In This Place: March 19, 2014
It’s that time of year again. Mud season? Not quite. No, it’s bragging — uh, tapping — time. The sugar harvest simultaneously evokes nostalgia for the old days, marvel at the wonders of modernization and a fierce fidelity to a tradition which will always require time, patience and, it is hoped, good company.
March 11, 1910 “Sappin’ Time” by L. R. Long
Wouldn’t some of the young folks open their eyes though, to see how they worked at sugar making years ago? If they could see the old wooden troughs they used to hew out to catch the sap in, wouldn’t it surprise them a little? After the day of the sap trough came the milk-pan which was set on the ground while the sap was led through the old wooden spile.
What fun it used to be to help tap the “bush” in those days. The boy always carried in the spiles as they were lightest. Then the hired man with the pans while the farmer generally did the boring. The day of tapping with the iron gouge was so far back that not many can remember it. It was a bad thing for the tree. The wooden spile was better but the little iron spiles of the present are far ahead of all. We do not see how they can be improved.
Did you ever take a sap yoke and go out and gather sap? And if you did what did you store it in? Not one of the fine tanks they have now we may be sure. Probably a big hogshead was the tank then. And the bilin’ down, wasn’t that fun with the old potash kettle? You remember how they hung it on one end of a lever so that they could swing it over the fire or off if they wished.
Out in the great, deep woods in the night boiling sap, wouldn’t you like to do that once more, you gray headed boy? Wouldn’t you like to show some of our young folks how they did things then?
Ever the social animal, Clarke Sanford’s best memories reside in the good company of his fellow sugar-makers.
March 26, 1948, From “Mountain Dew”
No spring work is more fascinating than maple sugar making. Indeed, what is there during the 12 months which contains so much of joy and promise?
My boyhood recollection of tapping is an endeavor to hang buckets on the spiles my father had just driven in the trees. It was almost too high to reach. There was excitement when father decided to get out the buckets. Buckets and covers, spiles, bits, axes, hammer and a shovel were loaded into a wood-shod sled and started for the woods. The wood-shod sled could negotiate either bare ground or snow.
In places the snow was belly deep for the horses, there was shoveling to be done. Once a track was made it became easier going. Father would take a quick glance at a tree, notice where it had been tapped in previous years, look to bore a hole in a vein that led to an upper limb. The years have not dimmed the musical drip of the rapid drops into the empty bucket.
The next task after all the buckets were hung was to make ready the fire arch and pans in a board sap house, clean the storage tank and pans, split the big logs which for a year had been gathered for “sap wood” and soak the wooden gathering tank so it would not leak.
The top fun came from the actual boiling. Many of life’s pleasant recollections come from sitting with friends in the sap house, baking potatoes in the hot ashes, enjoying the fragrance of the sweet steam. Visitors came often, many cut autographs in the sap house sides. They purchased syrup and sugars; the price was often as low as 65 cents per gallon.
Today the sap house is unused, the pans have rusted, the great maples have been cut for firewood. I am certain that this week of the year many of those who cut their names on the sap house boards think often of the days when they helped boil, sat and talked or listened to the soft noises of the boiling sap.
March 27, 1953, ‘Best Run’ of Sap, Return of Birds Came at Same Time
Although maple tapping has diminished greatly in recent years, many Catskill farmers still find it a profitable enterprise. The old brace-and-bit method of tapping has been replaced on the Orson Haynes farm by a power drill driven with a portable gasoline engine. Old Dobbin hauling the tub-laden sleigh has been replaced by tractors pulling rubber-tired farm wagons. Although a few steps in the production of maple syrup have been modernized, there is no hurrying the pace of the tree as it provides the sap.
One of the reasons for the decrease in maple syrup production was a plague of worms, which hit maple trees between 1935 and 1937.
High grade syrup, which runs 11 pounds to the gallon, locally sells in the neighborhood of five dollars per gallon, but draws seven dollars or more in New York city.
