So far as regards maple sugar he was unquestionably right, and to-day, just as it then was, one of the principal industries of Delaware County is maple sugar making.
The New York Times, March 14, 1897, p.9:
IT IS MAPLE SUGAR TIME.Sweet Sap Now Running from the Trees in Delaware County
and Other Sugar Producing Sections.
PRINCIPAL SOURCE OF SUPPLY.
A Sugar Maple Forest is a Fine Source of Income for the Farmer--
How the Mass is Made and the Sweet Cakes Marketed.
KINGSTON, N. Y., March 13.-- A stranger passing through Delaware County some years ago asked what the county was most noted for. A long, lank farmer who stood near and heard the rather sneering question eyed the questioner sharply for a moment, and then responded:
"Well, stranger, we produce more maple sugar, millionaires, and men than any other county of the same area in the United States."
Safeway ad from the Jan 11, 1927 LA Times
The maple sugar harvest has already begun, and the sugar bush, especially that portion with a sunny eastern hillside exposure, is yielding sap by the hogsheads full.
The tappers are working in slush and snow, yet their fires are burning brightly, and the promise of a good yield of the richly flavored sugar and syrup was never better.
Hundreds of thousands of hard or sugar maple trees in Delaware, Ulster, Greene, Schoharie, Albany, and Washington Counties in this state and the adjacent counties in Massachusetts and Vermont are now paying tribute in the form of the sweet sap which the sugar-bush men and their wives will boil down to hard cake sugar, fluid syrup, or to mass, as the product is called when it is boiled to the consistency of common unrefined brown cane sugar.
Mass is the favorite way of keeping the product among the farmers, as it can be used for all the purposes of hard sugar, and is much more easily reduced to syrup than the cake. Those who buy the mass, or maple candy, as many of the sugar boilers call it, are pretty sure of getting an unadulterated article.
Sugar boiling generally begins when the February thaws become constant enough to promise that there will be no more serious "freeze-ups." It lasts until the trees begin to bud, about the middle of March, or a trifle later, if the bush is in the mountains, where the high altitudes and heavy snows make a backward Spring. Then the holes in the trees are carefully plugged up, and, if properly cared for, are covered with grafting wax.
Trees, where sugar is made systematically, are never tapped consecutively, but only every second year, so as not to exhaust their vitality, as the loss of sap to a tree has the same effect that the loss of blood has upon animal life.
When a tree has yielded a certain amount of sap, the auger holes must be plugged and waxed to prevent the tree from bleeding to death. Tapping only every second year gives the tree a chance to recuperate, and for the auger holes to fully heal and fill up with new wood and bark.
Shipment of the Sugar Cakes.
Roxbury is the great centre of the Delaware County sugar trade, and from there many tons of maple sugar find their way to market. It is sold in lots running from 200 to 300 pounds, and more by the larger makers, to agents direct from the great retail grocery houses in New York City.
Many farmers who have good, steady yielding maple orchards forward their sugar to firms in New York, who contract for all they have to sell year by year. Several invoices, aggregating several hundred pounds, have already been shipped by Delaware County parties, and next week a steady stream of the boxed sugar will be going through this city to New York.
In the upper river counties much of the sugar finds a market among the wholesalers in Albany and Troy, who ship it to New York and elsewhere. They secure it from the country grocers, who take it in barter from the farmers for other goods.
The farmers through Washington County--and it is a poor upland farm that has not a good bush or orchard--regard maple sugar as cash, and when going to the store generally take a few pounds of maple sugar along to exchange for things they want, instead of using cash.
The finest sugar made in this State is said to come from that part of Washington County just along the Vermont line. The character of the soil, which is a slaty loam, is probably responsible for this.
Charles Smith of Hebron, near West Pawlet, Vt., has the reputation of making the finest sugar in the country. His product is disposed of to private parties. His bush is not extensive, yet his sugar nets him each year quite a handsome revenue. In speaking about sugar-making, Mr. Smith said:
"It is not the quantity of sugar so much as the quality that I seek. My sugar is always uniform in color, free from foreign substances, and of high maple flavor, and in consequence I get the highest market price and could dispose of ten times the quantity if I could make it."
