Among our more agreeable recollections of the wilderness are those associated with the making of maple sugar. Our first taste of this sweetest of woodland luxuries was received from the hands of an Indian, into whose wigwam we had wandered from our father’s dwelling on one of the Saturday afternoons of our boyhood. It was many years ago, and long before the frontier of Michigan was transformed into a flourishing member of the national confederacy. Since that time we have not only eaten our full proportion of the luxury in question, both in wigwam and cabin, but we have seen it extensively manufactured by the Indian, as well as the white man; and we now purpose to discourse upon the article itself, and upon a few incidents connected with its manufacture.
Maple sugar is made from the sap of a tree, known by the several names of rock maple, hard maple, and sugar maple, which is found in great abundance in various portions of the Union, but chiefly in the northern States. It is a lofty and elegantly proportioned tree, and its foliage is particularly luxuriant; and, when touched by the frosts of autumn, is pre-eminently brilliant. The wood is also highly esteemed for the beauty of its fibre, which consists of concentrical circles, resembling the eye of a bird; and hence the term birds-eye maple.
Generally speaking, the sugar-making season commences early in April, is universally considered as one of festivity, and seldom continues 14more than about four weeks. The sudden transition of the temperature from winter to spring is essential to its production, for at this season alone does the vital principle of the tree pass in large quantities from the roots into its branches. Hence it is that, while making this passage, the sap has to be withdrawn; and this is accomplished by making an incision in the tree some three feet from the ground, and receiving the liquid in a vessel prepared for the purpose. And it has been observed that, when a frosty night is followed by a dry and sunny day, the sap flows abundantly, at which times three or four gallons are obtained from a single tree in twenty-four hours. The process employed for converting the sap into sugar is perfectly simple, and consists in boiling it first into a sirup and then into a more tangible substance. Of this sugar there are two kinds, viz., the hard or cake sugar, and that of a friable character, which is produced by constantly stirring the thick sirup when it is becoming cool. The taste of the sap or juice, when taken from the tree, is just sweet enough to be noticed; and though we have never ascertained the quantity commonly obtained from a single tree, we have been told that a very fruitful tree, in a good season, may be made to yield five pounds of the best sugar. To the human palate this juice is not generally agreeable, but wild and domestic animals are said to be inordinately fond of it, and slake their thirst with it whenever they can. Although a sufficient quantity of maple sugar has never been manufactured in this country to rank it among our articles of exportation, it has, for many years past, been about the only sugar used by a large number of people—especially those who live in the more thickly-wooded districts of the States, and those inhabiting the northern and western frontiers of the United States and Canada. In the opinion of all who manufacture the article it is held in high estimation, both as a luxury and on account of its nutrition. In regard to this last quality, we believe it is superior to all other sugars; for we know, from personal observations, that when eaten by the Indian children, during the manufacturing season, they become particularly hearty, though exclusively confined to it as an article of food for weeks at a time.
From the very nature of the business, the making of maple sugar is commonly carried on in an encampment, and we now purpose to describe 15the various kinds with which we are acquainted, beginning, as a matter of course, with an Indian camp. We are speaking of the remote past, and of an encampment of Ottawa Indians, in one of the maple forests skirting the western shore of Green Bay. It is in the month of April, and the hunting season is at an end. Albeit, the ground is covered with snow, the noonday sun has become quite powerful, and the annual offering has been made to the Great Spirit, by the medicine men, of the first product of one of the earliest trees in the district. This being the preparatory signal for extensive business, the women of the encampment proceed to make a large number of wooden troughs (to receive the liquid treasure), and, after these are finished, the various trees in the neighborhood are tapped, and the juice begins to run. In the mean time, the men of the party have built the necessary fires, and suspended over them their earthen, brass, or iron kettles. The sap is now flowing in copious streams, and from one end of the camp to the other is at once presented an animated and romantic scene, which continues, without interruption, day and night until the end of the sugar season. The principal employment to which the men devote themselves is that of lounging about the encampment, shooting at marks, and playing the moccasin game; while the main part of the labor is performed by the women, who not only attend to the kettles, but employ all their leisure time in making the beautiful birchen mocucks, for the preservation and transportation of the sugar when made; the sap being brought from the troughs to the kettles by the boys and girls. Less attention than usual is paid by the Indians at such times to their meals, and, unless game is very easily obtained, they are quite content to depend upon the sugar alone. If an Indian happens to return from the river with a fish, he throws it without any ceremony into the boiling sap, dipping it out, when cooked, with a ladle or stick; and therefore it is that we often find in the maple sugar of Indian manufacture the bones of a trout, or some more unworthy fish. That even a bird, a rabbit, or an opossum, is sometimes thrown into the kettle instead of a fish is beyond a doubt; and we are not positively certain that the civilized fashion of eating jelly with roast lamb may not be traced to the barbarous custom of cooking animals in hot sap. That this sap itself, when known to be clear and reduced to the consistency 16of molasses, is a palatable article, we are ready to maintain against the world; and we confess that, when not quite so fastidious as now, we have often eaten it in truly dangerous quantities, even in the cabin of an Indian. As we have already intimated, the sugar season is dependent upon the weather; but, even when it is prolonged to four or five weeks, it continues from beginning to end to be one of hilarity and gladness. At such times, even the wolfish-looking dogs seem to consider themselves as entitled to the privilege of sticking their noses into the vessels of sap not yet placed over the fire. And in this manner does the poor Indian welcome returning spring.
