Hello, and welcome to A Random Post. The 'About' page will fill you in on our origins and purpose. Currently, I'm editing a group of essays and random memories of people, places, and things. Excerpts will be appearing on the blog as they are completed. Thank you for reading.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Sugaring As I Remember It


The following is an essay written by Leslie L. Post (edited by Wendy [Post] English), for the North Jersey Highlands Historical Society.  The newspaper clippings following the essay are from the Newark Sunday News, circa 1930-1940.

Sugaring As I Remember It

The end of winter once again brings with it the memories of maple sugaring. Back when the Highlands area was mostly farms and woods rather than housing developments as it is today, the manufacturing of maple sugar products was an excellent source of extra income for the local farmers.

The tapping of the sugar maple was an important lesson learned by our forefathers from the Native Americans, as it provided many Colonial families their only source of sugar. Up until a few years ago, generations of the Post family had been making maple sugar on farms originally acquired by Peter and Abram Post in 1815 in the shadow of Bearfort Mountain. This was an art passed down from father to son unto the present generation. With the break up of the farms into home lots, all that remains are memories and, luckily, some of the equipment used through the years.

Sugaring time begins in February and lasts for two to six weeks, well into March. Weather permitting, Grandad always started tapping on Washington's Birthday. The sugaring season, as we called it, required thawing days and freezing nights to allow the sap to flow. Rain spoiled the sap and wind dried up the tap holes so it was a fair-weather industry. Grandad hand-drilled his tap holes using a No. 8 wood bit, drilling about 1/2 inch deep into the vein of a sugar maple tree. Into this hole, a wood spile would then be tapped and after drilling another, a pail was hung to collect the sap as it steadily dripped from the spile. The wooden spiles were about eight inches in length and three-quarters of an inch in diameter. Ours were made from elderberry as that scrub has a soft center that could be cleaned out to make a tube. Our maple grove was along the brook and the edge of the field about a have mile up from the house. There were approximately 200 sugar maples large enough to tap on Grandad's farm and the scars on the trunks of many of the older trees indicated the number of years they had been supplying sap.

The saphouse was a small, low building built into the ledge along Clinton Brook. Its walls were of stone and, having caught fire at least once, the building, I remember, had a tin roof so only the door was of wood. At the rear against the stone ledge was the fireplace with a dirt hearth across the whole width of the building. A wooden pole above the hearth rested at each end on the low side walls, blackened by age and smoke. From this, on wrought iron pot hooks, hung three large iron kettles and one brass kettle. The roof above the kettles was hinged like two large doors to let the smoke out and keep the rain from coming in. On calm days these doors could be laid completely open, back on the roof. On windy days they could b regulated so that the smoke did not blow back into the saphouse and into the boiling sap. To prevent sparks from going into the hemlock woods, a screen of tin was placed around the rear on the top of the ledge. Clinton Brook flowing by the door not only provided a picturesque setting but was essential for scouring the kettles, strainers and utensils after each boiling.

Twice a day, and some days more often, the sap was collected from each tree and carried up to the saphouse. The kettles were filled and, with a good hot fire beneath, thirty pails of sap would boil down to about eight quarts of syrup in four to five hours. As the sap boiled down and thickened it was removed from the fire and strained and then placed in the brass kettle over a low fire for the last bit of boiling down to syrup. The syrup, as it came from the saphouse, was usually not quite thick enough so it was Grandma's job to boil it a little longer on the back of the old wood-burning kitchen stove. For a thicker cream sugar (we called it "slush") and for sugar cakes, additional boiling and beating were required with all hands taking a turn. The beating cooled the heavy syrup and as it cooled it became granular and almost white. Our reward was the pan to "lick" out and hot syrup poured out on the snow for taffy.

My brothers, sisters, and I, as youngsters, were at the saphouse every chance we got during the sugaring season, playing in the brook and jumping from rock to rock. If you slipped and got wet, the fire was always handy. When we grew older we helped to gather the sap, split wood, and tend the fire. After Grandad's death, I did the whole bit myself for a few years.

I especially remember the late thirties and early forties when the Newark Sunday News would do a picture story on Grandad and the sugaring. This brought out the sightseers and every weekend there would be groups of people around asking questions and taking pictures. Some came back each year and many came to buy the maple sugar products. The more adventurous ones would hike with us to the falls to view the old Clinton Iron Furnace. Many a time we would pack a lunch and stay all day at the saphouse, when school was not in session, and the weather was nice. But usually, it was up the hill to the "big house" with Grandad for dinner and the noonday farm chores; then back to the saphouse till supper time. If it was a season with a good run of sap, Grandad would boil some down at night. That was the best time of all, sitting in the saphouse with the fire for warmth and the old man's stories of long ago to pass the hours.

As much as we sentimentalists may deplore it, the quaint old ways of maple sugaring are fast disappearing from the American scene. Even in Vermont and New York state, the farmer who hand-drills his tap holes, hauls his equipment by horse and sled to the woods each day, hand-empties his wooden or metal buckets, and who laboriously converts this "sweet water" to syrup over a wood fire, is becoming harder and harder to find.

The modern farmer throughout the maple belt, which runs from New England to West Virginia and west to Minnesota, now views a grove of sugar maples on his property as an important source of income. He cannot afford, however, at today's labor prices, to tap his trees and make his syrup the way Grandad did. Today he uses automatic tap hole drilling equipment and observes sanitary practices his father and Grandfather did not realize were necessary to preserve sap quality. He uses plastic tubing instead of buckets to collect the sap and convey it from the trees to roadside collection tanks, or even all the way to the modern saphouse with its oil-fired evaporator. Thus maple sugaring has become a mass-production operation. But for me, when I pour syrup on my pancakes, I still remember Grandad and the old saphouse; the aroma of the wood fire, boiling sap, and the flames dancing around the iron kettles, throwing their shadows on the tin roof, as a story of old unfolds.

"Seems strange that maple trees should know
Just when it's time for sap to flow.
And when a storm is passing by
They feel the east wind in the sky.

They know when it will rain or snow,
And when cold northeast winds blow;
No sap flows then, for maple trees
Need balmy weather, warmer breeze."