A Story of Sugar-Making
By Walter K. Billings
One spring, when I was about fourteen, we had several white frosts. The snow in the sugar-bush was still early two feet deep, but it was nearly time to get out the tin sap buckets, put on a couple of kettles of water, build a good fire in the kitchen stove, and give these buckets a through cleaning. The spiles also came in for a good scalding before we could tap the bush.
Early next morning it looked the right time to head for the woods, so with our load we started. There had been a track broken in from the road and the team jogged along until we came to the maple grove. Then with a hatchet, a bit and bit stock, I struck out over the frozen snow, picked out the spot to bore the hole, and proceeded to tap the tree. The driving in the spile to the proper depth, I went on to the next tree while my sister Lou brought the bucket and hung it in place.
Nearly all forenoon we could walk on the crust, but by eleven o’clock the snow began to get soft and your feet would break through, sometimes causing you to fall. With the great depth of snow it began to mean hard work, but we stuck to it and by noon had nearly two hundred and fifty trees tapped.
We already had a sugar shanty, and going to it we cleared the snow from around the front door and got the door open. The wood for the fireplace had been piled ready, and we started for home. Having plunged through the wet snow until we were wet to our hips, we had to hunt out dry clothes and put them on before we had dinner.
As the next day was cold and stormy there was no use of our going to the bush. However, the second day proved a real sap day, and before night we found every bucket filled. Boiling the sap seemed a slow process, but by night we had a foaming pan of thin syrup, and, as Father had come down prepared to boil all night and had the fur robes all arranged in the bunk beside the arch, I decided to stay with him. So after seeing there was lots of wood inside, I curled up in the robes and went to sleep.
About two o’clock father woke me saying he had forgotten to fill the lantern, and I would have to go home and get some coal-oil. This seemed a long trip, so I said I would go across the hill to the Brown farm on the chance of finding an oil can in their shed. Emerging from the bush I walked over the hill and down to the shed door, where I knew they usually had a supply of lanterns, as they often had to go to the cattle barns during the night. Entering the woodshed I held my Lantern up and sure enough on a long girder hung a dozen lanterns. I went over to them and picked one up. There was no oil in it; the next one was the same. The third one had lots of oil in it, but the chimney was broken. Comparing the lanterns, I saw the chimney on my lantern would work on the other, so going outside, I changed the chimneys, lit the third lantern and returned to the sugar bush in a very short time. We were able to take care of our syrup and were home before daylight.
The first attempts at boiling sap are quite vivid in my memory. Three big kettles at the farm that were used for heating water at butchering time were cleaned and taken to the bush. At the spot there was a ledge of rock about four feet hgh, against which the kettles were placed. A green pole with supports at each end was placed over the kettles and chains fastened to them and around the pole; then it was raised until there was room to build a good fire underneath. With the pole securely braced we were ready for the sap. It was slow work as the sap would boil over when too much fire was put on, and the smoke and ashes would settle on the top of the kettles. The only way we had to stop it boiling over was to plunge a chunk of fat pork fastened to the end of a long stick into the foaming sap. I did not understand the virtue of this, but I remember having to stand before the fire and to watch those kettles. A year of two later an arch was built, and a nice new tin sap-pan was bought, also a couple of hundred tin sap buckets.
The first buckets we used were made of wood, similar to wooden pails that later were sold from the stores. Before farmers used wooden buckets they made sap buckets by hand. Basswood logs about fourteen inches across were split in two, an axe was used to hew a hollow in the centre of each log. This was cut in spaces of about two feet each, an adze was used to smooth the hollow, the saw cut them in the right lengths, the round side of each trough was flattened so that it would not tip over, and they were ready for the sap.
Before the metal spile was used, pieces of cedar about ten inches long were split to about an inch and a quarter, a channel was cut in the piece and at the other end a hole was bored lengthwise in to the channel gouged out, a hot piece of heavy wire shoved through the hole to clear out the shaving and this end then shaped to fit in the hole bored in the tree. When later metal spiles were obtained and the wooden buckets used, my father made a loop of wire near the top of the bucket and then could hang the wire on the hook of the metal spile. Our wooden buckets had at one time been painted red on the outside, with the name “A.Dunham” printed on each one. I suppose these buckets had at one time been owned by this man.
One incident I well remember. Our old friend, Vanamber Brown, had a bush just over the line fence between our two wood-lots. He had built up an arch of dry stones and banked it with earth. We were first that night to get our pan off, and we placed the syrup in a large milk can, for transportation to the house. We had hurried over to help Vanamber, but we were too late. He had noticed that his syrup was ready to come off, and had placed a couple of poles about seven feet long, one end on the side of the arch and the other on a log inside the shanty. He then attempted to pull the pan over on the poles, and had got along so far all right. However, unfortunately the pole near the front of the pan was lower that the other. He turned to get his can ready, and the syrup started running to the front of the pan, with the result that the weight of the syrup upended the pan and the whole day and a half’s boiling ran out on the ground. He managed to save about a gallon that still remained in the end of the pan, but the rest was gone.
The memory of a dinner in the bush at Easter when Mother would send down warmed up potatoes, boiled ham, eggs, doughnuts, fresh syrup coffee and a mince pie, still remains in my thoughts along with the fun and frolics of our guests, who, gathered for a sugar-off, were all eager to help Dad with the fire. I can see them yet, piling armfuls of dried limbs all around him till you could just see his head, but he enjoyed it all and had a warm welcome for the whole crowd.
Then we made jack-wax on the pans of snow, packed solid so that the hot syrup would not go through. Forks were passed around, or small cedar sticks dipped in the syrup as it hardened in the snow, and eyes glistened as the sweet sticky jack-wax was drawn in a ribbon form and then rolled again on the forks to taste and taste again. These were great days – Often in later years these guests would write to remind us of the big dinner and the sugaring off in the maple bush on our farm.