, which was equipped with a hook, and hanging anywhere from our twenty buckets or so up to perhaps a thousand. Two or three hundred was quite a lot to handle. They had to be visited at least daily while the sap was running, collecting in a larger bush being generally with a horse-drawn sled on which a sizeable tank was mounted. It took a good team to break a path through the deep snow. Of course we collected ours by hand in oversize buckets, generally requiring snow shoes…


Windy Hill Farm in Cavendish. Photo provided by Peter Farrar.

“The tankful of sap was hauled to the sugar house which as a rule was located not far from the farmhouse. Here the sweetest liquid – about the viscosity and color of water – was emptied into a much larger storage tank connected with the boiling apparatus. This consisted of a very large – perhaps as much as four by six feet – compartmented pan into one end of which the sap was fed through a pipe (or perhaps dumped from a can). The pan rested on an “arch” (I would have called it a furnace) made usually of brick with large iron doors thru which unbelievable  quantities of fuel were fed to produce a roaring blaze. Here is where all the scrap wood, old tires, and other combustibles were accumulated during the preceding year to augment the cordwood supply. The compartments of the pan were designed with openings thru which the sap would flow as it boiled down, from one end to the other, gradually becoming thicker. When it reached the proper consistency it was ladled or drawn off into gallon cans which were closed and sealed hot. In the old days consistency and color were a matter of judgement on the part of the maker and hence tended to vary considerably, but by our time more accurate grading was beginning to be required both by range of color and by weight which was determined by a hydrometer and was supposed to be pounds for a legal gallon of syrup. As I have mentioned, the first or fancy grade is quite pale.


On the left, Ann Tiemann and on the right, Joyce Tiemann with oxen Nip & Tuck. Winter of 1938-1939. Photo provided by Ron Patch.

“To make hard sugar requires considerably longer boiling than does syrup. Local practice has been to make quite a quantity of “soft sugar” which, when packed in small covered pails (lard pails are fine), can be spooned out as wanted. This is easily melted or, if desired, cooked down further to make real sugar. But it is apt to be rather dark.

There always has been a good demand for quality syrup, and so it was that many thrifty farmers made use of what otherwise might have been idle time to increase their income. It also put their teams to use. But it was not all gravy. Equipment is expensive and has to be maintained; a good supply of fuel essential; and while the sap is running there is a lot of hard work and long hours, often extending far into the night. Then there is the business of marketing whatever the family does not want to keep for its own use. In this respect Isabel was of help to both neighbors and ourselves; acting as middleman she managed to sell quite a bit.”

This March 24 and 25 is Maple Open House Weekend in Vermont. Maple producers throughout the state will open their sugarhouses for visitors to come and see their operations. You’ll see signs around pointing you to each sugarhouse. I urge readers to make a day of it. You’ll learn a lot. And the aroma inside a sugarhouse is something you have to experience. Most producers will offer you a sample of the day’s syrup.

I went last year and found many producers in my area. They all have different methods, some quite commercial. The producers were all very friendly and eager to explain how their operation worked. Take your kids or grandkids. They’ll learn a lot and love the aroma of the steam from the boiling sap.


This week’s old saying. “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

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