"Is there much difference in the color and flavor of maple sugar?" he was asked.
"Well," he replied, "there is in the first place a difference in trees. The higher the altitude the better you find the flavor of the sap, because only the hardiest sugar maples grow on upland ground.
"There are other reasons for inferior flavorless sugar. Sugar marketed a few years ago looked black and dirty. The color was not natural. When a refined yellow sugar was put on the market, many people refused to touch it, declaring that its color had been lightened by adulteration with the cheaper grades of white cane sugar. They soon found, however, that the light-colored sugar had a pure maple flavor, while the dark sugar was often acrid, bitter, and destitute of real maple flavor.
Trick of Sugar Making.
"The reason for this was a lack of care in making. Years ago, when sugar was made, women were not allowed to take part in the manufacture. When the sap began to run, the men would take their kettles and buckets into the bush, and, hanging the kettles upon a tripod or crane, build a fire underneath and pour the sap into the kettle to boil. No particular care was taken to keep foreign substances out of the boiling syrup, and often twigs of bitter wood and dead leaves would get into the kettle and remain until they had been thoroughly steeped in the boiling liquor. One little white oak twig could embitter the whole batch.
"Then, there was nothing to protect the sugar from having lampblack from the open fire underneath the kettle precipitated into the kettle. The fire was often made from pine knots, which blazed fiercely and smoked terribly, and the smoke rising through the steam of the boiling syrup was continually shredding shreds of greasy lamp-black, which, falling into the syrup, dissolved and could not be separated from the sugar. This made the sugar black, and often imparted a resinous taste to it. A dirty foul kettle, in those days of iron kettles, helped other unfavorable conditions.
"Many sugar makers did adulterate their sugar with cane sugar to lighten the color and increase the volume, but few, if any, do it now.
"I learned early in my career as a sugar maker that the finer the product the better the price, and I can get double for my sugar what some makers get, simply because I guard against anything that will deteriorate the quality.
"My sugar is all boiled indoors in a polished copper kettle. The sap is carefully strained through several thicknesses of cheesecloth before boiling. The kettle is kept covered during the boiling, so that no dust may get into the room will be precipitated into the kettle.
"In bringing the sap from the bush, it is carried from the buckets to a perfectly clean cask in a strainer pail, and poured through a funnel into the cask. When it is drawn from the cask for boiling it is syphoned off so as not to catch any possible sediment that may have escaped the strainer. Then it is finally strained through the cheesecloth before going into the kettle.
"I never tap the same tree two years in succession. If this is done, you don't get a good quality of sap. Weak people have thin blood. Weak trees have thin sap. Trees that have been pushed beyond their endurance become dropsical, and the sap contains but a minimum of saccharine to a maximum of water.
"I take the utmost care in every detail, from looking after my trees to the candying of the syrup. My wife, who is an expert, attends to the boiling, carefully testing the specific gravity of the syrup at different stages, and filling the copper molds when the syrup is ready to candy or grain."
Why Sugar is Bitter.
It was learned from another sugar farmer in the neighborhood where bitter sugar came from. He said that a number of years ago, when maple sugar was very high in price, it was remarked that the product had a peculiar nutty flavor.
That was caused by boiling butternut sap with the maple. The butternut tree contains more saccharine than the maple, but it is bitter and nutty in taste. Many farmers who had numbers of butternut trees on their farms tapped them and boiled the sap with their maple. Some people like this kind of sugar, but it will not market well if it is detected.
Few farmers now mix the nut sap with the maple, but many of them make butternut sugar and sell it as such, it being used for some purpose in the drug trade.
The most dangerous ingredient to detect in adulterating maple sugar is common grape sugar, made from cornstarch. This has much the color of maple sugar, and does not materially change the flavor. It makes it sticky, however, and causes it to absorb moisture.
