Reminiscences of a Hudson, Ohio Farm Boy

Maple sugaring activities at Case Barlow Farm are documented by Franklin S. Barlow (1912 – 1996), Reminiscences of a Hudson, Ohio Farm Boy”, written in 1983. “The mention of maple syrup reminds me of our farm breakfasts which were very hearty indeed. The main course at our breakfasts, virtually 365 days a year, was pancakes.”

The farm activity which most people regard as really romantic is the production of maple syrup. In a way it is but it also involves a lot of very hard work. Throughout the winter whenever there was a spare hour or so we would be cutting wood for the sugar house. Then in February some time when the weather was most miserable we would get out and scrub the evaporating pans, clean up the sap buckets, check out the gathering and sap storage tanks and wash the spiles. (I can’t find the word spile in my dictionary and it may be a corruption of some other word, but that is what we called the little metal tubes that were driven into holes bored in the maple trees and from which the sap ran into the buckets suspended from them.)

The next job was tapping the trees. Someone had to go around to each maple tree with a brace and bit, drill one, two or three holes in it, drive the spiles in the holes and hang the buckets. Oh yes, and each bucket had to have a cover which was a piece of plank about a foot square, designed to keep dirt from falling in the bucket, also rain water which would dilute the sap.

When the sap commenced to run, Clayte (handyman) would hitch his team to a sledge on which was mounted the gathering tank, a round container which I suppose must have held 100 gallons or more of sap. When the ground was frozen and there was snow on the ground, hauling this vehicle through the woods was no problem. Unfortunately the sap does not run when it is below freezing, consequently the poor team, to say nothing of Clayte, had to struggle through the woods with that 1000 pounds plus load through ankle deep mud. Naturally the sledge could not be hauled up to each tree so Clayte and perhaps a helper (often me) would have to gather the sap from the buckets, carry it to the tank and then proceed on to the next stopping place. When the tank was full, it had to be dragged to the sugar house which was well over a mile from our North Woods. The sap was then transferred to a big storage tank from which the evaporating pans were kept filled by a system of floats, valves and siphons.

To make a gallon of maple syrup requires boiling down 40 gallons plus of sap. If the sap was running well and we could keep the storage tank full, it was possible to produce four or five gallons of syrup in a good day – and a good day might run from right after breakfast, about 7:30, until 10:00 o’clock or so at night. A sugar house is the draftiest place on earth; it has to be because of the constant cloud of steam which must be dissipated to reduce those hundreds of gallons of sap into syrup. The evaporating pans require constant attention for it is a catastrophe if one boils dry and very troublesome if one boils over. The fire needs continuous attention and replenishment of firewood. Finally it takes someone who knows what he is doing to “sugar off” at the proper time when the syrup has achieved the correct specific gravity to come up to standards.

“Sometime in the late 20’s the Pennsylvania Railroad, from whom we had always leased the “North Woods” and pasture, decided to sell off the timber, which eliminated more than half our maple grove. Then the coupe de grace was administered when a big tree fell down on top of the sugar house, pretty well collapsing it and ruining the brick chimney. Nice and tidy.

Maple Sugaring

It is believed that making maple syrup and maple sugar is uniquely American. Native Americans slashed the wood of maple trees and collected the sap, boiling it down. The early settlers in the New World learned the skill and then improved on it.

During the Civil War the northern territory faced a shortage of non-cane sugar because it was cut off from their supply in the south. Northerners were encouraged to produce sap for the bricks of sugar that were made.

The Hudson area had many aged maple trees that were fit for tapping, thus making it a leader in maple syrup production.

A Hudsonite revolutionized maple syrup processing with the invention of the evaporator. Gustave Henry Grimm partnered with farmer Horace Clark (who lived at what today is known as Maple Wood Farm in Hudson) and patented the dropped flue “Champion Evaporator” which efficiently boiled liquids such as sap. It reduced the boiling time for sap from 12 hours to 4. G.H. Grimm Manufacturing Company was established in 1882 and moved to Ravenna Street in 1881/1882. The Evaporator Works shopping and office area is now located in that space. Although Grimm moved to Vermont in the late 1890’s, the Hudson branch of G.H. Grimm Manufacturing remained in Hudson until 1945. Leader Evaporator presently located in Swanton, Vermont later purchased Grimm’s company.

Tapping the Tree

Tree tapping begins in February and March. Ideal conditions call for warm days and cold nights. Heavy snow will keep the sap colder at night for longer periods of time and is therefore preferred. Once the tree buds open the collection season ends. A maple tree should be at least 10 inches in diameter before it is tapped.

Steps:

  1. Drill a hole 2-3 inches into the sapwood at a slightly upward angle. The hole diameter should be less than that of the spout or spile. Tap holes can be anywhere from 2 to 6 feet off the ground. A tree over 2 feet in diameter can have more than one tap.
  2. Insert spile.
  3. Collect the sap in a covered bucket that hangs off the spile.
  4. When you have a fair amount of sap, begin boiling it down. It is best to do this outdoors. Forty gallons of sap will make only one gallon of syrup. Unprocessed sap is mostly water and when the water is driven off the boiling point raises. When it is 7 degrees above the boiling point of water (approximately 219 degrees) the syrup is done.
  5. Filter the finished syrup.
  6. Pour into jars.
  7. Refrigerate (may be canned if desired).