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.
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!!!
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!!!!
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 seasidestudiosblog.blogspot.co.uk 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!