It is getting to be that time of year. When I was little, having a good season meant money for extras. Our farm was small, and not especially profitable – not for lack of trying on anyone’s part. If we had a good sap season, it meant we might get a new appliance for the house, a new piece of machinery, new spring shoes wouldn’t be so hard to buy. It was very important for the family.
The “Sugar House” was in the field across from the house at the foot of a small hill. The process goes like this. Dad would put the buckets, lids and spiles on the sleigh and go to the ‘sugar bush’ – the maple woods. First he took his hatchet and cut a spot on the tree through the bark, then he took his brace and bit and drilled a hole, where he inserted the spile. A spile is like a little metal tube with a bump at the front. This is what the sap comes through to get to the bucket. Then the sap bucket was hung on the spile, and the lid was put on. Many people didn’t use lids, but Dad did because it kept any leaves or dirt out, as well as rain. Then you crossed your fingers it would be a good season..
I can’t remember how many ‘taps’ we had, but we tapped all of our trees, as well as some of a neighbour’s. It was a busy time as the farm chores still had to be done, in addition to gathering the sap and boiling it down.
The sap was gathered on foot. There was a very large sap tub on a sleigh. The top sloped toward the center with a strainer which kept out the bits of wood, moths, etc. The sleigh was pulled by our two work horses. You would carry the empty pails through the snow, dump the buckets of sap into them, and carry them back to the sap sleigh. Sometimes, if it had been a good day for the sap to run, you would make several trips to each little grove to empty all the buckets. The snow nearly always was higher than your boots, and you got snow down inside. The worst time of all was when there was a crust on the snow. You would step on it, and it would almost hold you, down you would go, and if you were carrying sap it splashed down your boot along with the snow collection. You just kept gathering, moving the horses bit by bit, until you finished that bush, and then you took it back to the sugar house to unload.
It is easier now because instead of buckets, they now.use plastic hose which goes from tree to tree, and down the hill to a gathering container.
Dad was a very smart man, as well as a talented carpenter. He built the sugar house below the hill, and we would drive the sap sleigh up the hill to the trough that ran into the sap storage container inside the sugar house. When you went into the sugar house, you would see that huge tank up near the roof, and he could slowly release the sap into the evaporator. Gravity ran everything.
Inside the sugar house was a pile of wood at the far end – all stacked up ; in the middle was the evaporator – in two sections about a total of fifteen feet long, on a big firebox which ran under it. Next to the tank was Dad’s throne . It was a chair he built way up high over the evaporator so he could see what was going on. He could tell by the size of the bubbles when it was close to syrup.
The sap would come in from the tank as Dad controlled it, and go up and down sort of lanes going from front to back, making its way to the front evaporator. By the time it got there it had warmed up and was quite hot, Then it had little lanes going across the evaporator, gradually getting thicker. Dad would test it with a dipper. He could tell as it came off the edge of the dipper when it was boiled down enough, and was syrup. Then it was released by a tap . It ran into a milk can with a strainer lined with a felt sieve . Dad would keep testing, and when it was getting too thin, he would turn off the tap, and let in more cold sap, and the process would begin all over. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
Dad always made sure he had a few jar of dill pickles left and he would eat them to counteract the sweetness in the air! There was constant steam.
We would always have visitors on Sunday afternoon. Syrup making was the only time Dad worked on Sunday, but the sap buckets could run over if not collected, the holding tank wasn’t big enough, and Dad would never catch up if he left it until Monday. Because our sugar house was close, it was an easy walk from the road . Although Dad was basically a shy man, he did love explaining the process to visitors, We also made sure there was a bucket or two hanging over the fence from a tree by the road so that people driving along could have a drink of sap instead of climbing over the fence and breaking it down !
