By Jolene Hawkins
Looking back to making maple syrup the old-fashioned way. At the rotating display in Concord Historical Society’s Heritage Building depicts making maple syrup “the old-fashioned way.”
Dave Ploetz, along with his wife, Debe, built the exhibit to recreate childhood memories of helping his father, Ken, make maple syrup, also called maple sugaring.
“Maple sugaring was my favorite job growing up on the farm,” Ploetz said.
The simple process they used in the 1960s hadn’t changed from over a hundred years prior: manually gathering sap collected in buckets hanging from maple sugar trees, boiling the gathered sap in large syrup pans or kettles over wood fires to concentrate the sugar, drawing off and filtering the finished maple syrup product into empty milk cans.
The sugarhouses, where the boiling occurred, were simple structures.
“Our old sugarhouse, shown in the photo, was a repurposed chicken coop.” Last year after retiring from his “day job,” Dave began boiling for Ploetz’s Maple Syrup.
“After describing to my dad how a modern maple syrup evaporator operated, he noted how much maple sugaring, in general, had changed. Maple sugaring has now gone high tech.”
Items on display Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Heritage Building include a wood yoke used over 100 years ago by men, women and children to carry sap in wooden buckets.
The yoke is on loan from Marty Wendell, who bought it 40 years ago from Ralph Codd, a retired dairy farmer from West Valley.
“Ralph Codd helped me get my start in maple sugaring,” Wendell recently said.
Also, on display is an advertisement from the mid-1800s for fabricating syrup pans from sheet metal and making repairs for a “trifling expense.”
Laura Muhlbauer, who found the ad in the attic of her family homestead, said one man who placed the advertisement was William Joslin, her great-grandfather.
The invention of the tin can during the Civil War gave maple sugaring a major technological boost.
The sudden availability of sheet metal, produced by the same steel roller mills that made cans, allowed tinsmiths to fabricate shallow, open pans which could boil off sap more rapidly than deep kettles.
A primitive 3-foot-by-6-foot pan could be built in 1864 for a few dollars. Compare that to today’s cost of approximately $1,500.
A patent was issued in 1872 for one of the first “modern-era” evaporators, featuring a simmer pan in the back for concentrating sap, connected to the front pan for finishing off maple syrup.
This same type of pan arrangement is still in production and use today, according to “Sweet Maple” by James M. Lawrence & Rux Martin, published 1993.
Boiling is still done today in evaporator pans over wood or the more-convenient, fuel-oil heated, arches. However, a lot less boiling is required.
“Last year, we gathered over 100,000 gallons of sap,” Ploetz said. “But, I only boiled a tenth of this volume due to pre-concentrating the sugar using reverse osmosis. This allows me to make as much syrup in one good day of boiling as my dad made in an entire sugaring season 60 years ago.”
Steam plumes rising from sugarhouses and activity in woods that were still partially snow-covered were a sure sign for farmers that a new season of planting, growing and harvesting was just beginning.
A now-retired dairy farmer who used to make maple syrup, Bruce Luno said, “Spring didn’t start until you sugared.”
The steam plumes were then and still are calling cards for friends to stop by and visit.
“I have not been in more than a dozen of my friend’s homes, and most people have never been in mine,” one maple syrup producer says. “Your house is private. A different custom prevails for sugarhouses.”
Sugarhouses are places to gather and socialize, according to “Sweet Maple.” The rhythmic “pinging” of sap dripping into the bottoms of tin buckets, a sound permanently etched into the memory of anyone who sugared the old-fashioned way, as well as picturesque rows of maple trees with buckets hung, have been replaced by blue plastic tubing and the muffled exhaust of vacuum pumps.
“Sap’s running” was a rally cry that set the day’s schedule for dumping sap buckets into a collection tank followed by boiling into the wee hours of the night,” Ploetz recalled. “Whoever got stuck boiling didn’t go home until the collection tanks were almost empty.”
Sap spoils quickly due to bacterial action and must be boiled quickly to avoid degrading the color and flavor of the maple syrup.
Also, you had to boil off the sap in the tanks to make room for gathering more full sap buckets the next day.
Sugaring wasn’t even interrupted to go home to eat.
“We took advantage of the wood-fired arch and boiling syrup to cook meals on demand, including boiled eggs, grilled bacon and steaks, baked potatoes, hot dogs boiled in syrup and, for dessert, syrup poured over white bread,” Ploetz said.
“The only limitations my dad placed on cooking were, ‘Don’t let an egg break open in the syrup pan’ and ‘don’t let your steak cook too long,’” he said. “Steaks were cooked well-done after a few minutes inside the white-hot arch.”
You are encouraged to visit our local sugarhouses — five of which are in Springville and East Concord and four in northern Cattaraugus County — during 2019 Maple Fest this month.
Go to www.mapleweekend.com for dates, times and locations. If you are interested in using the rotating display in the Heritage Building, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.