The first settlers in this country were taught how to make maple sugar by the American Indians, who filled wooden bowls with sap of the Sugar maple trees. The Indians dropped heated rocks into the bowls to heat the sap and burn off the excess moisture. Over the years, the technology has changed but the principle has not: sap must be heated to burn off the excess moisture.
In the photo above, from a Kilburn stereo view, c. 1875, that's exactly what is being done.
Although Thomas Jefferson and George Washington hoped they could produce maple sugar from trees they planted in Virginia, the trees did not thrive, and the experiment did not succeed. Sugar Maples require the North Country climate and early settlers in the White Mountain region produced large quantities-for themselves and for sale or barter. In 1870, Thornton produced over 32,000 pounds of maple sugar, Woodstock produced just under 10,000 pounds while Lincoln produced 1,400 pounds and Franconia another 11,000 pounds. This production added to farm incomes.
The first major improvement over the Indian's way of heating their sap, was the use of large iron kettles and open fires. There were few other improvements until the late 19th century. First came large, square flat pans and later several types of evaporators were designed. Maple trees were tapped by hand, and the sap was collected in containers hung on the trees. The Indians used birch bark. The settlers used wooden buckets at first, which were later replaced by metal buckets. The sap from each of the individual buckets was collected by hand, and emptied into large tubs of wood or later, into metal tanks. Little, if any, filtering was done. Horses or oxen hauled the collected sap to the chosen spot for the fire or to the sugar house. The photo above shows the work being done outdoors. Sugar houses were built when improvements were made in the methods of boiling the sap.
Oxen continued to be used well into the twentieth century. Because they were slower than horses they tended to spill less sap. 40 gallons of sap are required to produce one gallon of syrup. Each tap would average 10 gallons of sap over the course of the season. Prior to the Civil War, the primary product was maple sugar. The Civil War encouraged improvements in food preservation and canning. The improvements in packaging allowed sap to be sold as maple syrup, instead of just as sugar, although maple sugar continues to be made to this day. The art and science of producing high quality maple syrup continues to evolve, and today's producers carefully control temperature, measure density, filter repeatedly, experiment with new types of taps, and do much more to keep their customers satisfied.
Maple sugaring was often a social event and "sugar parties" were often held at the end of the season. A special treat for the children was maple syrup dripped onto snow. This tradition continues today with many producers opening their sugar houses to the public.
This link will take you to additional photographs of early Maple Sugaring. Many of these photographs are from the collection of Jim Fadden, of North Woodstock, a fourth generation Maple Sugar producer. He also assisted with the text and photo captions..