top of page

Sugaring 1900

The author with a grandson, mid 1950s.

Harry H. Cooley

On a small farm in Georgia, Vermont, about the year 1900, the supply of maple sugar was almost gone. The small maple grove and ancient sugarhouse—"sap house" in Grandpa's language—were available but had not been worked for several years. The snow was nearly gone and, urged by the family (especially the oldest son, age nine), Father decided to make a little sugar. In view of the ancient equipment and lack of manpower, it would be on a very small scale, but certain preparations had to be made.

The sugar house was a small barnlike structure and contained a stone and brick arch, or furnace, and chimney, with two small black iron pans, one about two feet by five feet and the other five feet square with riveted seams and round iron handles. The arch was low and lacked grates or swinging door. The woodhole could be partly closed by a battered piece of sheet iron with a hole punched in one edge for a handle. The space on one side of the arch was decked over at a height of about six feet and on this deck were stored the wooden buckets and spouts. Under the deck was the woodpile and a large wooden cask for storage of sap. There was one small window, but several missing boards on the wall let in more light and were left off so the steam could get out.

On a fine sunny day just after Town Meeting the boy and his father built a small fire in the arch and filled the pans with snow from a drift outside. As this melted, more snow was added until there were several inches of warm water in the pans. A dipperful of homemade soft soap was added to the water in the large pan and, with sleeves rolled up, Father took each bucket from his son in the loft and scrubbed it inside and out. Since these were wooden stave buckets which had been dry for several years, many leaked water in streams and were set into the smaller pan to "soak up." One or two were found to contain squirrel nests and had repeated scrubbings and soakings to get rid of the "squirrelly" odor.

The buckets were all sizes and styles as they had been made at different times and by different coopers. The best and newest, made of old-growth pine staves, held a half-bushel, twenty quarts, up to the hole bored in one stave to accommodate the hook or nail in the tree. Others were made smaller at the top and held fourteen quarts. Some of these had one stave longer than the rest to serve as a handle. Still others had a metal strip nailed on with a hole in the end for the hook. Most of them had wooden hoops, with an occasional iron replacement. Many hoops were loose and had to be tapped down with a hammer.

The spouts were also a choice assortment, with some square wooden ones with a wire hook, some round ones whittled from elder or sumac stems, and a few patent "Post" spouts made of cast iron with a loose hook. The patriarchs of this assortment were sumac stems twelve to eighteen inches long, which were hollow for two inches and troughlike the rest of their length. These were used where several trees grew close together and could be arranged to drip into one bucket sitting on the ground between the trees. This year, since only one hundred buckets would bet set, the metal spouts were the only ones used except as indicated by the tree arrangement.

It was decided not to use the horses but to gather with two pails on a yoke as our ancestors had done. Only nearby trees were to be used. Tapping was a small job and all went well. The first good run began and boiling was an all-day affair. The man supervised and showed how to make the fire and when and how to dip sap from the big front pan to the smaller one on the rear which would be the syrup pan.

About four o'clock the father began to think of his cows and milking. The son seemed to understand the process, so father suggested that he should go to do the milking, leaving the son to keep the fire going. For an hour all was well. The sun shone, the fire crackled, the sap bubbled and was duly dipped and new sap added from the supply in the tank, and the boy felt big and important. All at once he noticed that the sun was gone and the shadows had begun to lengthen. Everything was still, and the house and barn seemed a long way across the field. The light came on in the kitchen, and a glimmer on the barn windows indicated that chores were in progress.

For some reason the boy's stomach began to bother him. He thought he might be going to be sick. Perhaps he should go to the house and get something for his condition, as he had heard that such feelings might lead from bad to worse. He tried to dismiss his symptoms and concentrate on boiling, but after a few minutes he decided that he was taking an unwarranted risk, especially since he remembered that not over sixty years before his grandfather had seen a wolverine in this grove. The fire was pretty low anyway and there was plenty of sap, so he closed the door and walked briskly, or perhaps ran, homeward. As he approached the house his stomach symptoms began to subside, and when he explained to his mother, she suggested he was tired and probably hungry and should have his supper. After supper perhaps Dad would go back with him to finish the boiling. That was how it was arranged, except that Mother went along too, just in case the boy might have a relapse. As a precaution, he spent the next two hours stretched out on an old door in front of the arch.

Father syruped off in the back pan and, when the desired thickness was achieved, put out the fire with buckets full of snow thrown on the hot coals. The hot syrup was left in a covered bucket at the sugar house. The next day it was brought to the kitchen and placed in a smaller pan on the wood-burning cookstove, where it was slowly boiled until a loop of broom straw, dipped in the pan, would be covered with a film which could be blown into a bubble floating away from the straw. Then the pan was lifted off the stove and set on the kitchen table. Mother, Grandmother, and Grandpa took turns dipping and stirring until it began to "grain," when it was poured into a large wooden tub and set behind the buttry door until needed.

During the "sugaring off," a large pan of clean snow was placed on the kitchen table, and at intervals spoonsful of hot syrup was "tried" on the snow. If it sank into the snow and mixed with it, a later sample would lie on the snow surface and turn to "was." Then all hands would draw up chairs and eat more than they needed, with the aid of sour pickles, "plain" doughnuts, and sometimes a drink of milk. Sugaring off was often a social occasion, with invitations to neighbors who didn't make any sugar. Usually the boss and any hired help around managed to drop in, and the party even included the farm dog, who loved maple wax and could sometimes be persuaded to accept an unmanageably large lump of taffy which would stick in his teeth and provide some amusement by his efforts to unstick himself.

The boy and his dad had two more good runs of sap in the next ten days, but the last one produced syrup darker in color and with a stronger flavor. Then the school sugaring vacation was at an end and there were three large tubs of sugar in the pantry.


Excerpted from the memoirs of Harry H. Cooley, Historical Sketches, copyright 1978


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page