Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Maple Syrup and Maple Sugar
Nature Bulletin No. 419-A   May 15, 1971
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

When we old-timers were youngsters, a favorite breakfast in winter -- one that stuck to our ribs -- featured buckwheat pancakes or "flapjacks" with plenty of butter and maple syrup. Our great- grandfathers who settled here in the Middle West soon learned from the Indians how to tap sugar maple trees in early spring and, from the sap, make syrup and sugar.

For the Indians inhabiting New England and the country on both sides of the Great Lakes, maple syrup and maple sugar were very important foods. Upper Michigan and adjacent Canada were occupied mostly by the Chippewa or Ojibway when visited in the 1760's by two explorers who lived among them and wrote accounts of how these "Canoe People" obtained and used the sugar and syrup so essential to them.

Salt was scarce, so they employed maple sugar in their cooking to season wild rice, parched corn, boiled vegetables such as squash and pumpkin, meats, and even boiled fish. Some sap was allowed to sour into vinegar used in cooking venison or bear meat which were then sweetened with maple sugar -- like the sweet-sour cookery of Germans and Bohemians. Sap stored undergound, in vessels made of bark or skins, was drunk as a beverage in summer or used to sweeten their medicines, most of which were very bitter -- such as a tea, made by boiling roots of the paper birch, taken to relieve stomach cramps.

Not much is known about what the Indians did before the first white men came to America, except that they tapped the maple trees by slashing the bark, on a slant, with stone tomahawks and apparently had two crude methods of making syrup. One was to place a vat, made of bark or wood or moosehide, in a pit; fill it with sap; and toss red-hot stones into it. The other was to freeze the sap repeatedly in shallow vessels and throw off the ice as it formed on top. By 1763, the Chippewa were using iron hatchets and kettles obtained from French fur traders. Their other utensils were all made of native materials. The bark-covered lodges at each grove of maple trees or sugar bush, and their methods were very crude.

Today, in the large commercial sugar camps, a portable power-drill is used to tap the trees, and metal spiles through which the sap drips into transparent plastic bags -- from one to five per tree, depending upon its size. The stainless steel collecting vat, mounted on a tractor-drawn trailer, is emptied through pipes into a big storage tank inside the sap house. Periodically, the sap flows through a valve into a stainless steel evaporator with a hot fire underneath. There it boils and circulates, carefully tested and controlled until it weighs 11 pounds per gallon, and comes out the other end as syrup which runs through a filter into tins or drums for shipment at $4.35, or more, per gallon. Vermont is the leading producer of maple syrup and maple sugar, followed by New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, but a lot of the syrup made in other states is shipped for bottling and sale with a Vermont label.

Syrup boiled until 28 or 30 degrees hotter than boiling water, is stirred and run into molds where it becomes "cake sugar" sold in 1/2-pound or pound blocks, or in some fancy shape such as a maple leaf, a pine tree, a rabbit, Santa Claus or a log cabin. Syrup boiled to a lower temperature and poured onto snow, as the Indians did, becomes a chewy sweet called "jack wax". Poured into a flat dish and stirred continuously, it becomes "maple butter". Syrup mixed with milk and hard cider becomes a potent beverage called "Jersey Milk".

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