When the British settlers arrived in the Canadas they became very interested in the aboriginals method of making sugar from maple trees. The British with a very strong taste for sweets, soon adopted the practice of making maple sugar, here was a product to satisfy their sweet tooth at no cost.
The following is taken from Joseph Bouchette’s ” A Topographical Description of Lower Canada with Remarks upon Upper Canada. London, 1815“
“In the spring, when the sap begins to rise in the (maple) trees, the habitants repair to the woods, furnished with kettles, troughs and all the necessary apparatus for carrying on the manufacture, where they form a temporary encampment; the mode of collecting the sap is by making an incision in the tree, into which is inserted a thin bit of stick to serve as a conductor, from whence, an hour or two after sunrise, the sap begins to trickle down into a trough placed to receive it; when a sufficient quantity of this liquor is obtained from several trees, it is put into an iron kettle and boiled, until it comes to the consistency of a thick syrup; it is then cooled, and afterwards subjected to another process of boiling and clarifying. When this is sufficiently performed in proportion to the degree of purity they intend to give it, it is put into vessels of different sizes to harden, containing from half a pound to eight or ten pounds. Its colour is of all shades between a dark and a light brown, according to the care that has been taken in clarifying it; indeed, by a repetition of the process it may be rendered as white as common refined sugar. Being considered very wholesome, the use of it is very common among the country people for all purposes, and the consumption of it is considerable in families of respectability for ordinary occasions; the price of it varies from three pence halfpenny to six pence per pound. It is constantly to be had in market in Quebec.”
One of the advantages of tapping was the timing. When the temperature was right, warm days and freezing overnight, sap began to run up in the maples. This weather created created ideal conditions tapping as it was neither suited for working in the bush or clearing fields.
There was a stand of maple trees suitable for tapping on most lots in the Township. A south facing area made an ideal sugar bush. Winter days when weather conditions did not allow working in the bush, tapping tools were made.
Making oaken buckets to empty the troughs was also a winter project.
Spigots for tapping were made out of pine, cedar, or ash twigs. A hole was drilled through the centre and one end was opened.
On the right is a more modern version of spout used from the late 19th century and still in use (2022) where tubes have not been installed.
Troughs to catch the drip were made of short pieces of maple log hollowed out with an axe.
1940 Metal sap cans hung onto metal spouts (above right) replaced the wooden troughs. Tops to prevent contamination by rain, bugs, or vegetation, lids were added. These are still in use in smaller sugaries.
1940 The sap was collected into a large barrel mounted on a sleigh and hauled by ox or horse to the boiling site.
1940 Boiling Sap. Note the three pots used for the various stages of boiling .
Boiling sap required constant attention, keeping the fire hot, stirring the pots to keep them from boiling over, checking the stage of the sap in each pot adding sap when necessary. Grease run around the lip of the pots prevented boiling over.
When the sap reached the stage of syrup it was strained into a second pot where clarifying began. Fat, egg, or milk was added to the pot to remove any impurities and the froth was constantly skimmed off top.
When the sap reached the consistency of molasses it was transferred to the last pot to be boiled until a drop on snow hardened. It was then stirred vigorously and quickly poured into wooden molds to harden.
The molds were hand carved by the individual families thus unique. They indicated where the sugar was made.
Maple sugar ranged from almost white to a dark brown colour, depending on the care taken in the making.
British settlers stopped the boil at the syrup/molasses stage to use in cooking or as a sauce on puddings.
Originally sugar was the only objective of tapping and boiling maple sap. As often happens it was discovered that if the boiling process was stopped before reaching the sugar stage a delicious syrup resulted.
As for taffy, of course there is also a story that goes like this:
One day sap, intended for syrup was left boiling too long. When it was being removed some spilled onto the snow. Presto! Taffy! Whether or no this is so, taffy on snow is still a popular spring treat.
Cider and molasses were also produced from boiling maple sap.
As the days passed, sap became cloudy no longer making good sugar but stopping the boil early a good vinegar could be made.
The boiled sap was stored in a mason in a jug with barm (the froth scummed skimmed from the top of fermenting beer, malt, etc. and used as a yeast to leaven bread, cakes.) The jug was set near the fire for several months until the content became vinegar.
Women and children were very much involve in sugar making. The women frequently boiled while the children, depending on their age, gathered sap and carried wood.
A large maple tree could give 4 gallons (approx. 18 litres) of sap per day. One hundred trees produced 16lbs. (approx. 7.3 kilograms) of sugar in a season.
George Copping’s Sugar cabin
Built about 1848
Fred Parkinson emptying a barrel of sap into a vat in the back of his sugar cabin.
Thanks to Daniel Parkinson
Henry Copping’s sugar cabin built circa 1880. In 1902 Henry Copping was awarded the Gold Canadian Gold Maple Leaf for producing the best syrup. Today there is another Gold Maple Leaf in Rawdon earned by Guy Breault.
Note the family are all involved with the production of syrup and sugar.
A wood fired “evaporator” replaced boiling in pots over an open fire. The boil started in the large pan and was gradually siphoned into the next one.