Then the milk cans were carried into the house where it was put in cans – gallon and half gallon as well as empty liquor bottles. Since Mom and Dad did not drink, we had to rely on neighbours and family who did! Mom would weigh them to make sure the density was right. I don’t know what it was supposed to be, but the numbers 13 lb.2 oz keep coming to mind. We had labels which had to be glued on to the cans.
This leads to an only Mom story. One summer Mom had tried unsuccessfully to wash the label off an empty jar of something – maybe mayonnaise. She wrote to the processor to ask what they used to glue on their labels. They answered her ! She wrote to the glue company and bought some jars of this white paste! – only Mom!!
Mom did not teach from the time Virginia was born until Barry was 2 1/2, so she would gather sap and Dad would do the chores and boil down the sap. Sometimes we would have a teenage girl from the next farm for the kids, but usually I would look after them while Mom went out and gather what Dad hadn’t already collected.
The only time I remember Dad punishing me (that was usually Mom’s department) was one day, instead of hurrying home, the neighbour boy and I had been playing, diverting the water dribbling down the road , making canals. They were very impressive, but Dad wasn’t impressed. Mom had gone gathering and he was with the baby waiting for me to get home so he could start boiling.
My other ‘OOPS’ moment was also when I got home from walking from school –and yes I did walk two miles! I was cold, and didn’t think the fire was hot enough. I put more wood in the kitchen stove, and since it wasn’t catching, I did what I had seen Dad do. I threw on some coal oil! It flared up of course, which wouldn’t have been too bad except Mom had baby diapers hanging from a clothes hanger over the stove to dry, and of course they caught on fire. Thankfully she had just carried up a pail of water, and a friend of mine was there. We both took dippers and threw water on the fire. When Mom came in, there was water all over the floor and black bits of cloth hanging from the hanger , a singed ceiling and an empty water pail! The only thing that saved me from not being able to sit down for a week was that I had wrapped the baby up, and put her on the couch by the door, so if we had to escape the baby was ready! She knew she didn’t have to tell me about using coal oil ever, ever again!. The really scary thing is that part of our house was about 200 years old, and would have caught on fire and burned quickly if we hadn’t got it out immediately.
Another OOPS involved my cousin and me. Even after I was married, I would come down on the weekend to help gather sap, as Dad was more comfortable with the idea of me driving the horses. My cousin helped him all week. Lloyd, my cousin Thomas and I set off to gather the sap. I had stopped the horses, put the reins round the sap tub and was gathering sap with the two men. I had to step up on the sleigh because I was not tall enough to empty my pail from the ground. As I stepped up on the sleigh to dump my pails of sap , Thomas said “Gitty-up” and the horses did! There I was on the very front of the sleigh, sap tank behind me, the reins wrapped around the tank, and nothing to protect me from the horses’ hooves. When the horses realized no one was driving them they started to go faster and faster. By the time I got the reins, and stopped them, we were about two feet from a cliff dropoff.
I got off that sleigh, toward Thomas, yelling all the time! By the time I finished, my great big gentle cousin knew 1) it wasn’t funny to tell horses to get going for a joke and 2) while RubyAnn was a lot smaller than he was, she was a force to be reckoned with!
The first run of syrup was ours! – Dad’s hot biscuits and warm syrup – what a treat. Nothing tastes like brand new syrup. We were allowed to bring ‘old’ syrup to a boil and pour it in dribbles on clean snow. Many people call it ‘taffy on snow’, but we called it Jack-‘o-wax.
We had customers who came to the farm to buy, some in Gananoque to whom Mom delivered and then we would also go to the Kingston Market. We sold syrup, maple sugar and sometimes maple butter – which was maple sugar that wouldn’t set!
Mom always said she would work off winter fat in sugar making, and never had to worry about her weight until Dad stopped making syrup. He stopped because by then that was the only time he needed the horses, the tractor couldn’t make it and if there was a poor year, the only one who made money was the hired man!
I don’t believe there is any work on the farm that is harder – even haying. No matter what syrup costs, believe me, it’s a bargain.