Excerpted from NMHS Newsletter, November 1998

A Productive and

Well-Loved Woodland

A History of the Herbert L. Taylor Audubon Preserve during the five generations of the Taylor Family

by Jay A. Taylor

...The sugar camp was opened in 1905 by Robert Taylor. He borrowed $65.00 from his oldest son, Grover, and with other resources purchased an evaporator, pails, spiles and constructed a building in which to carry on the operation. From 1932 until 1939 during the author's contact with the sugar camp about 650 pails were hung. Syrup was made each year from the smallest quantity on a poor year of l50 gallons to the most prosperous year when 515 gallons of syrup were made.


Lack of fuel became an issue, since 40 gallons of maple sap had to be evaporated to create one 12-pound gallon of syrup. The adjacent railroad was so poorly maintained during the depression era that it provided few discarded railroad ties suitable for fueling the evaporator. The Erie Railroad had a very aggressive maintenance program each summer but ties were supposed to be stacked and burned. Section bosses, however, were quite cooperative. With the gift of a couple of gallons of syrup, they let the Taylor crew "steal" discarded ties left near the fence a day or so before burning. The family during the August lull in farming boarded a team adjacent to the track section being improved, acquired access and trucked the discarded ties back to the farm. Once the process was established the goal was to dry them for 18 months. By cutting a 16-inch block out of the center the two ends were the proper length for the fire box of the evaporator. In later years those two cuts on each tie were made with a special heavy duty saw blade. After 50 cuts the first blade was removed and a second one installed. While the crew ate lunch the sawyer, usually Roy Taylor, sharpened both saw blades for another 50 cuts each. The properly cut ties were split in about six to eight pieces during December and January and placed in the attached woodshed of the sugar house.

Making syrup was a very labor intensive procedure. The holding cistern, evaporator, pans, pails and all had to be scrubbed at the beginning of the season. Only hard maple trees were tapped. Trees were drilled for one to four spiles depending on the size of the tree.

The best sugaring weather happens when nights are significantly below freezing and days are warm enough to bring sap up the tree trunk. The north side of the tree was avoided because many days it would not be warm enough for sap to flow. A good tap during a good run would drip about three gallons of sap a day

Extensive rain or thaws required pails to be removed, and rehung if/or when proper sap-producing weather returned. In the author's memory there were times the evaporator ran 24 hours a day except on Sunday for two weeks at a time. In 24 hours approximately three batches of eight gallons each would be finished off, strained and sealed in gallon cans.

A kerosene lantern was the only illumination in the early years.

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With the cloud of steam always rising from the process this left much to be desired at night. During the last few years of operation lighting was much improved with a Maytag washing machine, two cycle engine belted to a six volt auto generator and storage battery to provide power for two bare bulbs. A lantern was still required as a back-up for the wood shed or in case the mechanical apparatus failed.

These descriptions may make the operation sound like a dreary time of drudgery. A great deal of socializing took place during the syrup season. Evenings and week ends saw a fairly constant flow of visitors to watch the evaporation process and visit. Sunday school classes came to watch. Friends would come by car and on foot to watch, chat and sample hot maple syrup. Since samples were free from a common dipper the unsuspecting person was usually warned that fresh, warm, maple syrup didn't always proceed through the digestive system in an orderly fashion.

In the strict religious home only "Old Maid" and "Flinch" were allowed as card games to be played in the farm house. At the sugar camp when the younger Taylors were giving their dad a break a wider variety of card games were only interrupted to stoke the fire and skim off the foam and pump up sap from the cistern. Inquisitive visitors even seemed to enjoy working the cistern pump to bring sap up to the tank from which it automatically flowed into the evaporator pans.

Much of the marketing was to local customers. Some kept a running order for the "first run," because they wanted light colored, mild flavored syrup. Others didn't mind later runs which were a darker color with more intense flavoring. Occasionally larger quantities of syrup were wholesaled or sold by family members in distant locations. This was an important cash crop during a period when cash was scarce. Rex Lukenbill, Elkhart, who often spent time helping his grandparents remembers hearing his grandma, Mrs. Robert R. Taylor tell that in 1918 the syrup run was so good, and so much syrup was sold at $1.50 per gallon that the farm was required to pay income tax for the first time.


Source: NMHS Newsletter, February 1987

SUGARING-OFF, by Orpha Weimer

No one knows how it started, but the making of both syrup and maple sugar was a well-established item of barter among the Indians living along the area around the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River before the arrival of the white man.  A story is told that an Indian squaw was cooking venison in the water that dripped from a maple tree near her wigwam.  While she was busy, her young papoose wandered away, so she went to look for him and was gone longer than she expected.  When she returned, she was amazed to find that the sap had cooked down to a sticky mass.  However, on tasting the meat, she found it delicious and the braves also approved of the flavor.  This led to the storing of the “magic water”, which by trial and effort, finally became syrup or sugar, which had excellent keeping qualities.

The Maple crop has three claims to distinction.  First, it is one of the oldest agricultural commodities available.  Second, it is one of the few crops that are solely American, and third, it is the only crop that must be processed on the farm before it is suitable for sale.

Although syrup-making is one of the oldest industries, relatively little scientific work has been done to improve it.  Sap is still gathered and transformed into syrup by evaporization, the same way it was done since early time.  Its production extends from Maine to Minnesota and south through Indiana and Virginia.  It is a woodland crop taken from trees that grow best in altitudes of 600 feet or above.  Hence, it is usually found in hilly country.  The crop is subject to yearly fluctuation caused by weather conditions.

