On my recent trip home to Wisconsin, there was talk of cousin Spike’s maple syrup operation, which had started as a small hobby and then expanded into a big hobby with a lot of fancy equipment and a brand new sugar shack in which to house the operation. Sissy and I eagerly hopped into our Uncle Tom’s truck and set off to see the sugar shack. I was entranced by the whole idea, partly due to fond memories of reading all about sugaring off in the Wisconsin maple woods in Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
“All winter,” Pa said, “Grandpa has been making wooden buckets and little troughs…he went into the maple woods and with the bit he bored a hole in each maple tree, and he hammered the round end of the little trough into the hole, and he set a cedar bucket on the ground under the flat end…Every day Grandpa puts on his boots and his warm coat and his fur cap and he goes out into the snowy woods and gathers the sap.”
When we pulled into Spike’s driveway, we saw the new sugar shack. The metal building was much larger than I had expected, with smoke coming out of the chimney and a pile of freshly split wood.
The door opened, and several guys came out to greet us. As we went inside, they talked to Uncle Tom about the muddy conditions amongst the maple trees after the recent heavy snowfall and thaw, and how the bobcat had slid into a ditch up there while they were collecting sap the day before. Spike showed us the little plastic taps he puts in the trees, and the shiny silver mylar bags that the syrup collects in.
“He empties the sap into the iron kettle. There is a big bonfire under the kettle, and the sap boils, and Grandpa watches it carefully. The fire must be hot enough to keep the sap boiling, but not hot enough to make it boil over.”
The sugar shack was steamy warm on the inside, and full of interesting equipment. Spike showed us the osmosis machine, which removes much of the water from the sap before it is cooked down, saving hours of cooking time. It takes a whole lot of sap to make a little maple syrup, and much of that volume is water. The pure mineral water that is removed is drinkable.
Then the sap passed on to a wood-fired contraption that cooked it down slowly over many hours. A thermostat on the wall showed the temperature inside the cooker. Several men and a boy were hanging around this machine, and they opened the little doors in the top to let us peek down at the thin, light-colored sap. They showed us the spout on the side where, when it was the right temperature, the darker finished syrup would pour out into a container.
This step in the process mostly seemed to involve a lot of pleasant hanging around in the warmth of the sugar shack, occasionally feeding the fire and keeping an eye on that thermostat. Not a bad way to spend a cold Saturday at all.
“Grandpa can make enough maple sugar to last all year, for common every day. When he takes his furs to town, he will not need to trade for much store sugar…He’s going to sugar off again next Monday, and he says we must all come. Pa’s blue eyes twinkled; he had been saving the best for last, and he said to Ma: ‘Hey, Caroline! There’ll be a dance!’”
Uncle Tom had already promised both of us a few bottles of Spike’s maple syrup to take home with us. After we’d seen the entire fascinating operation and asked a million questions, Spike suggested that we come back later in the day to see the finished syrup coming out. And maybe have a few beers.
The equipment has changed over the century or two since Laura Ingall’s Grandpa sugared off, but the process is more or less the same, including the camaraderie of working together to produce the syrup, then celebrating a bit–whether with a dance or a beer from the keg fridge in the corner.