Maple syrup season begins as soon as the days are mild enough and the nights just frosty enough for the sap to start running in the maple trees. This usually happens early in March – and lasts from three to six weeks – or until the buds on the trees begin to open and the sap is no longer suitable for making syrup.
Seven kinds of maple trees grow in Ontario, but only two species of hard maple trees – the sugar maple and black maple – are tapped for their sap. In Huron County, where Reuben R. Sallows lived, it is the sugar maple tree which is tapped for gathering sap.
It takes forty to eighty years for sugar maple trees to grow big enough to produce sap good enough for making maple syrup. Since maple trees can live over 200 years, one large enough to tap can yield many litres of sap for many decades. (This means that some of the very trees Reuben Sallows photographed still stand today!)
“Maple Sugaring” is one of the oldest traditions in North America and Canada is famous around the world for its pure maple syrup. Today maple syrup is considered a special treat, but in the early 1900’s maple sugar was often used as a sweetener, instead of white sugar. Sap would be collected from maple trees in the early spring and boiled down to a thick, sweet syrup or brown sugar.
During the days when Reuben Sallows took photographs, groups of workers or an entire farm family would camp out in the sugarbush during “sugaring-off” – that time when they would work for days drilling holes in maple trees, gathering the sap and boiling it down to make maple syrup.
Sugarbushes were often located many kilometers from homes, so camps would be set up near the sugar bush during the sap run. Often they would build a sugar hut, or rough log cabin, with just enough room for those who had come to tap the trees to sleep, or to seek shelter.
“Maple Sugaring” would start with boring a hole in each maple tree, and then hammering in a wooden tube called a spile. Under the spile a bucket would be placed to catch the clear, watery sap. (Later it was discovered that the best containers were tin pails, partially covered by lids to keep out the many pieces of bark and leaves that could collect in uncovered containers along with the sap.)
Each day the workers would empty the buckets of sap scattered throughout the sugarbush into one large gathering barrel, which was hauled back to the boiling area on a sled. To remove twigs, bits of bark and other dirt, the sap was filtered by pouring it through a cloth before being added to one big cauldron in the boiling area. Here, early sugar-makers would add sap and cook it all day long. Because it was difficult to remove sap from the hot cauldron, some of it would become overcooked and bitter.
Later syrup-makers used three iron kettles hung, from wooden cross-pieces, over open fires. In the first kettle, or starter pot, the watery, tasteless sap was boiled over a roaring fire. Gradually the water in the sap would evaporate, leaving behind a thicker, sweet liquid.
This was then ladled into the second kettle located in the sap house; where it was gently boiled down to thicken it more. Constant stirring would keep it from burning. This thick, syrup could be stored in bottles, jars or cans as maple syrup, or it might be ladled into the third kettle, or finishing pot. There, over a small fire, it was carefully stirred until it turned into sugar. The sugar would be packed into wooden boxes or tubs to be used in the coming year.
When the sugaring was done the last of the thick, gooey syrup would be spooned from the bottom of the kettle and throw onto a patch of clean snow where it would harden into taffy.