Maple Sugar

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Southwest Virginia Project
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The following is based on the discussion of "Old Home Manufactureres" in Source:Addington, 1932. Addington was speaking specifically in the context of Scott County, but the subject applies broadly throughout Southwestern Virginia. Addington's original presentation skipped around a bit, and has been slightly reordered, so that the sequence of events in making maple sugar, is clear.


In the early days large forests of sugar maple trees covered many sections of Scott County...most of those forests have long since been cutaway, and the land upon which they grew has been converted into rich grain fields and meadows. Before they were cut away, however, the making of maple sugar was an important industry. Most of the sugar then used was manufactured at home. In 1840 the output of "sugar camps" of the county amounted to 60,000 pounds (Howe's History of Virginia". The best sugar was made in the months of January and February, before "the sap ran too high." "A good spell" often came in January. Then all hands went to the sugar camp, which for convenience was usually built near the center of the "sugar orchard".
The camp consisted of three walls covered like a shed, the cover, extendng in front over the furnamce or "bank" of kettles. The side toward the furnace was always left open. The openings in the walls were "chinked" with moss, or closed by nailing boards over them. Thus the heat of the furnace fire made the camp a very comfortable place on chilly nights. Sugar Trees were "tapped" either by cutting a sloping "notch" into the tree or by boring a hole with an auger. A "spile" made of elder or some other kind of wood, usually cedar, was then inserted in such a way as to receive the sap as it flowed from the tree and conveyed it to the trough. When the wound in the tree had become dry by exposure to the air, thereby retarding the flow of the sap, it was "freshened" by cutting the notch larger or boring the hold deeper.
The sap was caught in small troughs, usually made of poplar timber. Care was exercized in selecting such timber as would impart neither undesirable color nor taste to the sugar. The sap was carried in pails and buckets, gourds being used for the purpose of dipping it from the troughs. In some of the larger orchards it was hauled to the camp with ox-teams.
When the kettles were filled with "sugar water", fires were lighted in the furnace and kept steadily burning until the contents of the kettles had been boiled down to a sweet syrup. Not much attention was given to the kettles until their contents had reached the syrup stage. It then became necessariy to see to it that they did not "boil over". This was accomplished by lifting some of the syrup into the air and letting it fall into the kettle, thus cooling it, or else by throwing a small piece of fat meat into the kettle, thus pouring oil on the troubled waters.
The climax in the manufacture of maple sugar was the "stir off." This consisted in boiling the thick syrup until it became sugar. The sugar was then molded into cakes by being placed in vessels and allowed to cool. The teacup was very frequently used for this purpose, forming what was called "the teacup cake". Egg shells were used in forming toy cakes for the children.


From Source:Byrd, 1841:46 Source:Byrd, William. The Westover manuscripts

We hurried away the surveyors about nine this morning, who extended the line seven miles and a hundred and sixty poles, notwithstanding the ground was exceedingly uneven. ,At the distance of five miles we forded a . stream to. which we gave the name of Bluewing creek, because of the great number of those fowls that then frequented it.' About two and a half miles beyond that, we came upon Sugar-tree creek, so called from the many trees of that kind that grow upon it. By tapping this tree, in the first warm weather in February, one may get from twenty to forty gallons of liquor, very sweet to the taste and agreeable to the stomach. This may be boiled into molasses first, and afterwards into very good sugar, allowing about ten gallons of the liquor to make a pound. There is no doubt, too, that a very fine spirit may be distilled from the molasses, at least as good as rum. The sugar tree delights only in rich ground, where it grows very tall, and by the softness and sponginess of the wood should be a quick grower.