Hamilton's Maple Products
Writen by Mike Poulin

No one is really sure just how long people have been practicing the art and science of making this wonderful product from the sap of a tree. However, there is one basic thought about the origin of maple syrup.

This thought identifies with Native American legend and lore that maple syrup and maple sugar was being made before recorded history. Native Americans were the first to discover 'sinzibuckwud', the Algonquin Native American tribal word for maple syrup, meaning 'drawn from wood'.

It is said that the first syrup was discovered when a young indian hunter was in the woods looking for food. It was getting late and the sun was going down so he made camp and stuck his tomahawk into a tree. When he woke in the morning he pulled his tomahawk from the tree and found that there was a slight puddle at the base of the tree. When he got back to camp with his game, his sqaw asked him to find some water for cooking the meat in. He remembered the water puddle at the base of the tree and went and brought the watery liquid back to his squaw to cook with. While she was cooking the game she realized that the water he had brought back had a sweet smell and make the meat tast sweet also. This is the first time syrup was ever tasted as a sweet from a tree. >From this the Native Americans were the first to recognize the sap as a source of energy and nutrition. They would use their tomahawks to make V-shaped incisions in the trees. Then, they would insert reeds or concave pieces of bark to run the sap into buckets made from birch bark or a hollowed out log. Due to the lack of proper equipment, the sap was slightly concentrated either by throwing hot stones in the bucket, or by leaving it overnight and disposing with the layer of ice out which had formed on top. It was drunk as a sweet drink or used in cooking.

Before the advent of European tools and technology, the Natives used clay pots to boil maple sap over simple fires protected only by a roof of tree branches. This was the first version of the sugar house.

The first white settlers and fur traders introduced wooden buckets to the process, as well as iron and copper kettles. In the early days of colonization, it was the Natives who showed French settlers how to tap the trunk of a tree at the outset of spring, harvest the sap and boil it to evaporate some of the water. This custom quickly became an integral part of colony life and during the 17th and 18th centuries, syrup was a major source of high quality pure sugar. Later, however, they would learn to bore holes in the trees and hang their buckets on home-made spouts called "spiles". Maple Sugar production was especially important due to the fact that other types of sugar were hard to find and expensive. It was as common on the table as salt is today.

Early maple syrup was made by boiling 40 gallons of sap over an open fire until you had one gallon of syrup. This was both time consuming and labor intensive, especially considering that the sap needed to be gathered in the first place.

During the Civil War, the tin can was invented. The tin can was made of sheet metal. It didn't take syrup makers long to realize that a large flat sheet metal pan was more efficient for boiling than a heavy rounded iron kettle which let much of the heat slide past.

Most of syrup makers in the past were self sufficient dairy farmers who made syrup and sugar during the off season of the farm for their own use and for extra income. These farmers were, and continue to be, folks who look at a process and say to themselves, 'There has to be a faster, more efficient, easier way to do this.' Then, in approximately 1864, a Canadian borrowed some design ideas from sorghum (molasses) evaporators and put a series of baffles in the flat pans to channel the boiling sap. In 1872 a Vermonter developed an evaporator with two pans and a metal arch or firebox which greatly decreased boiling time. Seventeen years later, in 1889, another Canadian bent the tin that formed the bottom of a pan into a series of flues which increased the heated surface area of the pan and again decreased boiling time.

For the most part technology stayed at this point for almost another century, until the 1960's, when it was no longer a self sufficient enterprise with smaller families and fewer farm hands. Because syrup making is so labor intensive a farmer could no longer afford to hire the large crew it would take to gather all the buckets and haul the sap to the sugar house. During the energy crunch of the 1970's, syrup makers responded with another surge of technological breakthroughs. Tubing systems, which had been experimented with since the early part of the century, were perfected and the sap came directly from the tree to the sugar house. Vacuum pumps were added to the tubing systems. Pre-heaters or piggyback pans were developed to "recycle" heat lost in the steam. Reverse-osmosis filters were developed to take a portion of water out of the sap before it is boiled.

History is nothing without our learning lessons from it. Today the technological developments continue. Improvements continue in tubing. Similarly, new filtering techniques, "supercharged" preheaters, and better storage containers have been developed. Research continues on improved woodlot management and better ways to keep the forest healthy.
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Hamiltons Pure Maple Products, 320 Gee Hill Rd, Ulysses, PA 16948, (814) 848-9853