top of page
  • Sara Tucker

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 ch