Friday, April 17, 2015

"Old traditions... through new eyes"

           A Brief History of Maple Syrup Production in Ontario

The phrase I have chosen to use for today's post is a phrase shared in a comment by fellow blogger Lisa Le Quelenec of Dorset, UK as a reference to how traditions of a previous generation can be seen to be passed forward through exposing them to the "new faces" in their early childhood years. Such is certainly the case in our family... which compelled Lisa to send along her phrase while viewing our annual spring adventure in the sugar bush.

Such an undertaking by our family can be hardly be viewed as totally unique. But it is not at all a "main stream" practice by any means, nor is it an outrageous act either, It is more as a localized response to Spring's much awaited arrival. For our family... it represents our distillation of the practices and responses practised by earlier generations of Ontarian inhabitants to mark and celebrate this rite of Spring.

The earliest of maple sap gatherers were the numerous tribes of Woodland First Peoples. In order to survive the harsh winters, they separated into smaller family groupings to lessen the pressure upon hunting and to reduce the spreading of deadly illnesses. Starvation and disease hung over these wintering nomadic peoples.

It was during Spring that waters were finally freed of their thick winter ice... hunting trails were again free of winter drifts too deep to penetrate... and the maple tree sap was coaxed by an ever-strengthening sun from the roots upward through the trunk to the new buds high in the canopies. It was a time of renewal... marked by the return of separated tribal factions to shared summer fishing and hunting sites. It was a time of returning plenty where fish ran abundantly up creeks and into shallows to be snared and speared easily and in great numbers.

First People Tapping and Boiling Traditions and Methods

The native peoples long recognized the value of the clear white maple sap and most likely discovered it in a purely accidental fashion... perhaps simply by tasting the "sapcicles" that often hang off sapplings and then heating it to make a warm drink for winter consumption. Through some unknown method, they began gathering the sap by gashing the trunks and catching the sap in birch bark vessels and gourds which could be hung under a wooden peg driven into the trunk. I have seen very ancient trees in maple stands where very deep notches had been cut into a lower root... on which a bark vessel had been set to collect the sap from the wound.

Boiling was accomplished in one of two ways. Round field stones were heated in large open fires and were then dropped into large birch containers... or into hollowed out tree trunk troughs. In this way,the process was continued until the sap was boiled down to the desired rich syrup.

However these First Peoples arrived at commencing this annual rite of Spring... we are today indebted greatly to them for the knowledge of it that they shared so willingly with first explorers and settlers. Though these indigenous first tappers collected and boiled their syrup in the crudest of containers and processes... the method remains the same. Just the process has been updated and improved.

Pioneer Syrup Gathering and Boiling Methods

Early European arrival and influence completely changed and replaced the native traditions almost immediately... even for the First Peoples. The French introduced iron to the native peoples in the form of trade axes and iron kettles, morphing the maple syrup production into a whole new and more efficient production method.

At first, the sap was gathered in handmade wooden, or metal pails which were used to collect the sap. Wooden spigots or spiels were driven into drilled holes in the trunk... from which the sap bled freely into the bucket attached below. Sap was gathered in large wooden barrel-like tanks aboard a sled pulled by a horse or an oxen. Gatherers traversed the deep snow in the woods on snowshoes to ease the gathering process.

The sap was then delivered to a wood-fired central boiling site, where it was reduced to maple syrup through a long and tedious boil in a very large cast iron kettle hung low over a continuous hardwood fire. These fires often ran continuously throughout several days and nights.

Production was low using this method... given that it requires forty gallons of clear sap to produce a single gallon of maple syrup. There was also the very high risk that the syrup could be burned... as it reached that critical time when it thickened rapidly into the desired syrup form.

Early settlers most often created maple sugar from the syrup by pouring into unique and finely crafted and decorative wooden molds. These molds today fetch huge amounts of money from eager antique Canadiana collectors. The sugar could be stored and used in baking as well... or as a sweetener.

Sweet maple relics... handmade hickory or butternut pails... maple candy molds and sumac spigots... a reverence for things wooden... which I share and collect.

Here is an "updated" version of the original single pot boil -  the three pot. In this new process, the syrup was moved at specific intervals to lower heat in each of the other pots... to lessen the chance of burning the gold. Shown here are two "early pioneers" tending the kettles at Sheppard's Bush circa 1997. Bryn and Liam loved our annual forays to the different bushes. "How sweet it was..." when we were the Three Musketeers - "One for all... and all for one!" We even ate... and settled sibling uprisings and disputes... around the family "Round Table." We had such fun growing up together!!!

