Some 20 years ago, my son the Eagle Scout enjoyed helping some local folks demonstrate how maple syrup is made. He volunteered to help keep the fires burning and the sap boiling, he carried sap buckets, and he led tours and explained the process to visitors during annual weekend sugaring events.
On one of those nice spring days, he had just explained how it took about 50 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of maple syrup when a mom leading a small gaggle of kids raised her hand to ask, “When do you add the maple flavoring?”
To which my totally nonplussed son had no clever riposte.
We take all sorts of things for granted, not the least of which is the set of basic facts people have at their disposal. The origin of maple syrup and maple sugar candy is one of those things that apparently not just anybody knows about. Which is a shame because that knowledge is a direct connection to our historical past. Those living history demonstrations that show how maple sap is turned into that wonderful sweet product that tastes so good on French toast help us connect to that history, and a rich one it is.
Maple sugar and syrup was a valuable food and trade item long before European settlers arrived. Native people in North America tapped maple trees, and collected and boiled maple sap into that wonderful food item using bark buckets to fill hollow log tubs, which they kept boiling by dumping in a succession of red hot stones.
The brass and iron pots French, Dutch, and English traders supplied in return for prime winter beaver pelts helped increase production to the extent that one eight-person group in 1764 spent a month in a sugar bush, tapping 700 trees, gathering over 13,700 gallons of sap and producing nearly a ton of maple sugar and 36 gallons of maple syrup.
When American settlers arrived starting in the late 1820s, they emulated the Native People’s production of maple products, tapping trees, gathering sap, and boiling it down into sugar and syrup. By that time, it was a tradition the pioneers brought with them when they left their homes in New England and the Middle Colonies and headed west to settle the Illinois prairies.
When they arrived they found numerous groves of hardwoods. On the west side of the region’s watercourses, those groves were largely comprised of burr and white Oaks and other fire-resistant species, because the spring and autumn fires that roared across the prairies were pushed towards the east by the prevailing westerly winds. On the more protected east sides of watercourses, such as the Fox River, the groves were of more mixed hardwoods, with some oaks, but also of walnuts, and most importantly sugar maples.
In those early pioneer days, maple sugar was about the only sugar available. Honey was rare until honeybees—which were not native—built up their populations. Sugar itself was extremely expensive, when it was available at all.
The surveyors who mapped the region in the late 1830 noted the prevalence of sugar maples, identifying them simply as “sugar trees.” Kendall County settlers quickly made good use of the dense stands of maples in Big Grove, Long Grove, AuSable Grove, and Specie Grove. The spring trip to sugar camps—called sugar bushes—was an almost instant tradition.
Fires were maintained under the kettles and pans 24 hours a day as the amber syrup was produced.
On April 3, 1873, Kendall County Record Editor John R. Marshall wrote that: “The nice, new maple syrup left at the editor’s house last Thursday by Mr. David Kennedy was a great treat. It was clear and thick.”
County residents who had sugar bush access knew how to curry Marshall’s favor. On March 23, 1882, he observed that: “The Record boys indulged in some nice maple sugar Monday morning, direct from Deacon Sleezer’s sap-bush in Big Grove. If the ‘Boys’ have a failing for anything, it’s maple sugar.”
Long Grove was one of the closest sugar bushes to Yorkville where Marshall published the Record and kindly maple grove owners kept him in the good stuff. As he noted in the Record’s March 29, 1893 edition: “Pure maple syrup from the old Long Grove sugar camp is not bad eating with a good warm biscuit or cakes.”
By the late 1890s, manufactured sugar had become common in Kendall County households, and even maple syrup and sugar was being manufactured in huge quantities elsewhere and shipped to grocery stores here. That meant sugaring was becoming less common, although there were still some fairly big operations here.
AuSable and Specie groves are actually a single grove bisected by Morgan Creek. In March 1898, the Record’s Specie Grove correspondent waxed nostalgic concerning the maple sugaring tradition in the two neighboring groves: “It’s a pretty sight to see sugar making in the ‘bush’ at night, with several fires brightly burning among the leafless trees and the weird forms of the sugar makers as they go about their work, and the surrounding darkness all combine to make the scene strangely peculiar and one to be remembered. We have often wondered if people are happier in our advanced and pampered and more genteel way of living than they were in the olden times when they lived nearer to nature and in a more simple and primitive way. We have often heard our parents and old people tell of the various kind of ‘bees’ they used to have for haying and harvesting, logging and husking, quilting and apple paring, and at sugar time and the great bake ovens and fire places that they had in York State and the East and when we see a couple of men doing all the work now on a large farm we wonder if there is much improvement as far as real happiness is concerned. Usually the most simple things contribute the greatest to our enjoyment.”
Despite the economic changes, Specie and AuSable groves remained a substantial maple sugaring area for the next several years. The March 22, 1899 Record reported from Specie Grove that “A new sap evaporator has been purchased by R.G. Leitch and put on the Hall farm for the purpose of converting sap into syrup and sugar. There is a large ‘sugar bush’ on this farm and it will be developed to its fullest capacity this year,” adding two weeks later that “Four hundred maple trees have been tapped on the Evergreen Hill farm. Somebody is going to have ‘lasses.”
With cheaper alternatives widely available, spring sugaring gradually disappeared from our region. At one time, it was such an important product, however, that the settlers named one area community—Sugar Grove—after that activity of “olden times.” Today, like so many of our ancestors’ activities, sugaring in the Fox Valley is mostly only visible in those living history demonstrations like the one my son participated in a couple decades ago and with a few hobbyists who like the maintain the tradition.