James Johnston, a Halcott Center producer, said that he has a considerable demand from Florida, where many residents and former residents still relish a taste for the sweet home product.
This is the first year when there was no snow in the woods at tapping time.
This account of the Cooperstown Maple Festival show that such events vary little from year to year: they always end with a pancake breakfast, or in past decades, a pancake supper. This one in 1956 ran the first weekend in April, “despite deep snow in the woods which forbids many maple sugar makers opportunity to tap. Snow in the valleys of the Margaretville area is from four to five feet deep. The only way to gather sap would be on snowshoes and with an old fashioned yoke.” The first official report of crowing a Maple Queen I could find was 1954. Does anyone recall someone who served as Maple Queen from our area?
April 6, 1956
Governor Harriman will be present, there will be live radio broadcasts, demonstrations of making maple syrup, maple sugar, maple cream and other products done over the open hearth and in the bee hive oven. A special cook book will be for sale. Verne Wickes of Harrisville will demonstrate the making of jack wax.
For the boys of the family there will be shown sheep shearing and a demonstration of a working sheep dog, by Monte Munford, Cooperstown, winner of the 1956 Farmers’ Museum junior show. The girls will enjoy the selection and final crowning of the 1956 Maple Queen by Gov. W. Averil Harriman.
Clarke Sanford penned many annual paeans to sap, making it hard to choose just one... but, there’s always next year!
March 5, 1954, From Clarke Sanford’s “Mountain Dew”
When the sap ran, the robins sang. But not so in February 1954. The greatest sap run in the recollection of the old timers let up a bit Monday after 10 days of constant dripping, constant night and day boiling. One farmer made 100 gallons — the first such quantity in his lifetime for February. It is not long ago that maple was about the only sweet farmers could afford in this mountain area.
The Indian legend of the discovery of maple sweetness: an Indian squaw, too lazy to fetch water from a spring, got sweet water from a maple tree. She left her boiling pot and found maple sugar in the bottom when she returned. This pleased her mighty hunter.
When the sap runs a peeper must bestir himself in the mud and begin to wonder how many times he will be frozen before spring comes. A bullfrog must begin to stretch his vocal cords a bit. When the sap runs, a crow, walking between the snow banks, knows soon there will be brown fields and food in plenty so he may desert man’s dangerous highways.
A dairy cow, stanchioned all winter, kicks up her heels in the barnyard when the sap runs and dreams no doubt of green pastures. A chickadee, who was fed all winter from a kitchen shelf, deserts civilization and hies herself back to the forest.
Chucks are in the fields, slow porkies cross the highway, skunks alarm farm households, rabbits leave the briar patch for more tender food, a doe seeks a secret place, arbutus lined, to hide the fawn, Nature whispers to her is soon to arrive.
And for those who will settle for any harbinger of spring . . .
March 19, 1943, “Mountain Dew”
Sap, as we know it, is only in the trees. The mud is everywhere. From barnyards to meadow lands, from pasture, highway, gardens, this earth is one sea of slippery brown, or gray, sometimes black and sometimes blue mud. It is slow and persistent.
Its worst adjunct is that it brings housecleaning — otherwise the women might never have conceived that task. It sticks to tractor wheels, boots, farm legs, horses legs, hired men’s legs and most of all to boys’ legs.
Rain makes it worse, sunshine makes it wrinkly, snow makes it dangerous. A quick step is a calamity and who does not know the taste of mud never lived in the country.
Before the days of paved roads it made highways all but impassable to man, beast and automobile. Village main streets re- quired boots to get across and traffic hung around the “sink” holes.
It permeates machines like an evil spirit and wears out their workings. It eats the pile of good rugs, it musses clothes, hold great armies in its grip and has its own way for a time each spring.
It’s all a process to give the roots of spring an opportunity to become plants and weeds, grass and gardens. It’s a terrible introduction to the best of the year.
As always, suggestions or comments are welcomed at graphics @catskillmountainnews.com. Happy almost spring! It can’t get here too soon.