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Maple Sugaring in Vermont

Craig Line - Tuesday, January 06, 2015

In this blog, I plan to occasionally post notes about sugaring, which has become pretty much a year-round enterprise for me, as well as notes about nature, musings about things that I notice around me, photographs, poems and artwork, and occasional pieces written by others, including links to other sites that I think people might find interesting.

When I was a kid growing up in Northwest Ohio in the 1960’s, I remember tapping a couple maple trees (who cared if they were Silver Maples?) with my Grandpa Line in the front yard of the home on Washington Avenue in Findlay where he and Grandma lived, and where my dad and his sister grew up. We grand kids hung a few buckets, and tasted the sap, and helped boil it down in a big kettle down cellar on the old electric range where Grandma canned so many quarts of vegetables, applesauce and jars of jelly, the steam filling the basement with the sweet smell of maple.

Grandpa had grown up on the family farm just south of town that was homesteaded by our ancestors in 1840, and sugar maples were tapped down by Eagle Creek every spring, the sap collected from the wooden buckets with a team of horses. The syrup was boiled down in a sugarhouse that no longer exists, the fire fueled by natural gas, as there was a well on the farm that provided free heat in the winter and avoided the need to cut wood to make syrup. The last year syrup was made on the Line Homestead in Arlington was 1957, when I was not quite 2 years old.

Every Christmas, my Grandma Boice, my mother’s mother, would give a quart of real Vermont maple syrup to my dad, and that quart would last almost a year, as none of us 3 kids were allowed to touch it unless Dad said we could. He would occasionally make sourdough pancakes on a Saturday morning, and would now and then make a freezer of homemade ice cream, and I remember well the amazing taste of real maple syrup on those treats. Of course, like most families of that era, and perhaps too many households today, our usual syrup was that which today I just cannot stand: Aunt Jemima’s, Log Cabin, or Mrs. Butterworth’s.

So, when I moved to Vermont in 1978, and began sugaring with the crew at Farm and Wilderness Camps in Plymouth in the spring of 1979, I was not only so happy to have a steady diet of the real thing, but to be able to provide real maple syrup to my mom and dad, brother, sister and other family members and friends. Half the reason I make maple syrup is to be able to share it with others; the rest has to do with supplying my own near-insatiable taste for it, and just being outside enjoying the lengthening days and changing seasons, after what are often long, cold winters here in northern New England.

At F & W, I learned about using tubing as well as buckets, and how to boil in an evaporator; we had a 3 x 10’ rig there, and I was bitten hard by the fun process of working together with good friends, with the end result being maple syrup! How can one not love that? Now that I tap just over 1000, it is a lot more work—I often describe my operation as a hobby run amok—but the basic joys are the same: spending time outside in Vermont, being in touch with the natural world around me, working together with good friends, to make what is probably the most iconic, best-known product made in Vermont.

During the season, I will let you know when I begin to tap out, how much snow we’ve had, when I plan to boil and or have an open sugarhouse gathering and more. Eventually, there will be a page with information on how you can order pure Vermont maple syrup, either to pick up here at the sugarhouse in Calais, or for delivery. I’ll begin in this current season as we head into deep winter by catching up a bit and posting essays or updates which I have written and emailed out in previous years.

The most important aspect of making syrup, after the joys of working together with neighbors and friends, is the quality and flavor of the syrup we produce here. I have received a lot of feedback from people about how much they enjoy the taste of our syrup, and I am humbled and pleased by that. I know that I like the taste, and that many others do as well gives me great joy.

Here’s to another great season this coming year!

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History of Maple

A native Chief returning to his village after a hunting trip threw his tomahawk into a sugar maple tree trunk. The spring sun warmed the tree and sap ran down the bark from the cut the tomahawk had made and into a birch bark container left under the tree. Thinking the crystal clear sap was water, the Chief’s wife poured it in with some meat she was cooking. As the water boiled away, a sticky sweet glaze formed on the meat, adding a wonderfully sweet maple flavor to the meal.

When settlers came with metal tools, they drilled small holes in the trees, whittled wooden spouts and replaced the wooden troughs used by Native Peoples with wooden buckets and covers. They made their maple sugar in large iron kettles suspended over a fire by wooden poles or tripods. Making maple sugar was common in Vermont, being some distance from any seaport where white sugar was imported. 

As maple sugaring evolved, arches were built, containing the heat from roaring wood fires and holding large flat pans on top. Buildings to house these “boilers” was the next step. Sugarhouses today still resemble those early structures with the characteristic cupola on the roof allowing the sweet maple scented steam to billow forth.

To find out how Vermont sugarmakers make our maple syrup today click on “How We Make It.”