Economically, it has been tied to the price of white cane sugar.  Records show a production of 4,132,000 gallons in 1860 with a slow decline thereafter which revived only briefly during World War I and II.  Heating fuel for the evaporation, labor, as well as available trees, are all factors to be considered.  At the present time, it has almost priced itself off the market.

There are many people in this area who are more knowledgeable about syrup-making and sugaring—off than I, but they are thinning out fast and the process is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

My first winter at Manchester College campus in 1924 taught me many things.  It was my first sight of tree tapping with buckets hanging on the sides of trees along the treelawns of many streets around town during nippy, cold, February days.  Some of you may well have been part and parcel of gangs of school kids who were regular little vandals then.  They emptied out some of the buckets and carried them away or pitched all sorts of debris into the hanging buckets of slow dripping sap.

For many years I understood that some old gentleman had done the tapping, but I have now learned that it was a common practice of many families who wanted to make a tasty treat.  Dr. L. Z. Bunker said that she could recall her mother patiently boiling down the sap on the kitchen stove in order to have it for use with Easter eggs, and Toy Haymond admits doing it herself.  She recalls it was a long, long process—a real labor of love.  Many folks hesitate to tell, but occasionally a little sugar was added to hasten the thickening process.

Apparently, many farmers who owned a few Maple trees or sometimes a small grove, made the syrup commercially at outdoor camps.  However, as fuel became scarce and labor more expensive, they slowed down to only family use and, several years ago, stopped entirely.  Many of the old-timers I have talked to smile reminiscently and tell me how good it tasted, but say that it was too far back in their childhood to recall clearly, or more vaguely, that it was back in grandpa’s time.

The latest producers I could locate in this area are the Roy Taylor family, Asa Hines, and John Speicher and his wife’s family, the Tschantz’s at Urbana.  In a conversation with Forrest Penrod of Wabash, he gleefully chuckled, recalling his childhood memories of when he was a five-year-old with several older brothers and the family was boiling off sugar.  I gathered that his contribution was mostly tasting.

At least he insisted that the chewy strings and blobs of thick boilings dribbled onto pans of clean snow tasted might good.  He said it was definitely a family affair.  His father and brothers worked very hard bringing in the sap while his mother and sisters did most of the boiling, filtering, and stirring down.  They worked far into the night, for the syrup was best when cared for promptly.  Hot coffee kept them going and suppers were frequently baked potatoes, chunks of bread and meat, or cheese and apples.

More recently, the Liberty Mills area has done some syrup-making.  I recall that during the 60’s we used to take school children from Chester out to the Rudy Ross farm to visit a camp.  I never got in on these trips myself since my classes were regarded as too old, but I’ve always regretted not being able to see it done.  The fourth graders who were studying Indiana history would come back with their eyes sparkling and full of interest.  “M-m-m-m!  You could smell it in the air,” they announced.  “All that smoke and the boiling sap makes you hungry,” they’d say.  “Apple pies,” cried one.  “Flapjacks,” shouted another.  “French toast and syrup,” stated a prim little girl.  It is too bad that we have to lose a tradition such as this.

In a conversation with Harold Slater, who owns the fruit market at Sidney, I learned that he has renovated his grandfather’s equipment and does some sugaring-off even today for interested groups and family friends.  He continues the tradition as well just for the novelty of keeping alive this old-time trade.  He went on to inform me, that maples do best in rich ground, a bit hilly and rather open to the sun.  The flowing process begins when nights are cold and frosty, followed by warm days of about 45 degrees.  The season is short at best, so everything must be ready to go.  Apparently when the trees are frozen, carbon dioxide is frozen into the tube-like cells that carry the sap.  When the wood thaws, the carbon dioxide is released and the pressure causes the sap to run.  The would-be syrup-maker must be ready for long hard work.  There is no respite until the warm weather completely thaws the tree.  That is why some years are good and some are not.

A tree growing on rich, open land and uncrowded conditions may produce 40-80 gal. of sap in a good year.  The sweetness may vary from 1 to 3%, but no one seems to know why.  When a tree is 10” in diameter it can stand one tap.  A fast-cutting bit, drills a hole 3/8” in diameter at a slight angle, then a wooden (or today a metal) spile (an open-ended tubelike piece) is inserted for the sap to flow through into a container.  These holes are normally about 2-3 ft. above the ground level for convenience, and on the warm south or east side of the tree.  Always one avoids an old tap scar by about 6-8 in. to insure fresh cell structure.  Larger and older trees of 25 ft. diameter may carry 4 spiles without damaging its health.

Indians used containers of bark, the pioneers used wood-stave buckets, but today mostly metal buckets are used to catch the sap.  Sometimes they were partly covered because insects, litter, and rain are hazards.  I understand that up in the Wakarusa-South Bend area are some modern camps that use hooded, plastic containers and plastic hose for gathering.  Outdoor Indiana lists a Mr. Eugene Wilson of this area who is a limited producer today.  As one should expect, the price is quite high, if you can secure it at all.  My informant said he paid $8.00 a quart for some last year and considered himself lucky at that.

Paul Fatout, a Purdue University professor, in his book, Indiana Canals, gives a list of goods sold in Fort Wayne during 1845, among which he lists 1,387,892 lbs. of syrup and sugar as an excellent cash crop for northern Indiana.  It sold at 75 cents a lb. along with wild cranberries, deer and coon skins, feathers, pot ashes, powdered limestone, and hair or bristles.

In the March, 1986 issue of Country Living is shown a fantastic antique display of old wood, maple sugar molds.  These are nearly priceless today.  Have you rummaged around in your basement or attic lately?  You just might find a fortune!