When the Europeans arrived, aboriginals were using the sap from maples to produce the only sweet they knew, maple sugar. They shared their knowledge with these new arrivals who saw a product suitable for their tables for relatively nothing which otherwise was often beyond their budget.
There was a stand of mature maple trees suitable for a sugar bush on most lots in the Township of Rawdon.
In earliest times the end product was sugar for personal use as well as a surplus to sell adding to the family income.
During stormy or rainy winter days when working in the bush was not an option the equipment, all hand-made, was prepared. Spouts were originally made from pine twigs by digging small troughs in pieces of pine, later by drilling holes through pieces through the twigs.
Troughs were made by splitting a good sized of pine cut into 3 foot pieces and split in half. These were then dug out ready to be laid under the spouts.
In March or early April, when the days were warm and the nights brought freezing temperatures, the sap in maples rose up in the trunks.
The first approach to the sugarbush called for snowshoes as well as an axe well and a supply of spouts. Should there still be a significant amount of snow in the bush, an ox might be used to break a road to and through the maples to be tapped.
A gash was cut into the side of a maple. A wooden trough was placed under the gash to catch the drip. Later an auger replaced the axe and spouts were gently hammered into the holes.
Eventually troughs were replaced by wooden buckets hung from the spouts. The buckets, usually made of cedar, were soaked in water for a few days to prevent leaking and the hoops falling off. Usually, younger children and women were often given this task.
Sap was gathered in larger oaken pails hung on a yoke around the neck, to be emptied into a large barrel mounted on a sleigh to be taken to the boiling area.
Large black iron kettles were hung over an outdoor fire for making maple sugar or syrup.
Sap was poured into the first kettle to boil, down but not to sugar. When the sap was nearing the sugar stage, the “reduit” as the Canadiens called it was then strained through a piece of wool cloth into the finishing pot where it was watched closely to prevent contamination from leaves, twigs, etc. until it reached the sugar stage. The liquid was then stirred until sugar crystals started to form before being poured into moulds to harden into hard blocks. These moulds were hand carved and each family had its own pattern.
When the sugar had hardened it was removed from the mould and set to dry in the open air.
The boiling of sap took hours, often lasting long into the night, and required close attention. The fire was kept stoked and the sap in the pot checked frequently until it reached the temperature for sugar. The pot was removed from the fire and stirred constantly until sugar crystals began to form. The now cooled sugar was poured into moulds as quickly as possible. Women were frequently assigned this task while the men and children collected the sap or did other necessary chores.
Originally sugar was the sole reason for tapping but in time syrup was introduced by stopping the boil earlier. This syrup soon became popular as a delicacy. The syrup was poured into stone jars or jugs, well corked, before being placed in the cellar where it kept surprisingly well. Eventually maple syrup became popular on the market as well as the sugar.
Syrup that was boiled a little longer became a special treat when poured on snow. This taffy was picked from the snow using wooden paddles and eaten immediately. Taffy parties were soon very much in fashion with Sunday afternoon being the preferred time. Music and dance accompanied the taffy
This tradition translated into a “Taffy Party” in the Anglican Church hall where large pans of snow were smothered in taffy for all. Accompanied by music and dance this provided a very enjoyable social evening for family, friends, and neighbours, to catch up on the latest news in the community. This tradition continued until very recently.
Depending on the quality of the sap and care taken boiling it down maple sugar could be any shade from almost clear to a dark brown. The lighter the colour, the more valuable the sugar. The darker the colour, the stronger the maple taste. Finer sugar was usually reserved for sale or special guests. Dark syrup was preferable for cooking or taffy.
In the late 19th century, evaporators, long pans over a brick firebox replaced the kettles. A cabin was built over the evaporator making the process not only more easily controlled, but protected from the weather, and much more comfortable.
In time wooden spouts and cedar buckets were replaced with metal spouts with tin cans hung onto the spouts.
On many farms in Rawdon, the sugar bush was near the house and the cabins were built alongside the road. Those passing by were expected to stop in for a taste of the “reduit” (partially boiled sap frequently fortified with alcohol) to “warm” the visitor.
While many sugar bushes were close to home, others were more distant. In such a case, someone, sometimes many of the family, brought blankets and provisions to stay in the cabin and watch over the boiling.
Today sugar cabins are commercialized venues for a traditional meal and entertainment.
Although there are still sugar camps in Rawdon, there are no such commercial establishments.