Friday, March 23, 2018

Maple memories

I’ve been wanting for years to write a post about my memories of maple sugaring, but just hadn’t found the time.  I’m pretty determined to write one at least before the end of the 2018 sugaring season.  I want this to serve the dual purpose of recording memories for my grandkids as well as making an interesting early-spring blog post.

That picture at the top is a scan of a greeting card.  It looks, really, amazingly like my grandfather's sugarhouse and sugar orchard.   There was the same woods road bordered by old stone walls and mounds of rocks, the same hillside sloping up behind in one area, the same maples lining the road, and even the same mountain in the distance!  I have to wonder, I really do, if the artist had visited my grandparents' sugar orchard.  Or maybe, probably, many New England sugar orchards looked a lot alike.
A vintage sugaring postcard that I recently found
I guess I’ll start with the earliest  memories.  I literally grew up with sugaring, so that as a child there was never a time it wasn’t part of my life.  As mentioned above, my grandfather had a good-sized sugar orchard and maple syrup operation.   He had a sugarhouse way up in the sugar orchard, and how I wish I knew more about it.  Was the sugarhouse already there when he bought the land?  I’m guessing maybe it was, for it was weathered and dilapidated even in my childhood.

The picture below with horses is one that I recently found.  I think that my grandfather is the man standing in the center of the photo behind the gathering tank.  I believe that the middle child sitting to his right, the smiling little girl, is my mother.  To the far left, the oldest sister looks exceedingly proud to be holding the reins.  It seems to me that this is probably a posed picture, most likely taken at the end of the sugaring season, since there is no snow.

🍁   🍁   🍁   🍁   🍁    🍁   🍁   🍁   🍁

My grandparents sold maple syrup as well as what we simply called “sugar cakes” — which is what you get when you boil maple syrup beyond the syrup stage until it crystallizes.    My grandmother made these, not in the sugarhouse, but in the farmhouse, and she poured the maple sugar into beautiful tin molds shaped like stars.

Nowadays if you visit gift shops in New England, you'll often see maple candies in the form of maple leaves and other shapes.  It's basically the same thing, but the sugar cakes were larger. This maple candy is very sweet and also very delicious.  My daughter made some maple candy this year, and below you see two grandchildren about to partake!

The photo below is one of several I have that was taken in my grandparents' sugar orchard.  I'm sorry to say that I don't know who the boy with the oxen is, and I don't recognize the dog in front of him.  The other dog, over at the far left, looks like my grandparent's farm dog Tippy.  She was famous for being able to open latched doors (the type where one just lifts the latch) with her nose.
Sugaring with oxen in my grandparents' sugar orchard
 Probably my own earliest memories of this sugarhouse start when I was in first grade.  You can just see the corner of the sugarhouse at the far left in the photo which includes the oxen.  Below, you can see part of the outside of the sugarhouse behind these children -- I'm on the right, with my cousin at left and my brother in the middle.  You'll note (from both the illustration at top, and the photographs) that sugarhouses were often not constructed very tightly or out of top-grade materials.
The local schools used to bring kids there on field trips during sugaring time.  I think about this now and am amazed.  Taking a school bus full of kids onto a dirt road in sugaring time, then letting said children loose to swarm up a muddy hillside amid soft, wet snowbanks -- I'm quite sure that just wouldn't be the thing today.  But I'm glad it was okay back then, for I have memories of myself sitting in the back room of the sugarhouse on an unstable old wooden bench with a bunch of my classmates, sipping warm, freshly made maple syrup from a Dixie cup and dipping a plain raised doughnut into the syrup from time to time.  I didn't enjoy school.  It was terrifying for me.  But here, I belonged.  I had sat on this bench dozens of times eating syrup with doughnuts fried by my grandmother.  These other kids didn't belong here; they were out of their element.  But I think the sugarhouse field trips were a favorite of all the kids who were able to go on them.
From our daily newspaper, some years ago
My memories of sugaring are also interwoven with my memories of my Aunt Joanne, my mother's youngest sister.  (In the very old photo above, the one with the horses hitched to the sled, Joanne would be the little girl at the far right.)  In my growing up years, Joanne was married and raising a family of her own.  They lived quite a distance away, especially back then when there were no interstate highways and the speed limit was 50 mph at best.  Travel could be iffy during sugaring season, with snowstorms or freezing rain a possibility at any time.  Yet every year during this special season that she loved so much, my Aunt Joanne made the effort to bring her kids up here for sugaring.  In the photo below, her two oldest daughters are the girls at the left.  We loved it when they visited and could hike up with us to the sugarhouse in the woods.

