Somerset County's Richest Tradition: see exhibit at Festival Park Sugar Shack
Obtained from the sugar maple, one of the most beautiful and stately of American trees, maple syrup was first made by the Indians and continued by the white settlers who followed. The making of maple syrup is truly an American art.
The American Indians celebrated the "maple moon" or "sugar moon" as the return of spring. They hacked the maple trees with tomahawks and collected the sugar water in troughs or crude vessels. The Indians condensed sugar water or sap by dropping heated stones in wooden troughs containing the liquid. The maple industry faced many changes over the years. Hand augers and later power drills were used to drill holes in the maple trees. Into these holes were inserted wooden, and later metal, spiles to catch the sugar water as it dripped, drop by drop, into wooden, metal and later, plastic buckets, known in Somerset County as "keelers". A newer method being used in some maple groves is plastic tubing which transfers sap from the tree to central gathering tanks.
This process, called tapping, will not harm the trees. If a tree is 10 inches in diameter, it can support one tap; 15 inches, 2 taps; and 20 inches, three taps. An average maple tree will produce 15 gallons of sap from each taphole per season.
When the weather is such that there is a freeze at night and a thaw during the day, the sap collecting and gathering follows. Men with carrying pails collect from each tree and empty the buckets into covered tanks hauled on trucks or by tractor. Much sap is pumped from roadside tanks into a tank truck to be hauled to central storage tanks at the "Sugar House". These have germicidal lamps over them to prevent bacterial growth until sap can be evaporated.
Unlike the Indians who used heated stones to evaporate sugar-water and the settlers who used large iron kettles fired with wood, we now use fuel oil to boil the water. As the sap flows along in a constant boil, the water escapes in the form of steam and the liquid becomes sweeter and changes to an amber color with the increasing sugar content. As it comes from the tree and enters the evaporator, sap has about 2 to 2 1/2% sugar content. After this boiling process it leaves the evaporators with a sugar content of over 65%. Thus one gallon of maple syrup weighing eleven pounds was condensed from 40 to 50 gallons of sugar water. Then transferred to flat pans for final finishing, the syrup is forced through special filters to remove any accumulated sediment and stored in 550 gal. sterile metal tanks which have germicidal lamps under the lids. Later it is pumped back to finishing pans, reheated to 185 degrees F, re-filtered through pressure filters and packed into cans, bottles, ceramic or plastic containers.
This final packaging is carried on throughout the entire year and employs several people. After packaging it may travel halfway around the world by mail or it may appear on your grocer's shelf in your home town.
SOMERSET COUNTY MAPLE SYRUP INDUSTRY
Maple Production - A Labor of Love - It's hard work, but with sweet rewards.
Today the production of maple syrup and other products has changed significantly since the Indians in this region discovered the sweet liquid in the 1600's.
Although new innovations and techniques have made maple production more efficient, it continues to be a very labor intensive industry.
Somerset County produces more maple products than any other county in the state. Thanks to the abundance of sugar maples and the seasonal temperatures in the region, maple production in Somerset County continues to thrive.
Somerset County's climate and environment may be ideal for maple production. However, these same factors can make the working conditions difficult. Cold, late winter snows, fluctuating temperatures, too much rain, too little rain, and a short tapping season can wreck havoc on producers from year to year.
After the sap is collected and evaporated into its desired form, local producers sell their sugary delights both locally and nationally. Much of the yearly products are purchased by large, commercial syrup manufactures who change the syrup's consistency to match that of their own product.
Boiling Off - bring the sweetness from the sap See exhibit at Festival Park Sugar Shack
The earliest method of boiling off was to use a single iron or brass kettle supported over an open fire. The water was cooked until it could not be stirred with a ladle.
Then it was removed from the fire and stirred rapidly until it was cool and the syrup hardened into sugar. In the mid-1700's a series of kettles were suspended from a pole and the sap was dipped from one kettle to the next until the product was removed. They were usually 25-gallon kettles. In the late 1700's the use of kettles was still recommended with iron ladles to dip the water from one kettle to another. Skimmers were used to remove the foam. When the water reached the consistency of syrup it formed numerous bubbles and, unless checked, would boil over. A piece of pork fat was suspended over the kettle at such a height that the foaming syrup would touch it and subside. In 1830 the process was moved into a lean-to or partial cover to keep the wood dry and shield the kettles from the weather. In 1840 sugar houses (as today) were built and the large evaporating pans were used.
To make maple syrup a number of tests were devised. When the hot syrup would cleave from an axe, flake off in scales from a dipper, or draw a fine thread between a stick and the fingers, the syrup would be removed from the fire and stirred to grain.
Sugar cake molds were used and cakes were sold or traded at stores. The first cake molds were made of wood, then iron, metal, and now rubber.
To store maple settling barrels were used. They were wooden barrels with a spigot to draw off syrup as needed. The hot syrup was strained through a piece of homespun linen. Crumb sugar was stored in barrels in a cool place. It would become hard from the dampness, and a sugar devil was used to loosen it. The stored syrup was called "soft sugar".
To make crumb sugar maple syrup has to be heated to approximately 260 degrees depending upon atmospheric conditions at the time. A watchful eye is needed because at this point the syrup is near the scorching or burning point. Upon removal from the heat the syrup is poured into a wooden trough hollowed out of basswood. This wood has no odor to it and most troughs in use are 100 or more years old.
For the next 30 minutes or more the sugar maker faces a constant and hard task. The 20 to 25-pound mixture has to be stirred with a wooden stick. There can be no time for coffee breaks and relaxation. All moisture must be eliminated by constant stirring as the mixture begins to cool.
As the syrup thickens and begins to granulate a large wooden maul is used to finish the job. Before packaging, the crumb sugar is screened into a container. Any lumps found are returned to the heated container for remelting. About seven pounds of crumb sugar can be produced from one gallon of pure maple syrup.
To help you plan your maple adventure, call our office at 814-634-0213