Charles Pratt, a merchant of West Pawlet, Vt., is one of the largest buyers of maple sugar in the southern part of the State. His large country store, during the sugar season, is one mass of bars of maple sugar. He buys thousands of pounds, practically controlling the output of several counties.
This sugar is shipped by him to New York and Boston direct to consumers and retailers, who order all the way from 10 pounds to 100 pounds, and often more. His refusal to handle sugar that is off color or not up to the standard in quality has been a great boon, not only to the consumer, but to the producer, for, while it has given the former a superior article, it has taught the sugar bushmen and boilers that to improve their product and exercise more care in its manufacture mean to them quick sales and better prices.
Vermont's Vaulable Maple Groves.
The prize sugar county of Vermont is Windham County. Wilmington and Windsor are both great sugar towns, and turn out immense quantities.
In this part of the country the sugar orchards have been planted for posterity, and hundreds of acres are covered with sugar maples standing in rows like trees in a fruit orchard.
It takes half a lifetime for a sugar maple to arrive at maturity, so that it becomes a sugar producer, yet farmers have planted maple orchards for future generations, as this one is planting for the next to come. Every country highway is shaded from both sides with towering sugar maples, and during the Summer a person can ride for miles through shaded lanes into which the sun's rays rarely penetrate.
Along the line of fences of fields is also a favorite place for planting maples, and where this is carried on systematically it has a beautiful effect upon the summer landscape.
There are many deserted farms in Vermont and the eastern upper river counties of New York to-day, but there would be many more if it were not for the profitable sugar orchards.
There is no way of telling exactly how much maple sugar, syrup, and mass is made in the sugar districts of New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire every year. The market reports tell of over 2,500,000 pounds, but it is believed that the figures are nearly double that, as no report is made of the sugar used by the farmers for home consumption, or that sold locally by country store. Even the census reports cannot be accurate, as many farmers never weigh the sugar used by their families, or keep account of what they sell, either to stores or at private sale.
Prices for maple sugar have a wide range. Six cents a pound is about the lowest figure it ever reaches, and it sometimes reaches 18 cents at the other extreme; it rarely reaches more than 15 cents paid to the producer.
At retail it often reaches as high as 30 cents, and sometimes even 35 cents a pound. Sold as it is in small cakes in the confectionary stores in the large cities, it often realizes as high as 40 cents a pound.
Trees More Profitable Than Timber.
Seeing the large demand for maple sugar during the last few years, the farmers are not so anxious to cut down their hard maples and sell them for timber as they once were. A good sap-producing tree will pay for itself in a couple of tappings, and in the course of a few years it will pay for itself in sugar, over and above what it would bring for timber, many times over.
In planting a sugar orchard, care is taken to select only the broad-leaf hard maple, and straight young trees, trees sprung from the seed as often as possible, and not saplings grown from an old stump. These make the best sugar producers.
There are many degrees of maples, hybrids between the soft maple and the hard maple. They are all good sap producers, but the sap produces but little sugar. A soft maple tree will deliver twice as much sap as a hard maple, but it will not make one quarter as much sugar, and what it does produce is of inferior quality.
The life of a sugar maple as a sap tree is not known. There are trees along the old Rutland Plank Road, in Washington County, that reports say have been tapped for nearly a hundred years, and they are still producing sugar and show no signs of decay.
As the use of maple sugar is growing, many farms useless for other purposes will eventually become sugar orchards. A man who owns 100 good maple trees on his farm need not worry much, if he utilizes the sap from the trees, as to how he is going to get through the Winter even if his other crops are a partial failure. If he is wise and young he will cover every available space of ground which cannot be utilized more profitably with sugar maple trees. He may not live to reap the benefit of them, but his children will, and the old homestead may thus be preserved and not deserted.
The Federal Reserve Bank's estimated consumer price index shows that $1 in 1897 was equivalent to $25.82 in 2008.
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