Nearly every day after school in sugaring season, my brother and I would put on our wool snow pants and our jackets and head for the sugarhouse.  Can you imagine our mother let us do this?  It involved walking up a dirt road and then scrambling up the aforementioned snowy/muddy hillside until we disappeared from view among the trees.   The tree above, where we might stop to rest, would have been still in sight if my mother looked out the back door.  But the sugarhouse was much deeper into the woods than this, past a long stone wall and down a lane.  Below you can see the sugarhouse with steam pouring out.  Maple-scented steam is simply amazing!

Of course we would stay up there as late as we dared.  Oftentimes it would be nearly dark by the time we made it back down the hill and trudged up the road to our home.  I had heard many stories of bobcats in those woods, so often we ran down the hill rather than trudged!

It was so good to see lights shining from the windows of our house, and to come in and smell a delicious supper all ready for us.  Often on winter nights my mother would make something like baked potatoes with creamed chipped beef.  Oh, so good!  When we had baked potatoes, we would cut them in half, then scoop out the innards onto our plate ready to add butter, salt and pepper.  But we would drop a pat of butter into each potato skin and wait for it to melt before eating it, holding it sort of folded so the butter wouldn't drip out.  Simply delicious.
A vintage syrup ad that I love!
As time went on, this large sugaring operation was discontinued.  A neighbor had built a little backyard sugarhouse, and he was allowed to tap the roadside trees in the family sugar orchard.  It was probably around this time that my parents decided to try a little bit of backyard maple sugaring, boiling down the sap on their outdoor stone fireplace (previously used for cooking hot dogs and marshmallows, and the occasional hamburger).

I don't have photos of this endeavor.  However, I do have one photo that I found of the fireplace in earlier years.  My brother and I are playing near it.  I may have been pretending it was the fireplace in a cabin ... who knows?  It looks as if I may be trying to sweep the "floor".  What I can say for sure is that boiling sap on this outdoor fireplace was asking quite a bit of it, and it fell into disrepair soon after that experiment.

Our neighbor eventually gave all of his small-scale sugaring equipment to my brother, and my dad built a nice little sugarhouse next to the garage.  The evaporator, of course, was inside, and a little woodshed on the back contained the wood needed to keep a good fire going under the evaporator.

Our method of collecting sap at that time was to load up the back of the family Jeep with a metal gathering tank, a stack of gathering buckets, and kids -- siblings, cousins, neighbors, friends.  We would park the Jeep in a central location and then we kids would scatter, gathering buckets in hand, to the various maples -- some along the roadside and some up in the woods -- that my dad had previously helped us to tap.  We went from tree to tree, emptying the sap buckets into our gathering buckets.
 (The photo below is actually from this year -- it's my grandchildren -- but it depicts the process well.)
Most of the trees had several taps, and some had as many as five.  Again, the photo below is from this year, taken by my daughter.

It wasn't long before our gathering buckets were as full as we dared carry.  If they were too full, cold wet sap would invariably slosh out and onto our pant legs.  The illustration below is by local artist Cheryl Johnson and graced the front of a brochure some years ago.  I've always liked this since it looks a lot like my own two girls working together to carry a heavy gathering bucket back in the day.  You can see the potential for sloshing sap!

Arriving back at the Jeep, we would either clamber up and carefully pour our buckets of sap into the large gathering tank, or -- if we were fortunate enough to have plenty of helpers, one person would remain stationed in the back of the Jeep and do all the pouring.  In that case, we simply handed our full buckets up to that person, which sounds simple enough, but involved taking great care not to spill the sap.  Then we would take our now-empty gathering buckets, move on to other trees, and repeat the process.

When all of the sap had been gathered for that day, back we would go to the sugarhouse and begin the process of boiling it down.  This often took us until well into the evening.  We would bring the syrup to a specific temperature and then drain it off into a large kettle.  My mom finished it off on the kitchen stove and bottled it.

Then on the next day there was a good run of sap, we would do this all over again, and continue to do so until the buds came out on the maples and sugaring season ended.  It was hard work, but a great project to be involved with.

We continued this backyard sugaring operation until long after my brother and I were married, with families of our own.  Sometimes my brother would do the boiling; sometimes my husband (who had also grown up with sugaring) did.  We also had an elderly neighbor who was experienced at sugar making and often helped us out.  I think our kids were in high school when we finally gave it up.

So it was absolutely wonderful that our own kids could get to take part in this fabulous experience and piece of our family history.  These days, I'm thrilled to report that my daughter and her family have a little syrup making operation in their own back yard!  The photos below were taken when they tapped their trees.  Ari is holding sap spiles that fit into the holes drilled in the tree.  Then the sap buckets will hang from the hooks below the spiles. 

 Josiah is placing covers on the buckets.  You can see how my son-in-law marked the tapped trees with caution tape so they will be easily spotted.  Below, sap begins to drip into a bucket.
The tradition goes on!


