The Sacandaga valley and surrounding hills were abundant with maple trees. The Native American Indians had been making sugar from the sweet sap of the maple tree for many years as early as 1609. There are many Indian legends about how maple sugar was first discovered.
One Iroquois legend tells how a Chief had thrown his tomahawk into a maple tree one late winter evening. After he removed it the following morning, the weather turned sunny and warm. Sap began to flow from the cut in the tree, and drip down into a container which was at the base of the tree. The Chief’s squaw used the sap to boil the meat for dinner. As the water in the sap boiled away, a wonderful, sweet maple taste was left with the meat.
Native Americans may have also discovered the sweetness of the maple tree by eating “sapsicles,” the icicles of frozen maple sap that form from the end of a broken twig. As the ice forms, some of the water evaporates, leaving a sweet treat hanging from the tree.
As winter started to turn into spring, and the days got longer and warmer, the Native American Indians would move their whole families into a spot in the forest where there were plentiful sugar maple trees. There they would establish “sugar camps” for the month or so that the maple sap would flow. The most common early method of collecting this sweet sap was to make V shaped slashes in the tree trunk, and collect the sap in a vessel of some sort. Not having metal pots in which to boil the sap, the Native Americans boiled away the water from their sap by dropping hot rocks in the containers made of hollowed out logs, of birch bark, or of clay.
Maple sap was boiled down and made into maple sugar, instead of the more common maple syrup as there was no easy way to store syrup. There were three types of maple sugar made by the Northeastern American Indians: Grain sugar, a coarse granulated sugar similar to the consistency of brown sugar. Cake or block sugar which was sugar poured into wooden molds to become hard cakes or blocks and wax sugar, which was made by boiling syrup extra thick and pouring it over snow. This wax sugar is what we know today as “sugar on snow” or “Jack wax”
The Native Americans used their maple sugar as gifts, for trading, to mix with grains and berries and bear fat. During the heat of summer a special treat was a drink made of maple sugar dissolved in water.
Early settlers gathered their sap in wooden buckets. The sap was then boiled down in a series of large iron kettles hanging over a long open fire. As the syrup got thicker in one kettle it was ladled into the next one and fresh sap was then added to the first kettle. In this way, they always had the last kettle full of nearly completed syrup or sugar. When it was finally thickened enough, the liquid sugar was stirred until it began to crystallize, then poured of into wooden molds. These blocks of maple sugar could be broken up or shaved later in the year when needed. As early as 1790 it was suggested that slashing the trees was not good for their health, and that a better way was to drill a half inch hole in the tree and insert a “spill” or spile to allow the sap to run out. Spiles were made of sumac in which the centers could be removed the sap would then drip out through the hollow tube or “spile”, and into a container.
As containers became available for syrup local people who made their own would use large kettles over an open fire, gather the sap, and keep it boiling until it was a thin syrup by night. It would then be brought back home for cleansing which usually consisted of putting into the reheated syrup a quantity of sweet milk. As the syrup heated and thickened the impurities would rise to the surface to be skimmed off. This process was called “sugaring off” and might be done several times. Children in those days were thankful for a new snowfall or a place they might find unmelted clean snow as they would pour some of the warm syrup onto it, let it cool, and then pull it off to eat the treat called Jack Wax.
Nature pretty much governs the sap flow. The trees produce more sap if the nights are cold and the days are warm. The amount of snowfall also effects the process. This past winter with the amount of snow sap production can be delayed due to the base of the tree being blanketed.
Maple sugar was a valuable commodity from the 1700’s right on through the 1800’s. It is even mentioned in local history when the Sacandaga Valley was raided at Fish House in the days of the Revolutionary War. Godfrey Shew, first settler at Fish House and a patriot, was taken prisoner and it was found in references that there was 500 pounds of maple sugar in the Shews home.
Maple sugar would be confiscated in any home invasion. It could be traded for almost anything; being the only sweetener available in a solid form. It was as negotiable as currency.
One sugar bush that exists currently in the Sacandaga Lake area is Maple Hill Farm on Tennentville Road in Edinburg owned by Guy and Dorothy Edwards. In the acres surrounding the farm are an abundance of maple trees. A springtime drive allows a passer-by a glimpse at the 5000 buckets that hang from the trees gathering sap. The maple trees have been tapped already and sap is boiling.
Across the road from the Maple Hill farm house is the Clarkville Cemetery where names of generations of area families are etched in the stone. It is also Samuel Downing’s final resting place who was also a local Patriot and first pensioner of the Revolutionary War.
The farmhouse, 100+ year old, has a welcoming atmosphere with a woodstove and large table in the kitchen were many friends gather to pass the time year round.
In 1883 Guys grandfather and grandmother, Albert and Viola Edwards, moved into the house to care for an elderly blind woman and help run the farm. The house was a two family then. Guys father Walter Edwards was born in the house and later lived there with his wife Ethel. Guy now lives there with his wife Dorothy.
Once dairy cows, horses, pigs, sheep, and chickens kept company on the farm. At one time they had as many as fifty cows . Guy’s mother churned butter and they sold milk. Currently, Guy and Dorothy keep forty chickens and farm fresh eggs are available for sale along with the maple syrup products.
Dorothy is a lover of local history and has many articles and photos of the outlying settlements in Edinburg. Hunting is a pass time for Guy. On the walls of the farmhouse hang trophies of successful trips; he started hunting with his Dad when he was fourteen whenever the family wanted meat.
The Edwards have had a sugar bush in the family ever since Guy can remember. The first sugar bush the family had when Guy was young was rented. They were obligated to pay 1 gallon of syrup for every three gallons they made to the landlord.
Guy also remembers only one season that they made no maple syrup which was during WWII as there was no help to be had; everyone had gone off to war.
The new sugar bush was built in 1969. Their top season yielded 1443 gallons of syrup. Last year they made just over 1410. It takes 45 -50 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.
The Maple Hill farm has had visitors from as far way as France, Holland, and Germany. Some of their syrup has also been sent to Russia and the Mediterranean
Dorothy tells the story of an overseas customers who bought syrup to ship back home. The relatives who received it , not knowing what it was, had it analyzed to find out what to do with it.
“I guess they were confused as to whether they were supposed to eat it, or wear it as perfume” Dorothy added “We do supply and orchard in the fall with maple products but most of it goes right out the kitchen door”.
The Edwards have maple cream and sugar candy in addition to syrup.
By Lorraine Frasier