No one is really sure just how long people have been practicing the art and science of making this wonderful product from the sap of a tree. However, there are two basic schools of thought about the origin of maple syrup.
The first group identifies with Native American legend and lore that maple syrup and maple sugar was being made before recorded history. Native Americans were the first to discover 'sinzibuckwud', the Algonquin (a Native American tribe) word for maple syrup, meaning literally 'drawn from wood'.
The Native Americans were the first to recognize the sap as a source of energy and nutrition. They would use their tomahawks to make V-shaped incisions in the trees. Then, they would insert reeds or concave pieces of bark to run the sap into buckets made from birch bark. Due to the lack of proper equipment, the sap was slightly concentrated either by throwing hot stones in the bucket, or by leaving it overnight and disposing with the layer of ice out which had formed on top. It was drunk as a sweet drink or used in cooking. It is possible that maple-cured bacon began with this process.
Before the advent of Europeans, the Natives used clay pots to boil maple sap over simple fires protected only by a roof of tree branches. This was the first version of the sugar shack. Over the years, this evolved to the point where the sugar shack is not only a place where maple syrup is produced, but also a gathering place where a traditional meal can be enjoyed.
However, some historians maintain that the Natives did not have the technology or tools to perform the necessary boiling of sap to make either product let alone both.
The first white settlers and fur traders introduced wooden buckets to the process, as well as iron and copper kettles. In the early days of colonization, it was the Natives who showed French settlers how to tap the trunk of a tree at the outset of spring, harvest the sap and boil it to evaporate some of the water. This custom quickly became an integral part of colony life and during the 17th and 18th centuries, syrup was a major source of high quality pure sugar. Later, however, they would learn to bore holes in the trees and hang their buckets on home-made spouts.
Maple Sugar production was especially important due to the fact that other types of sugar were hard to find and expensive. It was as common on the table as salt is today.
Even if production methods have been streamlined since colonial days, they remain basically the same. The sap must first be collected and distilled carefully so that you get the same totally natural, totally pure syrup without any chemical agents or preservatives.
Early maple syrup was made by boiling 40 gallons of sap over an open fire until you had one gallon of syrup. This was both time consuming and labor intensive, especially considering that the sap needed to be hauled to the fire in the first place.
The process underwent little change over the first two hundred years of recorded maple making. However, during the Civil War, the tin can was invented. The tin can was made of sheet metal. It didn’t take syrup makers long to realize that a large flat sheet metal pan was more efficient for boiling than a heavy rounded iron kettle which let much of the heat slide past.
Virtually all syrup makers in the past were self sufficient dairy farmers who made syrup and sugar during the off season of the farm for their own use and for extra income. These farmers were, and continue to be, folks who look at a process and say to themselves, 'There has to be a faster, more efficient, easier way to do this.' Then, in approximately 1864, a Canadian borrowed some design ideas from sorghum (what us northerners call molasses) evaporators and put a series of baffles in the flat pans to channel the boiling sap. The ideas continued to flow. In 1872 a Vermonter developed an evaporator with two pans and a metal arch or firebox which greatly decreased boiling time. Seventeen years later, in 1889, another Canadian bent the tin that formed the bottom of a pan into a series of flues which increased the heated surface area of the pan and again decreased boiling time.
For the most part technology stayed at this point for almost another century, until the 1960’s, when it was no longer a self sufficient enterprise with large families as farm hands. Because syrup making is so labor intensive a farmer could no longer afford to hire the large crew it would take to gather all the buckets and haul the sap to the evaporator house. During the energy crunch of the 1970’s, syrup makers responded with another surge of technological breakthroughs. Tubing systems, which had been experimented with since the early part of the century, were perfected and the sap came directly from the tree to the evaporator house. Vacuum pumps were added to the tubing systems. Pre-heaters were developed to "recycle" heat lost in the steam. Reverse-osmosis filters were developed to take a portion of water out of the sap before it was boiled. Several producers even obtained surplus desalinization machines from the U.S. Navy and used them to take a portion of water out of the sap prior to boiling. In fact, one is still in use by a producer South-East of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
History is nothing without our learning lessons from it. Today the technological developments continue. Improvements continue in tubing. Similarly, new filtering techniques, "supercharged" preheaters, and better storage containers have been developed. Research continues on pest control and improved woodlot management.