It is now about the middle of June, and some fifty birchen canoes have just been launched upon the waters of Green Bay. They are occupied by our Ottawa sugar-makers, who have started upon a pilgrimage to Mackinaw. The distance is near two hundred miles, and as the canoes are heavily laden, not only with mocucks of sugar, but with furs collected by the hunters during the past winter, and the Indians are traveling at their leisure, the party will probably reach their desired haven in the course of ten days. Well content with their accumulated treasures, both the women and the men are in a particularly happy mood, and many a wild song is heard to echo over the placid lake. As the evening approaches, day after day they seek out some convenient landing-place, and, pitching the wigwams on the beach, spend a goodly portion of the night carousing and telling stories around their camp fires, resuming their voyage after a morning sleep, long after the sun has risen above the blue waters of the east. Another sunset hour, and the cavalcade of canoes is quietly gliding into the crescent bay of Mackinaw, and, reaching a beautiful beach at the foot of a lofty bluff, the Indians again draw up their canoes, again erect their wigwams. And, as the Indian traders have assembled on the spot, the more improvident of the party immediately proceed to exhibit their sugar and furs, which are usually disposed of for flour and pork, blankets and knives, guns, ammunition, and a great variety of trinkets, long before the hour of midnight. That the remainder of this night is devoted to feasting and dancing, and tumultuous recreation, is a matter of course. But the trader who would obtain from the Indians their more unique articles of merchandize, usually visits the encampment on the following17morning, when he is always certain of obtaining from the young women, on the most reasonable terms, their fancy mocucks of sugar, all worked over with porcupine quills; and a great variety of beautifully worked moccasins, and fancy bags, made of the sweet-smelling deer skin. In about a week after their arrival at Mackinaw, the Ottawa Indians begin to sigh for the freedom of the wilderness; and, before the trader has left his bed on some pleasant morning, there is nothing to be seen on the beach at Mackinaw but the smoking embers of a score or two of watch-fires.
We would now conduct our readers into the sugar camp of a Frenchman. It is situated in one of the maple forests of Michigan, on the banks of the river Raisin, and within half a mile of the rude comfortable dwelling of the proprietor. Very much the same process is here pursued in making the sugar that we have already described, only that a large proportion of the labor is performed by the men and boys, the women participating in the employment more for the purpose of carefully packing away the sugar when made, and having a little romantic sport in the way of eating hot sugar in the aisles of the church-like forest. The season of winter with our Frenchman has been devoted almost exclusively to the pleasures of life, and the making of sugar is the first and probably the only really lucrative business which he ever transacts. By the term lucrative we mean a business which allows him to lay aside a little spare money, for, generally speaking (like the class to which he belongs in the north-west), he is perfectly satisfied if the agricultural products of his small farm yield him a comfortable living. Maple sugar and maple molasses are considered by our friend and his family as among their greatest luxuries; and, while he makes a point of taking a goodly quantity to market, he never fails to keep a plentiful supply of both under his own roof. In transporting his sugar (as well as all other marketable articles) to the neighboring town, he employs a rude two-wheeled vehicle, made exclusively of wood, and drawn by a Canadian pony. On his first visit to the town after the sugar season is ended, he will be accompanied by his entire family, decked in their more tidy garments; and, before his return home, you may be certain that the Catholic priest, whose church he regularly attends, will receive a handsome present of the newly-made 18sugar, with perhaps a small keg of the delicious maple sirup or molasses. And thus does the Frenchman of the frontier welcome the return of spring.