The single flat pan in the bush setting was the next improvement to the process. The larger boiling surface reduced the boiling time significantly and greatly increased the volume of syrup that could be processed. Being located centrally right in the bush greatly reduced the time factor in gathering to the site for boiling. and reduced the labour in the deep snow.

Eventually... the pan was covered in with a rough shanty structure which prevented unexpected weather elements and airborne debris from ruining the boil. They as well afforded the gatherers protection from the elements and the cold.  Wood for the seasonm coul be kept dry and cut during the summer for the next season's fuel supply.

The boil offs would continue uninterrupted... day and night during the entire month (or so) of sap producing. Some shanties even operated with two pans operating simultaneously... one to boil fresh sap. It was then  transferred into the lower second pan at the time it was starting to become syrup for a slower boil and finish into syrup to cool. So production was then continuous.

This ink sketch documents clearly the various components and functions of a tradition sugar shanty in Ontario. This sketch portrays one located at Glen Smail, Ontario near Ottawa. It was continuously operated by Willy Smail" family from United Empire Loyalist land grant time (circa 1812) until the late 1980's. It is now a ghost... disappeared into history!

Here is a photo of McCutcheon's... "under full steam"... in April

This is the McCutcheon Family's modern gas-fired evaporator operation located in Horseshoe Valley in the Township of Oro - Medonte north of Barrie Ontario. This family business produces world class maple syrup, tapping over 600 trees annually to produce the hundreds of galleons that they sell yearly.

Syrup along with Ken's honey operation and Rene's artisan pottery permit them to operate a self-sustaining family business based upon their maple syrup production. They often gather in excess of 2500 gallons of sap daily through the miles of tubing that brings the sap from their maple stands directly to their boiler and pans. They have separate areas in their shed displaying and selling their products to visitors, as well as space set aside for bottling the syrup and making the maple butter and candy that they are known for.

Maple shaped maple sugar Candy... a much sought after favourite of many children and tourists

This shows the large pan receiving the boiled syrup with cloth top filter out any impurities before they bottle the product.

Here is a sample of the maple products of McCutcheon's Maple Syrup displayed with the numerous honours and awards... including World Championship Awards from The Royal Winter Fair Competition. Truly... "Canadian Gold"... par excellent!!!

Concluding Thoughts...

I decided to use this opportunity to acquaint those of you who have never visited Canada ... or have never visited a bush with some insight into the origin of this sweet Canadian Spring harvest. Not only did annual production of maple syrup serve to provide farmers with additional revenue from their land... it created a much anticipated opportunity for entire families to come together early in the year to work and play together... both adults and children. It was a family social occasion fondly looked forward to. Even school took a back seat.

Maple syrup could be found at roadside stands everywhere one travelled on rural side roads... and signs like these announced that they were in business. That tradition continues today... but as always... the government has imposed controls and hovers over producers... limiting maple syrup sales to the large producers... or worse... corporate... mouthwash!.... Not even maple syrup! A pity!!!

There is a broad comparison that I will address in my upcoming post. That comparison will examine my view that the production of art can well be compared to the growth and development of maple syrup. Interested to find out?...... Stay tuned!

Sweet Buckets of Spring ... from The Paint Box Gang...

Good Painting... to ALL!!!!

Post Script

The above title for today's post is a phrase borrowed from a comment sent to me from a regular blog friend, Lisa Le Quelenec... a Dorset, UK artist whose site I visit and enjoy. You can make your own way there at  The phrase spoke to me of in inner "conversation" I had been having in preparing for this post.

Thank you Lisa... for the phrase,... and for the permission to use it here!


  1. While I read through your post, did I miss the phrase? Or was it "distillation?" At any rate, I loved reading of the history and process of maple syrup making, Bruce. I found myself - through your words - remembering stories of the Pilgrims and Indians and the first Thanksgiving and how crop knowledge was shared to bring forth the bounty. Or so I remember it being written that way in my early years' textbooks. I also found myself thinking about family businesses and creative ones at that. I wish I'd had some sort of family teaching of an art form myself. Alas, other than the "art" gene, which does run through my dad's side of the family and has culminated (at least as of this time) in my oldest daughter being a phenomenal artist, nothing was ever really taught or encouraged. I did encourage my daughter but her skills and talents are her own. Anyway...wishing I'd had that sort of mentoring and gift. Rather like how in the Renaissance artist era, artists went to work in studios under the guidance of well-known artists and learned and honed their craft. I wanna do that!!

