So, When Did it All Start?

No one is really sure just how long people have been practicing the art and science of making this wonderful product from the sap of a tree. We do know that Native Americans were already using maple sap to flavor their food long before European settlers discovered its sweetness.

Indian Legend and Lore

Maple Syrup MichiganNative Americans have many wonderful stories about how they began making maple syrup. The first is the legend of Glooskap. Many, many, many years ago the Creator had made life much easier for man. In fact, in those days the maple tree was filed with syrup and all man had to do was cut a hole in the maple tree and the syrup dripped out. One day the young prince Glooskap (known by other names in other tribes) came upon a village of his people that was strangely silent. There were no dogs barking, no children playing, no women minding the cook fires, and no men getting ready to go hunting! Glooskap looked and looked and finally found everyone in the nearby maple grove. They were all lying at the bases of the trees and letting the sweet syrup drip into their mouths. Even the dogs were enjoying the syrup. “Get up, you people,” Glooskap called. “There is work to be done!” But no-one moved.

Now Glooskap had special powers, and he used these powers to make a large bark container. He flew to the lake, filled the container with water and flew back to the maple grove. When he poured the water over the trees it diluted the syrup so it was no longer sweet. ”Now, get up you people! Because you have been so lazy the trees no longer hold syrup, but only sap. Now you will have to work for your syrup by boiling the sap. What’s more, the sap will soon run dry. You will only be able to make syrup in the early spring of the year!”

Another legend relates to the Earth Mother, Kokomis, who made the first maple syrup. Now Kokomis made a hole in a tree, and maple syrup poured out. However, her grandson, Manabush, was worried that if the sweet gift of the maple tree was so easily obtained, the Indians might become shiftless and lazy. So he showered the top of the sugar maple with water, thus diluting the maple syrup into sap.

The Chippewas and Ottawas of Michigan tell a similar story of the god NenawBozhoo, who cast a spell on the sugar maple tree many moons ago, turning the near pure syrup into what is now called sap. He did this because he loved his people and feared they would become indolent and destroy themselves if nature’s gifts were given too freely. This legend is unique in that, in various forms, it can be found almost universally throughout the Eastern Woodland Indian tribes. This is unusual for cultures that did not have a written history.

Perhaps a more believable story is that of the Indian woman named Moqua. The story was recounted in the April 1896 issue of The Atlantic Monthly by Vermonter Rowland E. Robinson. The story goes that Moqua was cooking a prime cut of moose for her husband, the hunter Woksis. However, Moqua became preoccupied with her quill-work and let the pot boil dry. Realizing she did not have time to melt some snow she used some maple sap she had been saving for a beverage. Woksis was so impressed with the meal he broke the pot so he could lick the last of the “goo” from the pot shards.

Yet another legend states that a chief removed his tomahawk from the trunk of a sugar maple tree, where he had thrown it the night before. As the sun got higher, the sap began to drip from the gash in the tree. The Chief’s wife tasted it and discovered that it didn’t taste bad, so she used it to cook the meat (though another version says that the pot was left under a broken sugar maple branch and the sap dripped into it). Later when the meat was cooked, the sap boiled down to a syrup. The irresistibly sweet scent and taste of the maple meat so delighted the Chief that he named it Sinzibuckwud—a word meaning “drawn from trees.” This became the word used most often by Native Americans when referring to maple syrup.

Early Indian Methods

Native Americans gradually reduced the sap to syrup by repeatedly freezing it, discarding the ice, and starting again. Some made birch bark containers that held about 20 to 30 pounds of maple sugar for storage. The Ojibways of the Great Lakes, the Wyandots of the Detroit River, and the Indians at Pidgeon Lake, were similar in how they processed the maple sap. As soon as the sap began to rise, the women and their families migrated in family groups to the maple groves, or “sugar bushes,” where they erected a camp and lived in wigwams made of bark. They prepared troughs, collected the sap, and brought it to the fire, while the most experienced women regulated the heat. Sometimes the sap was made to boil by placing hot stones in the mixture. Freshly heated stones were constantly added, while the cooler ones were fished out and reheated. Usually, each woman had her own sugar shack.

Native Americans had various names for certain maple items. the Cree called the sugar maple Sisibaskwatattik (tree), the Ojubway called maple sugar Ninautik (our own tree), and other tribes called the maple, Michton. Early Native Americans seldom used salt (they preferred sugar) and used maple on meat and fish.

Some tribes celebrated the return of spring with a “maple moon” festival which is know today as “sugar-off time.”

Birth of an Industry

The early settlers observed the Native Americans and imitated their methods. They boiled 40 gallons of sap over an open fire until it became one gallon of syrup. This was a time consuming and labor intensive operation. Things didn’t change much for the first two hundred years of recorded maple making. Then, during the Civil War, came a neat little invention called the tin can. The tin can was made of sheet metal. It didn’t take syrup makers long to realize that a large flat sheet metal pan was more efficient for boiling than a heavy rounded iron kettle which let much of the heat slide past.

Virtually all of the syrup makers were self sufficient dairy farmers who made syrup and sugar during the off season of the farm for their own use and for extra income. These farmers were and continue to be folks who look at a process and say to themselves, “There has to be a faster, more efficient, easier way to do this.” In about 1864 a Canadian borrowed some design ideas from sorghum evaporators (You don’t know what sorghum is? It is what us Northerners call molasses.) and put a series of baffles in the flat pans to channel the boiling sap. The ideas continued to flow. In 1872 a Vermonter developed an evaporator with two pans and a metal arch or firebox which greatly decreased boiling time. Seventeen years later, in 1889, another Canadian bent the tin that formed the bottom of a pan into a series of flues which increased the heated surface area of the pan and again decreased boiling time.

For the most part technology stayed at this point for almost another century. By the 1960’s, however, it was no longer a self sufficient enterprise with large families as farm hands. Because syrup making was so labor intensive a farmer could no longer afford to hire the large crew it would take to gather all the buckets and haul the sap to the evaporator house. Finally when the energy crunch of the 1970’s occurred, syrup makers responded with another surge of technological breakthroughs. Tubing systems, which had been around experimentally since the early part of the century, were perfected, and the sap came directly from the tree to the evaporator house. Vacuum pumps were added to the tubing systems. Pre-heaters were developed to “recycle” heat lost in the steam. Reverse-osmosis filters were developed to take a portion of water out of the sap before it was boiled. Several producers even obtained surplus desalinization machines from the U.S. Navy and used them to take a portion of water out of the sap prior to boiling. In fact, one is still in use by a producer South-East of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

History is nothing without our learning lessons from it. Today the technological developments continue. Improvements continue in tubing. New filtering techniques, “supercharged” pre-heaters, and better storage containers have been developed. Research continues on pest control and improved woodlot management. For more detailed information on the latest developments, check out the books listed in our reference page. If you are a member of the MMSA, you can also take advantage of the information in the member area and be a part of the future of Michigan Maple.