Maple-Sugaring Items at the Ohio History Center Are “Just the Thing for the Sugar Bush”

I can always count on the Ohio Historical Society’s collections to satisfy my curiosity about a topic that’s captured my attention. Since I seem to be under the spell of the Maple Moon this year, I searched the online catalog and discovered some great items related to maple syrup and maple sugar at the Ohio History Center.

My first – and most favorite – find was a wooden maple sugar mold, hand-carved between 1850 and 1875 (OHS Museum, Historical Tools for Materials, H 85889). The mold is in the shape of a one-story house with two chimneys. The two long sides of the house both have two windows; one short side has two windows, while the other has a window and a door. At the base of the house, sawtooth carving forms a zig-zag pattern. The mold fits together with pegs, so when assembled, it can be used to produce a solid-three dimensional house made of sugar. The mold is on display in the Children’s Corner of the Centuries of Change exhibit at the Ohio History Center. To find it, walk past the “history hearth” in the Early Ohio Room and go around to the back of the exhibit. You’ll see it in the first case along the wall, on the right.

Upstairs in the Archives/Library, a handful of printed material and manuscripts share  insightful facts about maple sugaring.

John D. Inskeep, a captain of Company C of the 17th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, kept a diary to record his Civil War experiences (OHS Archives/Library VOL 323-329 and VFM 3187). Inskeep’s diary also includes details of making maple sugar at his home near East Liberty, Ohio before he enlisted on September 2, 1861. He wrote that he began tapping trees on February 9, 1861; the sugar-making process continued through March 26 of that year.

An 1869 diary kept by William Webb, who ran a maple business in Milford, Ohio, offers a more detailed account of maple sugaring in Ohio. “Very frosty morning, commenced tapping sugar trees,” Webb wrote for the February 1, 1869 entry in his diary (OHS Archives/Library VOL 1014). The next day, he finished opening the sugar camp, and he hauled in three barrels of sugar water on the following day. After boiling the sugar water on February 4, he made his first 25 pounds of sugar on February 5. February 6 was such a pleasant day that the sugar water was running. The clear and warm conditions continued on February 7, and the sugar water was “running quite freely” — so much so that Webb hauled in five and a half barrels that day, and six and a half barrels the next day. Working in the sugar camp on February 9, Webb made 29 pounds of maple sugar and hauled in five barrels of sugar water. The next day, producing three barrels of sugar water and 58 pounds of sugar led Webb to comment, “Very pleasant winter weather. Everything denotes an early spring.”

Other diary entries reveal that Webb finished making 200 spiles for tapping sugar trees on February 15. He pulled the spiles from his sugar trees and carried them in on April 14. The season concluded when he hauled in the sugar crocks on April 17.

Two pieces of printed material promoting G.H. Grimm’s “Champion Evaporator, for Maple, Sorghum, Cider and Fruit Jellies” can also be found in the Archives/Library. The circa-1886 one (OHS Archives/Library, PA Box 461 39) describes the evaporator as a 4×16 outfit consisting of a large pan (4×8 feet) with a corrugated bottom and four small pans (each 2×4 feet) connected with each other and with the large pan by siphons. Patented on April 28, 1885, the evaporator is promoted as being able to take care of the sap from 700 to 800 trees.

Endorsements from satisfied customers attest to the evaporator’s quality. According to Professor A. J. Cook of Michigan Agricultural College, “a boy fourteen years old worked it with no difficulty, and in daylight could keep ahead of two men who gathered.” Another good review came from L.R. Bridge of Solsville, New York: “This has been my first attempt at making sugar or syrup, but have made syrup that good judges say cannot be excelled. The Champion Evaporator does nice work,” he wrote.  And E.F. Lake of Charlotte Center, New York summed it up, saying, “The more I use my Evaporator, the better I like it.”

The circa-1891 Champion Evaporator advertisement (OHS Archives/Library, PA Box 636 47) provides further testimonials about the evaporator that was “used by the best Sugar-Makers of Northern Ohio.”

“It made better syrup than I was ever able to make with my Vermont ‘Cook Evaporator,’” said W.I. Chamberlain of Hudson, Ohio. “There was none of the peculiar ‘vanilla’ or ‘oatmeal’ flavor which sometimes discovered in that made from the galvanized iron Cook Evaporator.”

“Tapped about 800 trees each year and have no trouble handling the sap by nine o’clock each evening,” shared Lewis Sutherland of Benton Harbor, Michigan. M.S. Rice of Eaton Rapids, Michigan agreed: “The Evaporator which you sold me is just the thing for the sugar bush. I had 310 trees and made 100 gallons of first class syrup.”

Albert John Cook (1842-1916), the same Michigan Agricultural College professor who endorsed the Champion Evaporator, was an avid researcher of insects, honey bees, and the beekeeping industry until he realized that there was a shortage of books on maple sugar-making. Maple Sugar and the Sugar-Bush (Medina, Ohio: A.O. Root, 1887; OHS Archives/Library, PA Box 737 2) was his contribution to the literature.

In the book’s introduction, Cook wrote that when he was a boy, he collected sap in two large red buckets and carried them on his shoulders with the help of a yoke. He and his father and brothers boiled the sap in a large kettle, then used the same two buckets to carry the syrup to their house. As he observed the improvements that gathering tanks and evaporators brought to making maple syrup, Cook became interested in learning more about how this task was growing in scientific interest and economic importance, “especially as it proved to be so profitable, and the product so wholesome and delicious.”

As a result, he studied the maple tree, how sap flows, the origin and nature of maple sugar, and the utensils and methods he used in his own sugar-orchard, where “nothing pays so well as [those] 600 trees.” 

Between 1936 and 1951, the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society’s Education Department created radio programs that were broadcast first on WLW, and later on WOSU 820 AM. An accompanying teacher’s manual encouraged classroom discussion after students listened to the programs. The transcripts of these “dramatized stories presenting a cross section of the historical pageant of Ohio” are collected in 14 different volumes (OHS Archives/Library 977.106 R119).

“Maple Sugar Time in Ohio” aired on February 21, 1950, between 1:30 and 1:45 p.m. George Jenny, supervisor of education at the museum, developed the story line for this particular episode after having hotcakes and maple syrup from Guernsey County for breakfast. “I began to think of all the hours of toil that had gone into the making of that bottle of syrup – I got interested in looking up something about the maple syrup industry,” Jenny told listeners.

The dramatized story began with an older Indian instructing young boys in the art of collecting the sap and making sugar out of it. While the story featured the maple sugar festival in Chardon (Geauga County), Ohio, it also described how pioneers practiced the craft.

“There was no celebration that pioneers looked forward to more eagerly than maple sugaring,” Jenny continued. “It was necessary to provide food — but outside of that it was real fun in the midst of an austere existence. A maple sugaring was a community project…..It was like a big picnic in the snow.”

Society collections also include two Currier & Ives prints related to maple-sugaring, I hear. “American Forest Scene – Maple Sugaring,” from 1856 (OHS Museum, Historical Communication Artifacts, H 43076), and “Maple Sugaring – Early Spring in the Northern Woods,” from 1872 (OHS Museum, Historical Communication Artifacts, H 43072), are subjects for another time.

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This entry was posted in Books, Food, History, Museums, Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society), Special Collections. Bookmark the permalink.

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