But we have spent some pleasant days in the sugar camps of the Dutch yeomanry on the eastern and southern side of the Catskill Mountains, and we must not omit to pay our respects to them. The very best of sugar is made in this region, and much of it into solid cakes of various sizes, from one pound to twenty. It is manufactured here both for home consumption and the market, and the price which it has usually commanded during the last ten years has been about one York shilling per pound. The labor in this region is about equally divided between the women and the men, and considerable attention is devoted to the cultivation of the maple-tree. In cooling their sugar, or rather in performing the business called “sugaring off,” the Dutch employ immense wrought-iron pans, which are undoubtedly a great improvement upon the Indian and French fashions, which are simply no fashions at all, since the kettle employed to boil the sugar are used to cool it off.
But the Dutch of whom we are speaking, those especially who are more wealthy than their neighbors, have a very sensible mode of winding up their sugar-making labors by giving what they term a “Sugar-bee,” or party. The elements which go to make up one of these rustic entertainments it would be difficult to describe. We may mention, however, that everybody is invited, old men and their wives, young men and maidens; that the principal recreation is that of dancing to the music of a fiddle; that a most sumptuous and excessively miscellaneous feast is spread before the multitude; that the people assemble in the afternoon, and generally succeed in getting home an hour or two after the break of day. That an abundance of maple sugar is met with on these occasions will be readily imagined, and we may add that, in those districts where temperance societies are unpopular, the sugar is taken considerably adulterated in whisky.
The last sugar-bee to which we ever had the pleasure of being invited, while once sojourning among the Catskills, was given by an old Dutchman who resided on the side of a mountain, some ten miles from our temporary abode. We started for his house about sundown, in a 19large lumber-wagon, which was packed by no less than eight buxom damsels and four young men besides ourself. Although when stepping into the wagon we were a perfect stranger to nearly all the party, we were received as an old friend. The damsels were in high glee; we had a reckless driver and a span of capital horses, and of course the young men were not at all backwards in their deportment. The first five miles of the road was very good, and, as we rattled along, the songs, uncouth and shrill, which were sung awakened many a mountain echo. But while all this was going on, and other things which we have not time to mention, the sky became overcast, and in a short time it began to rain, and a most intense darkness settled upon the world. Our driver became bewildered, and the first that we knew was that he had lost the road, and that our horses had halted directly in front of a huge stump. Having thus unexpectedly been brought to a stand, the male members of the party proceeded to reconnoitre, and one of them fortunately discovered a light at the distance of half a mile. Towards this light did the entire party direct their march, and about twelve o’clock succeeded in reaching a log-cabin, which was inhabited by an old hunter; and as the guests of this man did the party, in a very disagreeable mood, spend the remainder of the night. Long before the mists had left the valleys on the following morning, the party had worked its way out of the woods, and for a week afterwards we were frequently complimented for the important part that we had taken in the last sugar-bee.
We cannot conclude this article without remarking that maple sugar of rare quality is manufactured in the States of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine; but as we have never visited that section of the Union in the spring we cannot, from personal observation, speak of the New England sugar camps. That the maple sugar usually offered for sale in the Boston and New York markets is chiefly brought from this section of country we know to be a fact, and it is one which forcibly illustrates the true idea of Yankee enterprise.
P. S.—Since writing the above, we have had the pleasure of reading an interesting description of a maple sugar camp, by the eminent ornithologist Mr. Audubon, from which we gather the following particulars, viz., that the juice of the sugar maple was to him a most 20refreshing and delicious beverage; that it takes ten gallons of this juice to make one pound of grained sugar; that the best of the sirup is made at the close of the sugar season; and that the sugar maple is found in abundance from Maine to Louisiana, invariably growing on rich and elevated grounds.
Merci pour la lecture!