Reviving A Sweet Tradition

By Anna-Lisa Tucker and Shanna Raeker | December 28, 2010
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2011

Each February, nearly 3,000 people come to Rockwoods Reservation to learn the art of making maple syrup. The staff has been busy tapping trees and hanging buckets, preparing for the upcoming sugaring season.

Bundled for the frigid temperatures, families and individuals head outdoors at Rockwoods to see and take part in making this sweet gift from the forest. Maple sugaring provides a connection to the past and revives a tradition and pastime.

Many people think of maple sugaring as something unique to the northeastern United States because forests in that region have a high concentration of sugar maple trees. While that is the largest source of maple syrup in the United States, syrup can be made wherever sugar maple trees are found.

As early as the 1860 census, Missouri recorded producing as much as 18,289 gallons of maple syrup. Although Missouri’s forests are typically composed of oak and hickory trees, sugar maples have always been present, and the tradition of making syrup has long been a pastime here.

Historic Treat

Before the pilgrims landed, Native Americans discovered how to collect sap and boil it down to make sugar—not syrup, as most people would conclude. There was no easy way to store liquids, but hardened, dry maple sugar was easily stored or transported for use later in the year.

After scouting an area for sugar maple trees, an entire tribe would set up a camp known as a “sugar camp,” and for the next six weeks set out to make sugar.

Native Americans, being resourceful people, learned to make the best use of these resources. To collect sap, they would make a “V” slash in the tree where sap would drip into bowls for collection. Evaporating the sap was the challenge, as they couldn’t set a bowl made from birch bark over a fire. To solve this dilemma, they learned to place rocks that were heated by the fire into the bowls to cook the sap. When the early colonists arrived, they learned this trade from the Native Americans and ventured to make their own. As more people arrived in the colonies, better resources ultimately changed how maple sugar was made.

Unlike the Native Americans, the colonists had access to metal equipment. This led to the creation of a three-kettle system in which sap could be boiled directly over a fire. They found that by using three kettles, sap could be processed into sugar at a much quicker rate. As pure sap began to change consistency in the first kettle, it was then ladled into the second kettle and fresh sap was added back into the first kettle. In this way, they always had the last kettle full of nearly completed sugar.

Additionally, metal taps were invented in 1860, which allowed a small hole to be drilled into the tree. This proved to yield higher amounts of sap by directing the flow straight into buckets, instead of running down a tree.

By 1858, flat-bottom pans were found to be more efficient in the evaporation process, which led away from the use of the three-kettle system. Though they did not know that they were practicing better conservation, the use of these new resources forged better yields and better management of the natural resources.

Better conservation practices became important as more and more people began making their own maple sugar. Cane sugar was too expensive for most people to buy due to a tax placed on it; therefore, maple sugar was a desired commodity. Many colonists made far more maple sugar than they could use themselves, sometimes as much as 1,000 pounds per family. This excess was valuable to the early settlers as it provided some income or could be traded at local stores for other food and supplies.

Shortly before 1890, the import tax on white cane sugar was removed, and this sugar became cheaper to purchase than maple sugar and soon outsold it. As the demand for maple sugar decreased, the maple industry was forced to change.

Sugar to Syrups

Making maple sugar was no longer profitable, so sugar farmers started making maple syrup instead. From 1890 to 1950, maple syrup was the primary product produced by sugar farmers. With the advances in technology by the 1950s, however, scientists mastered the art of making sugar from corn, and shortly thereafter created high fructose corn syrup. It wasn’t long before new corn-based, waffle syrups were produced. These products were artificially colored and flavored to mimic real maple syrup and were much cheaper to purchase. This holds true even today.

Soon the sale of maple-flavored corn syrups surpassed the sale of real maple syrup and sugar farmers were again forced to change what they produced. Maple producers now have capitalized on the market by creating additional maple products, such as maple butter and candies, that still keep the need for this natural resource important today.

To ensure that this skill stays profitable, maple farmers have become even more efficient in the way they collect and process sap. Coincidentally, these methods also use the best management practices of our natural resources, maintaining the health of these trees for future generations.

Sustainable Sugaring

Conservation means wise use and maple farmers have done just that. Now, instead of using larger metal taps that require drilling large holes into trees, new smaller-diameter “health spouts” have been created. These new spouts have proven to be less invasive and allow the tree to heal more quickly once removed. With these advances, the proper use of the resource has proven vital in maintaining the trees’ health and viability.

To harvest sap from a sugar maple tree in a sustainable way, the tree needs to be at least 10 inches in diameter. Tapping a tree smaller than this can cause harm to the tree, taking away vital nutrients it needs for growth. Much like a person cannot donate blood until they are old enough, a small tree is vulnerable to “donating” sap before it is large enough. Doing so heightens the odds of the tree becoming sick and possibly dying. Here at Rockwoods Reservation, we have been able to tap and harvest sap from the same sugar maple trees for the past 10 years. This is due to proper conservation techniques.

You don’t have to have a grove of sugar maple trees in your backyard to become a producer of maple syrup, sugar or candies. All it takes is one tree at least 10 inches in diameter. A typical tree this size can produce anywhere from 5-15 gallons of sap in a given season. While it does take 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, just one tree can produce as much as a quarter gallon to a half-gallon of syrup. With a little bit of work, families can bundle up and head outdoors in the middle of winter and produce the perfect amount of syrup for a pancake breakfast.

Another family favorite is making and eating “sugar-on-snow.” This delicious treat is made by heating maple syrup beyond the syrup stage. When ready, the hot liquid is poured onto snow where it instantly turns into chewy taffy. This thrills children as they see candy formed instantly, as if by magic!

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in her books about her family making sugar-on-snow during the season and how delicious it was. According to Robert Frost, sugar-on-snow parties were a time to celebrate spring’s arrival. Today, most maple producers keep this tradition, as well as the art of making maple syrup, alive by holding maple sugar festivals. They share their secrets of the sugar-making process and provide sugar on snow to their visitors as a way to remember this fun pastime.

Join the Party

While our forests are not thick with sugar maple trees, and maple syrup production is nowhere close to what is produced in the Northeast, Missourians have a long tradition of making maple sugar, and it still helps connect families to the natural world. Here at Rockwoods Reservation, we are continuing this tradition.

Join us Feb. 5 from 10 a.m.–3 p.m. for our Maple Sugar Festival, where we’ll show you what it takes to become your own backyard sugarer. This event is free and open to the public. We’ll show you how to tap a tree, what equipment to use and how to turn sap into syrup and other maple products. Your family can try making sugar-on-snow and enjoy a taste of real maple syrup. We’ll also have demonstrations of the historic three-kettle system, along with guided hikes to our sugar bush. There will be naturalists available to answer any questions you might have.

There are also special programs for school groups of 25 students or more Tuesday through Friday, Jan. 25 through Feb. 25. Reservations are required for these programs.

So bundle up your family and take part in this historic Missouri pastime. Who knows, your family might start its own tradition for future generations to enjoy.

Event and Contact Information
Rockwoods Reservation
2751 Glencoe Road, Wildwood, MO 63038
Phone: 636-458-2236

School Programs
Tuesday through Friday, Jan. 25 through Feb. 25
Reservations required

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This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler