Farm Collector

Homemade Maple Syrup on Muddy Creek

It matters little whether it is spelled “syrup” or “sirup,” as long as the first name is “maple.” This wonderful sweetener has been around at least since colonial days, when John Alden may have collected sugar water, the sap of the maple tree, boiled it to a solid, and presented his lady love with one of nature’s most delicious treats.

On Muddy Creek, there along the slopes of Red Hill, the maples grew in profusion. Red Hill herself, near bald in those days, sported several but scattered groves of maples interspersed with the walnut and burr oak that reached to stately heights there along the Indian Boundary Line.

Few were the woodlots that didn’t contain a dozen or more maple trees with their copious whirligig seed pods and their colorful fall foliage. In between, just as the frost was going out in early spring and sap was starting to flow, came sugarin’ time.

Old man Catterton may have had many faults, but no one was more knowledgeable of eating out a living from nature than he. His brewed “horse medicine” was widely touted as being a sure cure for whatever might ail “man or beast.” In fact, this particular remedy was so popular that some of the menfolk would need to make a half-dozen trips each week up that winding trail to his shack to replenish their supply, even long after the hoss had died or been traded away.

Had the ground hog taken time to look around, that day when he came out to check on his shadow, he would likely have seen the old gentleman with a mud boat pulled by a wretched skin-and-bones mule, all loaded down with a couple of vinegar barrels of collected sugar water. He was headed for his lean-to, where he would boil that sap down into the sweetest and thickest maple syrup I have ever poured over a stack of hotcakes or spread over fluffy soda biscuits fresh from the oven.

If you have ever tried making your own maple syrup, or been around a sugaring operation, you will already know that it takes a heap of boiling to turn that thin, tasteless water into even a gallon of syrup. A foot-thick maple tree will supply about 20 gallons of sap over several weeks. By boiling and boiling, it will end up being less than a half-gallon of finished syrup.

Uncle Walter tried making maple syrup one spring. There were three big maple trees in our front yard, and he bored a couple of holes into each trunk with the brace and half-inch bit, about as high as my shoulder. Then he whittled out a kind of spout from a piece of pithy wood, and stuck it into the hole. He hung a milk bucket on a nail he had driven into the trunk, and the sap started to drip right away (but not very fast, for it took most all night to fill that bucket). Then he went down by the big bridge and “tapped” several trees there, too.

The next morning, he had near 10 gallons of water: That is what it looked and tasted like – plain water. He poured that water into the two big butcherin’ kettles that Dad had used the month before to render lard in, and covered it with a binder canvas. Then, the next day and the next, he caught that water until he had the kettles most full, and then he chopped up some boards and built a fire under them, and started that water to cookin.’

He boiled that water all day long, and when it got down to about half in each kettle, he dumped the two together and kept on boiling. Come nightfall, that aroma was unmistakably maple, and the steam that come off that kettle could be smelled all the way down to the Vanatta place.

My buddy Art smelled it, and come up to watch, and maybe get a taste, ’cause he was older than me, and had tasted homemade maple syrup before. Uncle Walter let us lick the skimmer that he raked the foam off the top with. There was still some snow along the north side of the shop, and he trickled some of that thick, hot syrup into the snow so me and Art could have a treat. Talk about something mighty fittin’ and tasty! Oh, man! That was something that was.

I would guess that there was not more than two gallons of finished syrup in that kettle when he got done.

Ma Ma filled up several amber Lightening fruit jars, sealed them with sealing wax, and stored them on the pantry shelf. That is, all but one, and we could hardly wait until she whipped up some buckwheat flour, got out the cast iron griddle, put it on the cookstove and baked some golden pancakes.

Hot, just homemade, buttered flapjacks, drowned in fresh maple syrup, will “put hair on yer chest,” believe you me. I can well understand how come Little Black Sambo could eat 24 pancakes.

Memories of that homemade maple syrup, and the desire to “do it myself,” compelled me to tap a big maple tree down at the farm a couple of years ago, and do some “sugarin'” on my own. I drilled a hole in the tree trunk and inserted the barrel of a ball-point pen, for want of a better spout, and collected several gallons of water. I found out the hard way that to get the best flow of sap, the nights must be cold and days sunny to make that old maple tree believe spring is near and start that sap a’flowin’.

After I had collected the sap and, with much reluctant cooperation from my bride of 40 years (who surely thought I had gone off my rocker), we boiled that water down in the kitchen. The exhaust fan carried out most of the vapor, but for weeks that sweet aroma hung in the air, on the curtains and even on the upholstery. After all of that boiling, we ended up with less than a quart of mighty expensive syrup, what with all the steamed-up wallpaper and mess. But that flavor was worth the effort, and we carefully and stingily doled out the supply, stretching it out as long as possible.

After that experience, I now gladly pay the asking price to those who make the effort to produce that delicious spring elixir. FC

Perry E. Piper’s recollections of his childhood on Muddy Creek – “which lies astraddle of the Indian Boundary Line that old Chief Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison laid out back in 1803” – have appeared in newspapers in Illinois and Indiana for the past 12 years.

  • Published on Mar 1, 1999
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