Collecting sap for maple syrup may be the best thing about early spring in New England. Which of course damns it with faint praise, as the best things about early spring in New England also include the occasional crocus and Red Sox spring training in Florida. And that’s pretty much it.
But maple syrup and, by extension, maple sugar do make early spring bearable, especially in northern New England. The stately stands of maples, the cozy sugar shack, sugar on snow, rosy cheeks, pancakes, Currier and Ives and all that.
1. The Maple Syrup Workout
Collecting maple sap and boiling it down to syrup used to require a lot of drudgery. Hauling bucket after bucket of the stuff to a fire that had to be constantly fed was not for the faint of heart. And according to an old Indian legend, that’s exactly how the whole business of maple syrup got started.
Maple syrup originated with the indigenous people of the Northeast. According to one legend, a god, or a chief, came upon a village of Indians lying around drinking syrup from maple trees. Appalled by the fat and lazy villagers, the god (or chief) decided to whip them into shape. So he turned the sap watery except in the spring. That way, the Indians had to work to get their syrup fix.
By the early 17th century, indigenous people were trading maple sugar with Europeans, and the European settlers started making it for themselves.
2. Cause Marketing
In the 18th century, New England imported huge amounts of cane sugar from slave plantations in the West Indies. The Rev. Samuel Hopkins, ordained in Great Barrington, Mass., in 1743, preached against slavery. That turned out to be a bad career move as he lost his job.
But Hopkins continued his abolitionist ways, and he urged people to use maple sugar rather than imported sugar. His idea caught on. John Adams’ friend Dr. Benjamin Rush, for example, formed the Society for Promoting the Manufacture of Sugar from the Sugar Maple Tree. And a contemporary almanac stated maple sugar ‘must possess a sweeter flavor to an independent American of the north, than that which is mingled with the groans and tears of slavery.’
3. Women and Children
Maple sugar had another advantage: it was cheap. In 1818, it sold for half as much as cane sugar from the West Indies. Farmers could also make it themselves, for their own use or to bring in a little extra cash.
Actually, farmers’ wives and children made a lot of the maple sugar. In the late 1780s a French visitor to the United States estimated American women and children made 10 million pounds of sugar. That had to be a wild guess, but at least it tells us a LOT of maple sugar.
4. War Is Good for…Maple Syrup Production
If it weren’t for a couple of wars, maple syrup producers might still be doing the Currier and Ives thing. The Civil War propelled the maple sugar industry into at least the 19th century. The war cut off cane sugar from the South, so New England’s sap harvesters stepped up production to meet demand for maple sugar. Instead of boiling sap over open fires, sugar makers built brick or stone arches to enclose the flame. And they adapted the sheet metal technology used to make tin cans for soldiers for metal evaporators that replaced kettles.
Plastics developed during World War II ushered in the plastic bag era during the 1951 season. The George H. Soule Company developed the “King Portable Power Tree Tapper,” a gas-powered drill in a backpack with a plastic sap collection bag. The bag, made of heavy plastic called vinylite, was used by the U.S. Air Force to package food and water dropped to G.I.s. Eventually, plastic tubing replaced plastic bags.
5. The Great Maple Syrup Bust
In 1939, U.S. marshals seized 900 barrels of maple syrup from St. Johnsbury-based Cary Maple Sugar Company, the world’s largest buyer of the sweet stuff.
Before then, maple syrup fraud had turned into a big problem for honest producers. By the 1880s, they were complaining about the ‘flood of diluted and doctored glucose’ that contaminated nature’s nectar. State and federal food regulators began to crack down on the frauds.
In the Cary Maple Sugar case, the feds claimed the syrup had a “poisonous or deleterious ingredient, lead.” Spectators packed the courthouse during the seven-day trial in Burlington. The Vermont jury ruled for the local company, but the federal government won on appeal. The maple syrup industry subsequently cleaned up its act, getting rid of lead-based metal buckets, kettles and paint.
6. A Maple Syrup Lab
Vermont, the largest U.S. producer of maple syrup since 1886, has had a permanent maple syrup laboratory since 1946. Part of the University of Vermont, Gov. Mortimer Proctor bought the land and donated it to the state. The laboratory, in Underhill, includes 150 acres of maple trees known as a sugar bush. The lab has conducted research into the molecular genetics of sap sweetness, sources of lead in maple syrup and the meteorological influence on stem pressure and sap flow.
With thanks to Deborah Jean Warner, Sweet Stuff: An American History of Sweeteners from Sugar to Sucralose and National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form Proctor Maple Research Farm and the Maple Syrup History blog by Matthew M. Thomas. This story was updated in 2023.