Sugaring-off

Aunt Katy remembers
maple sugar seasons of her youth.

There was a sugar bush on my grandparents Big Farm and Jos and I had a few trees on our land, too. Frank and Julia, our two elder children, did the gathering there when they were young. I'd boil the sap on the back of the wood-stove till they had a cup or two of syrup.

Grandpa was everlasting proud of his sugarbush. His maple syrup was always the lightest and sweetest for miles around. When the sap began to run, his would be the first trees tapped and the first smoke of the season came from his sugar house chimney. There were only two years in all the decades he owned the Big Farm that Grandpa didn't sugar off, 1862 and 1863. In those years there was no sweetness in all the land.

It was the Indians, Grandpa said, who had first tapped the trees in this sugarbush. There had been well marked paths winding through its depths when he had begun the spring ritual of sap gathering. It pleased him, I think, to tread in the footsteps of the copper-skinned men who had lived in and loved this wooded land as he did.

Along about the end of February I'd watch the mail for a postcard from Grandma saying that the sap was running. As soon as it came we'd go to the Big Farm for the fun. The boiling shed stood at the edge of the sugarbush, flanked by piles of wood, for the great sap kettles must boil constantly to produce good, sweet syrup.

There was a dirt road through the bush along which big Dan and Molly pulled a sledge loaded with tubs into which was poured the contents of pails hanging on the trees. The two big horses plodding along the familiar path, their breath streaming around their heads, coats still shaggy with winter hair, their heads close together probably discussing past years' runs or the coming years' work.

Snow still lay in hollows and banked up in open places so Grandpa, Uncle Bert, and Unlce Lonzo and his big boys wore boots as they made their way from tree to tree when the sap began to flow. They drove in one, two, or three taps acording to the size of the tree, and hung covered pails on each. All the sugaring-off equipment was kept scrupulously clean so the syrup was always light and sweet.

By the time I got there the kettles would be boiling and the men busy gathering sap. It takes many gallons of the slightly sweet, watery sap to make a quart of maple syrup. Grandpas sugarbush was large enough to supply the family's needs and have some left over to sell. I think they got 75 cents a gallon for it. I wish I could get maple syrup for that price today.

The woods in summer or fall are fun, full of forts, Indians, lost princesses, and other such imaginary adventures, but in the spring they are enchanted. Bundled against the damp and chilling air still trapped amid the trees, I rode out on the sledge from the barn to the sugar boiling shed and from there into the woods. As the stark tree trunks sporting shining tin pails closed around us, the spirit of the woods called to me and I would slip from the sledge to go off alone to discover its secret hiding place.

Alone I felt myself to be, yet I was never out of sight or hearing of Grandpa or one of my uncles or cousins. They knew the excitement I was feeling and allowed me to enjoy it. When I scrambled to the top of the boulder in the heart of the woods I could see my cousins' red heads flashing between trees on all sides. Grandpa saw me and waved, his smile as warm as the fire crackling beneath the boiling pans and my shell of aloneness burst as his love for me swelled my heart with joy.

There were dark holes in trees where the woods creatures might be finishing their winter naps. Here a path led to the creek that meandered narrowly through the sugarbush and out into its wider meadow bed. The stream bank was black with last falls leaves, here and there snow and ice still rimmed the rocks and rushing water. Suddenly I would be very thirsty and, kneeling on the soggy bank, braids held against my shoulder with one hand, I would plunge my face into the icy water and drink. The water tasted of snow and loam and my teeth would ache from its cold but it was good. It was Spring flowing into me as I rose to tramp on, feeling the soft pale sunshine gently warming my face and singing Easter hymns at the top of my voice. Soon I would be joined in song by the rest of the woods' human inhabitants for mine was a music-loving family and we all sang at our work.

Sugaring off provided a good excuse for having a party. Nothing is so welcome in late winter as fresh sweets when you've been eating salt pork and withered vegetables from the root cellar for weeks. Neighbors came driving into the farmyard in straw filled farm wagons behind steaming, snorting horses. At the sugar shed there were logs to sit on and Grandmas rocker stood near the fire tho she rarely sat in it, being too busy serving her guests. There were pans of baking powder biscuits over which the hot syrup could be poured, hot coffee to wash them down and dill pickles to "cut the sweet". Or you could have a saucer of hot syrup to stir into delicious candy.

If there had been a new snow as often happened, milk-pans of the fresh snow were scooped up and hot syrup poured over it in a lacy network to form "wax". Young and old alike chewed the sweet stuff while wiping away sugary spittal on sleeve or handkie. The air was fragrant with the smell of boiling sap and rich coffee. Fingers became sticky with maple sugar and pickle juice. Small stomachs filled with unaccustomed delicacies till even the liveliest youngster settled near ma or pa on a quilt covered log and just listened to the talk.

Eventually would come a lull in the conversation when only the crackle of the fire and bubble of the sap could be heard. Then Uncle Bert's clear tenor would lead off followed by Ma's alto, Aunt Bea's high sweet soprano, and timbered by Grandpa's and Uncle Lonzo's deep bass and soon everyone would be singing. The woods rang with melody after melody until rising winds and chilling night damp reminded everyone that warm beds awaited. The party moved away through the meadow to the barn where stabled horses once again were harnessed up for the trip home.

Uncle Bert or Uncle Lonzo with some of the boys spent nights at the sugar shed, keeping the fires going and watching the sap so it didn't scorch or stop boiling. They might catch a bit of sleep on a quilt covered pile of straw in a sheltered corner of the shed. In fact, they practically lived there for days till the sap run was over.

There were sugar parties at church or school too where pots of syrup were heated and eaten drizzled over biscuits or stirred into candy. Again there was hot coffee and pickles to cut the sweet. Games were played and the gatherings often ended in song. Amusements were simple and homemade in those days but none the less enjoyed.