Whitesburg KY
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Turning 10 gallons of maple tree sap into one cup of sugar

Points East

Logging and strip-mining have long since erased the timbered swag on the north side of the mountain where Pap once had a “sugar camp,” high on the hill in the head of Blair Branch. This was just around the slope from Beetree Gap, where you could short-cut through the hills between Rockhouse and Smoot Creek without having to hoof another dozen miles.

Before Pap died, in 1955, the forestland and all its trees were sacred, and not a tree from the old-growth forest was taken unless he needed lumber for a special project. Even then, he only culled trees one at a time, making sure they were the ones that were diseased or had been hit especially hard by fire or lightning. A few dozen big sugar maples were scattered here and there throughout 60 acres of woods on the high side of the mountain.

Mom used to tell us that she could not remember a spring when the sugar camp, where sap from maple trees was turned into sugar, was not in need of some repair, and she was born in 1914. She was sure the sugar camp was built before 1900, because she had sales receipts showing that Pap had sold or traded sugar for other goods in the 1890s.

The sugar camp consisted of an open shed, about 10 feet wide and 12 feet long. The shed, roofed with white oak shingles, covered a fire pit, or “furnace,” about three feet deep, three feet wide and about 10 feet long. Mounted on top of the pit, which was lined with rock, was a vat, or large “stir-off pan,” of similar dimensions. The sugar camp was built on one of the few reasonably flat places on the mountainside.

I can remember Uncle Stevie Craft cutting elderberry branches, poking out the pith inside them and whittling them into spouts to tap the sugar trees. I often followed behind him as he took a brace and bit auger and reamed out new holes a few inches into the sides of the trees. The elderberry spouts were tucked into these holes and every bucket or tub we could lay hands on were placed under the spouts to collect the sap that would pour from the trees this time of year.

The sap was collected, many gallons at a time, taken to the stir-off pan and, after much care and patience, rendered off into syrup that would form cakes of maple sugar if it was boiled to perfection and drained into every tea cup on the place. I remember Mom saying that it took 10 gallons of sap to get a single cup of sugar.

By the time I was eight or 10 years old, the old camp had been abandoned and we simply brought the sap down off the mountain and boiled it down in a No. 2 washtub behind the home place. Mom and my Aunt Nan stored most of this as syrup instead of letting it turn to sugar, but after Pap died they soon decided the work was way too much for the payoff. It was one of those old habits that didn’t take much doing to set aside.

In the meantime, with Pap long buried, the farm had been split among several heirs, and nobody had much reason to consider the woods to be of the same value Pap had seen in preserving it. By the time I was in 8th grade, in 1962, I was helping Dad cut down and harvest every mature tree in the forest, including the sugar maples, for $12 to $15 per thousand board feet of projected lumber. And that harvest amounted to several hundred thousand board feet of ash, oak, poplar, maple, beech, hickory, hemlock, linden and other species until the hills were stripped of mature timber.

Since then, mining and gas and oil drilling have rendered the old place unrecognizable. I can’t even begin to figure out where the old sugar camp once was located, where ginseng grew on the north slope, and where I tagged along with Uncle Stevie. Our birthright sold for not much more than a bowl of porridge, the same way Pap had parted with the coal he did not know existed.

I realize this column has turned into crying over spilled milk, but when the land and its natural resources are gone, it’s really, really gone. If you have ownership of forestland, please consider turning it over to the Nature Conservancy or some other nonprofit that will assure it remains wild and free.

I promise you faithfully, that my Grand Pap would have given everything he owned away to preservation if he’d had any inkling about what was to come after he was “planted.” And if that had happened, we might still be able to make a small batch of maple sugar in the head of Blair Branch.


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