Sugar Camp

by Bill Schuette

      It is not known when Midwestern Native Americans first discovered the sweet taste of sap from the maple tree, but it is likely the discovery predates recorded history.

   Sugar Camp south of Baraboo, April, 1924. L-R: William Hazeltine, Eugene Heukr, Rev. E.C. Heukr.

Sugar Camp south of Baraboo, April, 1924. L-R: William Hazeltine, Eugene Heukr, Rev. E.C. Heukr.

      Maple sap is one of the first crops harvested after a long Wisconsin winter, and is typically extracted between mid-March and mid-April. Ideal conditions to flow sap are cool evenings with temperatures in the 20s with warm days over 40 degrees. There are 5 species of maple trees which produce sap; however, it’s the sugar maple (the Wisconsin state tree) that produces the most flavorful syrup. Groves of sugar maple trees were known as sugar bushes.

      A tree should be at least 12 inches in diameter and about 40 years old for best production. Up to 3 taps can be placed on each tree, 2-4 feet above the ground.  Each tap can produce 10 gallons of sap per season, with some premium trees putting out 50-plus gallons. The sap is dripped into covered buckets which are collected when full. It takes 40 gallons of raw sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup. The season ends when the trees begin to produce buds.

      One of the earliest records of the use of maple syrup and sugar dates to the mid 1600s from around the Great Lakes and along the St. Lawrence River where it was used for barter by Native Americans.  Early settlers called it Indian Molasses. A druggist visiting the New England area from England wrote of a tree “whose juice weeps out of incisions and if permitted to exhale (evaporate) its superfluous moisture, will congeal into a sweet and saccharin substance.”

      Maple sap is collected and taken to “sugar houses” where it is boiled down to remove the water and produce the pure syrup. Often times, at least in the past, these sugar houses were located in a valley, making it easier for horse-drawn sleds to transport the sap for rendering. The boiling process increases the sugar content up to 66%, which also causes a chemical process to darken the fluid and give it a maple flavor. 

      Pure maple syrup contains no preservatives and is typically used to enhance the flavor of pancakes, waffles, yogurt, hot cereals and ice cream.

      A 1911 speech to the Sauk County Historical Society recounted the recollections of John Rooney and how he and his sisters tapped into “Nature’s Storehouse.”

      “In the spring of 1858 myself and two sisters, Margaret and Annie, tapped a few maple trees on the north branch of Honey Creek.” He noted that in that area, there still remained tepee poles from an old Indian encampment.  “We caught the sap in tin pans and boiled it on the stove in our home.  We got a fine quality of maple syrup that sold for $1.50 ($36 today) per gallon in Prairie du Sac.” 

      They sold ten gallons and kept two for themselves. Their mother wanted to sell an additional gallon, but John writes that, “As my sisters were great lovers of sweet things I persuaded mother to keep the two gallons.”

      The following spring, the family again sought out maple trees along the stream. “But it was too far to carry the sap,” noted Rooney, “So we made a small camp and borrowed a few stove kettles to boil in, my mother gathering the sap near our home.” He and his sisters took care of the outlying camp where they boiled down the sap. “Besides, school friends visited us and we got a good deal of amusement out of camp life.”  Deer would often visit the stream, and seemed oblivious to the sugar camp also on the nearby banks.

      The spring harvest of maple sugar continued as John grew older; and in 1869, his methods had improved. “We caught the sap in troughs that held about 10 quarts, drew the sap in a barrel on a bobsleigh with one horse and boiled the sap in kettles.  We had five of those kettles in an arch made of stone.  Each kettle held thirty gallons.  We strained the sap through a cotton cloth to get the leaves out before boiling. When the sap was boiled to thin syrup we cleansed it with eggs and then strained it through a woolen cloth.

      “From 1870 I always made sugar with my father-in-law, he doing the boiling while I gathered the sap,” wrote John.  “We had a 14-foot pan and sometimes boiled constantly for 48 hours without letting the fire in the arch go out.”  He also noted that the people in Prairie du Sac were mostly from the east and that they were all “Great lovers of maple sweet.” In 1870, he and his wife took 300 pounds of maple sugar to town and sold their entire load on the spot.

      Another special treat for the young folk was what we today would call snow cones. “When the young people came in we always sugared off and if there was snow [we] had “wax” and warm sugar to eat.  The wax was made by putting the warm sugar on the snow or on the ice.”

      Mr. Rooney concluded his speech with the following observation, “Thus the early settlers were enabled to make a neat sum before spring work, besides having many social gatherings that few of the people of the present day [1911] get with our advanced form of civilization.”