St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Maple Season 2017 Starts

With the forecast definitely in maple sap running weather, our test tap running some, we began tapping and putting out buckets yesterday with more out today.  The sap ran some from yesterday afternoon and overnight so although we didn't collect our first time, we will do it tomorrow morning. 
   I don't think our Hanson family has ever tapped maples in February in the 145 years since Great Grandpa learned how to do it from his wife's family.  
We have mostly tapped from March 15  to the end of March with most of our production during April.  So this is at least 2 weeks ahead of normal. 
   Scott is doing more of the work nowadays as I seem to get bogged down in other activities. That is good, as I am 70 years old, in good health, but won't be able to run this forever.   Dad began to have difficulties as he got older and parkinsons disease robbed him of his strength, although I think he still helped out until he was 84 or so, and then kept me company in the sap shed, visiting the last time on his birthday turning 89 on April 18th, 2005.  He passed away that fall. The last time, I had to help him from the car and he used a walker to make it to the chair in the warm shed.   Once seated near the boiler, he relaxed, and talked about some of the maple sap making of his youth. 

  Dad's story as I remember it: 
   When we were kids (he had 5 brothers and 2 sisters), we lived in Maple Grove Township, Barron County WI.   We had maple trees in the cow pasture we tapped.  I remember one year my older brother Maurice was staying in the woods cooking the syrup and lost it all. 

   In those days, we followed the pattern our dad and his brothers had done in their early days.  We found a cradle knoll in the woods to use as the fire box.  A cradle knoll is a place where a tree blew over leaving a hole where the roots came out and a mound of dirt where the tree rotted away.  We used the pit for our fire, and then piled some rocks or dirt on the side opposite the pile of dirt.  Then we put our flat cooking pan over the pit with one end on each mound.  

   Our pan was the same kind we used for making concrete, for pig troughs and other water pans.  We took two boards, basswood if we had them, and rounded the ends like sled runners, and nailed a sheet of 2 foot wide tin between them.  The ends came up with the wood curve and using closely spaced shingle nails, it was water tight. You remember the first pan I made back in the 50s?   It was like that only about 3 foot long. 

  Well, we didn't do batches of syrup, we just kept adding sap and boiling it until the pan was full of syrup.  It was pretty dark, but tasted fine.  

  Maurice was all by himself in the woods, cooking when he realized it was done, and ready to boil over the pan.  It was in the middle of the night.   So he tried to slide it carefully off the fire and off the mounds so he could dip out the syrup.  

   It turned over dumping just about all the syrup on the ground, probably 10 gallons or more -- everything we had gathered so far that season.  He was as upset as the pan, and after that we kept two of us in the woods at night. 

   It was fun staying out in the woods.  We were in school, and probably came in smelling like we were well smoked.  Maple syrup time was fun for kids!

   Your Grandpa (Pearl) made syrup to sell when he was younger.  He had the farm he bought on Quarter Mile creek, 90 acres with 4 acres open and the rest huge white pine stumps and maple trees when he bought it about 1902.  He had to clear it all and turn it into fields.  When he sold 1941, there were only 4 acres not in fields or open pasture. 

   Dad was a very active person.  He was almost never at rest, always doing something new or different along with being a full time farmer.  From cutting logs, running a sawmil, working as a carpenter, mason, canning factory field hand, town board, church board, school board, and much more while still farming full time.  He took after his father who was just as restless and busy.  I managed to change things to be much more moderate!
   Probably have enough sap to begin cooking later this week.  The first batch of maple syrup is usually very mild flavored and light colored and although it used to be the highest rated class of syrup, I prefer a later season darker more robust flavor. 
   We didn't spend much effort selling syrup last year and we did have a good yield, so this year I think we will buy a nice metal sign to hang at the end of the driveway and be a little more organized to sell the syrup.  We do it as a small business.  Syrup in glass bottles done correctly will stay good for years.

  I brought up some 1994 jars from the basement of the old farm house -- that Mom had stored away.  It tasted OK, but was one of those batches that was not wonderful flavor--likely the last batch of the season when syrup can become bitter.   
   We save this syrup to cooking.  One research paper I read found that to remove this late season "buddy" flavor, one had to raise the temperature of the syrup far above the normal 217F we bottle it at, to something like 350, and then add water back if you were trying to make good tasting syrup.  Cooking does the same thing, and having a few jars of cooking syrup is nice to let us explore some recipes without worrying about failure.  
   I found you can use maple syrup in place of sugar in most recipies, but you have to add something to take up the extra moisture (or not add wet things).  Most people would think it wasteful to use expensive maple syrup in place of sugar or corn syrup, but having all the maple syrup we want, it seems fine.  The added maple flavor is very subtle. 
   I think I first remember Dad trying maple syrup in the mid 1950s.  The first year he borrowed Grandpa's big black hog scalding cast iron kettle from Uncle Maurice who had borrowed it to use to feed corn to the pigs or maybe the cows. 
  It was filthy, and so Dad cleaned it thoroughly and boiled some water in it to kill the pig aroma. However, although we thought the syrup was fine, he couldn't pour some on a pancake without remembering the pig crud and it ruined his meals. 

Next year he made his own wooden sided pan with two cherry boards (we sawed our own lumber), and the nailed on metal bottom.  That year he thought all his syrup had a bitter cherry taste.  Next year he tried basswood sides, and that was definitely better, but he had to be careful with wooden sided pans to keep the fire away. 
  Finally he had Mr Clayton, of Clayton's hardware in St Croix Falls (this was Ben I think, father of John), a metalsmith, fold a sheet of metal into a pan, riveting the corners and soldering or maybe welding the corner seams.  That would have been in the late 1950s.  
   Scott and I use that same pan each year now.  We wonder if this year will be the one that it springs a leak, but at 58 years old, it still seems sound. 

   Later this week we will probably finish our first 2017 maple syrup.  We claim that gggggg grandpa Beebe who hung out in New London CT in the 1650s, likely made the first syrup. We know that he moved to Western NY in the maple region and have 4th cousins out there who have been syruping since about 1800.  GG grandpa Beebe moved to Wisconsin in 1864 where tradition is that he made syrup from maples in the Chippewa River Valley in Dunn County.  Young immigrant, Charles Hanson married his daughter Anna Maria in 1872 and learned to make syrup from her family.  
 Since then, every spring we head to the woods and reap the sweet rewards. '