  1. Oh, my! I can’t remem when I’ve enjoyed a post any more than this one! Precious memories and photos! I loved reading your story. It was like The Little House in the Big Woods! Thank you for taking the time to share this with us.

    1. Linda, I am so glad you enjoyed the post. I have been working on it on and off since last year. Even while sidelined by my back injury, I've been pecking away at it on my tablet. So thankful I've finally completed it, and so happy that you enjoyed it.

  2. What wonderful memories Mrs T. I could picture it in my mind and for a southern girl that is a stretch. Nothing is as good as genuine maple syrup. We purchased some when we visited Vermont and we really made it last a long time.

    1. So happy that you could picture it in your mind, Arlene! I know it is a stretch for a Southern girl, for sure. And it was a stretch for my mind as well, trying to recall all those memories.

      Yes, genuine maple syrup is so good. I've always been pleased that that is what Cracker Barrel serves with their pancakes! At one of our favorite breakfast places up here, the real maple syrup (made on the premises!) is served in clear plastic squeeze bottles like one might use for mustard or ketchup. They are very generous with the syrup!

  3. I loved reading this...what wonderful memories! Thanks so much for sharing it!

  4. I'm so happy that you enjoyed reading it, Linda! I wish I had written it sooner, but it pretty much took this long to pull everything together. Also, several of the photos are ones I only recently found.

  5. Anonymous1:33 PM

    What wonderful memories for you and your family... and brings back great childhood memories for me too, as I lived in Gilmanton, NH for several years and at the bottom of 'our hill' as we called the road before where we lived at the top of a big hill, there was a small sugarhouse and sugar orchard all on 'our hill' and I loved to stop there and get a bit of sugar candy from the Mrs. when I was a girl. Good memories, good times.
    GADawn57 (aka Dawn P.)

    1. They are indeed good memories of good times, Dawn. Thanks for stopping by and for leaving a comment! Please come by and visit any time you might be homesick for your time in NH!

  6. Loved every word and every picture! I have memories of visiting sugar shacks as a child and with my students not so many years ago, but the best memories belong to you who experienced it so closely. I loved hearing my grandmother’s memories of March vacations spent in the
    sugar woods. Is this year a good season?

    1. So happy to hear that you loved both words and pictures, Vee! That is neat that your grandmother shared memories of March vacations spent in the sugar woods. Did any of her memories get written down? I hope so! My daughters always encouraged my mother (their grandmother) to write down memories, and she did write a few, but not many. I wish that she had written down more, but she just didn't take the time.

      I think it's been an interesting season for sugar makers. It started early and was a good season -- I know my daughter and family made a good amount of syrup early on. Then it got to where it wasn't freezing at night or warm enough during the day. Now we are back to freezing nights, who knows? One of our friends from church who has a large sugaring operation told Mr. T a week ago that he was afraid he might have to boil water for maple weekend, because there wasn't enough sap! We haven't talked to him this weekend, but I'm thinking he may have actually had some sap to use.

  7. I really enjoyed this post and all of your family photos! I can just imagine how good that steam smelled coming from the sugar shack! I LOVE pure maple syrup and have had those candies. Sweet indeed!!

    1. So happy that you enjoyed the post, Terri! It was fun to write even though it took some time to pull it all together.

      Yes, that steam ... mm-mmm! My daughter says it would be a good scent for candles. We recently bought some maple flavored coffee, and it is very good too.

  8. I wrote a response, but I did it from my cell phone out of town. I don't think it made it to you. Hope you are dong better and I LOVED this post. It was very interesting. Thanks for writing that down.

    1. Hi Sandy!

      No, I didn't get your comment. Just checked my comment moderation page (sometimes comments will go there just randomly) but it wasn't there.

      I am doing quite a bit better, thanks. Not 100% yet, but I think about 85%! What a siege it has been. I think I overdid a bit on Saturday ... I felt good, so did a bit too much. Just need to pace myself ...

      So happy that you enjoyed this post! It's been on my mind to write something like this for a long time. So thankful I could finally get it done and that people have enjoyed reading it.

  9. Lovely post, really reminds me so much of my own childhood. I'm fairly certain as I mentioned on IG, that my sister had that very same jacket and matching hat. We boiled sap on a small scale but we lived in the woods and also walked down an old road into the woods. We wandered quite deeply into the woods when I was a child, never let my own kids out of my sight when they were small. Different world, different times. I enjoyed reading this so much! Thanks for sharing!

    1. You are so welcome, Linda! I am so thankful that I got this post written at last. That is so fun that your sister had the same jacket and hat!

      So neat that your own childhood memories are so similar to mine. What a wonderful era it was.


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