  2. Wow! What a post. I love learning about different traditions from around the world. The internet has opened things up so much. Just wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading along and am glad that the tradition is being kept alive. Mac might not remember this time around but I'm sure it won't be long before he looks forward to the Spring harvest ( and will probably be thinking why doesn't school take a back seat for it now...? ;o) ) Thank you so much for sharing.

    Best wishes.

  3. Good Morning Sherry!... "The phrase" was the phrase that was the heading for the entire post. I wish to push further with that same idea in my nest post as well. There exist parallels between the two worlds of sugar... and paint!

    I am so happy that the words reignite and summon up "sweet thoughts and memories" from your own journey Sherry. It simply proves that we aren't so very different... no matter where we live... or how we were raised. We each have unique parts in our own realms... that are worth sharing... no matter how consequential... or "ordinary" we might feel they are to us.

    Actually Sherry... if you think about things and the world today that you and I are blessed to live in... there is actually a Renaissance currently underway... in terms of new science and technology. If you merely look at our common "Blogger" platform we are using right now... one can be in another artists world... seeing... sharing and learning on one's own terms... and NOT under the oppression and working conditions that actually existed for apprentices in the earlier Renaissance.

    It's merely a matter of perspective... and a personal choice... "to step up"... or not! HMMMM?????

    Just one ol' dude's take on things. Your perspective is the most important!

    Happy Spring... Get Hoppin' Sherry!
    Warmest regards,

  4. Good morning Lisa!... Thank you for again visiting and sharing your opinions and thoughts freely! Thanks too... for that wonderful phrase. I intend to push forward with it further in my next posting as well. Lots of food for thought.

    These above sentences truly exemplify the vast number of opportunities that the web affords each of us... such as the connection we have formed to discuss processes... adventures and cultural mores. Such a transmission of culture and knowledge can do so much to destroy barriers that can arise when one lives apart from the rest of the world.

    Mr Mac will continue to get copious doses of adventure and love from each member of our family. He is already inquisitive... and active in seeking out personal new knowledge on his own. Can't wait to watch it accelerate... when he gets those new "wheels" under him and moving. Look out world... and Mom and Dad! HA HA!!!

    Keep up the great work in your print making adventure. Might try a couple of linos... when I get the myriad of tasks ahead of me for our May opening... now just days away!

    Warmest regards,

  5. Hi Bruce, this has been a very interesting piece to read. I had no idea of the long history of maple syrup production, although I should have known that native people would not have missed such a resource.

    It was sad to read that regulation is forcing out the small producers, but unfortunately that seems to be the case for farming and similar industries in the Western World. I hope we realise the benefits of small-scale and local production before it's too late.

    All the best,

  6. Good morning Keith!... I am so glad that you enjoyed the piece... as I suspected you might. We are in equal parts... trekker... artist and historian - a blend of all three! All leading us to discover... to paint/record... and to share!

    Government regulation is rampant in all areas of life and business "We"... the people have always "realized the benefits of small scale and local production" in my mind Keith. Unfortunately... it is "they" (driven by corporate money") that make the rules and create the "squeeze" on the small guy! Sad... but true!

    Thanks for dropping by and sharing you very valid thoughts! You always are a good springboard encouraging me to think further. Stay tuned... this fact will be further illuminated and shared in the next post!

    Good Spring Painting... and Happy Spring!
    Warmest regards,

  7. Wonderful post, and the painting is gorgeous. Warm greetings from a chilly and rainy Montreal. :)

  8. Good morning Linda... of rainy Montreal!... Thank you for dispelling the clouds... rain and dreariness of a similar day here in Rockport with you cheery and uplifting comments!

    It is such a wonderful vehicle to transport and share our thoughts... ideas ... and sunshine with others on line!

    Wishing you a Happy Spring... filled with sunshine!

    Warmest regards,

  9. Wow! How little I know! Thank you for sharing! You know, I have never been out to a sugar bush! This will be the last year I will be able to say that! It's been added to my bucket list!

  10. WOW!... So happy that my post "lit the pa" under you ... to make your upcoming visit to a sugar bush Wendy!

    Your "bucket" list... how perfect!... Will be filled to overflowing... and I GUARANTEE that it will become an SWEET annual event for you and your "sweet" brood!

    Happy Spring and thanks for dropping by!

    Warmest regards,