The Mysterious and Delicious Origins of Maple Syrup 

Michael Moore  

It should come as no surprise to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention over the past few years, that we live in a fast-paced, grab it and go society.  Thanks to on-line purchasing of everything from gourmet dinners to dentures, ordering fast food from your phone, and colossal shopping compounds so vast that maps and a day’s rationing of water must be offered at every entrance, we seldom take the time to consider where the items we purchase come from or how these things came to be in the first place.  Whether you’re working 40 plus-hours a week, managing a home and family, or in over your head with school work, most of us have precious little time to sit and dreamily ponder the origins of common household items like shampoo or paper towels.  And while I’m not prepared to tackle those two particular essentials today, I did think it was a good time to look into the origins of maple syrup. 

Why maple sugar, you ask?  Well, a couple reasons come to mind.  First, who doesn’t love maple syrup?  I mean, can you even imagine a steaming stack of pancakes, waffles, or French toast, without that delicious, golden topping?  And second, for the next six weeks here in Pocahontas County, we’re going to be all about maple syrup; making it the perfect time to dive into maple syrup’s origins.  That’s right.  It’s time to celebrate Mountain State Maple Days 2024!  Once again, we find ourselves about to enter into that sweet time of year when all diets are temporarily suspended, and our bathroom scales are left wondering when to expect our next visit.  February 17and March 16, 2024, are the dates to remember as we celebrate all things maple here in Nature’s Mountain Playground.  So, in honor and anticipation of an event so sweet we do it twice, let’s take a brief look at the humble beginnings of everyone’s favorite, golden, go-to breakfast condiment. 

The origins of maple syrup are deliciously shrouded in mystery.  The truth is no one knows exactly when or how we came to discover what would become the world’s favorite breakfast topping.  Most people that look into these things lean toward a Native American narrative from the Indigenous peoples of Northeastern North America for the beginnings of maple syrup.  Within the Native American origins, two accounts, retold with slight variations, are frequently cited as how maple sap, and consequently maple syrup, was discovered.  The first tells of an Indian Chief out for a little tomahawk throwing practice.  One of the trees he selected for a target happened to be a maple and when the tomahawk struck its mark, the maple sap was released.  And although I wouldn’t encourage this today, someone must have decided to taste the newly discovered liquid and deemed it not only tasty but also, fortunately for the taster, nonfatal. 

Our second origin tale of maple syrup has more of a domestic, “mother-of-necessity feel” to it.  The story goes, while boiling a bit of either moose meat or elk (it depends on which account you read) in preparation for the family dinner, the Native American woman preparing the meal failed to initially add enough water to the pot of meat.  Noticing the water would be boiled away before the meat would be thoroughly cooked, the resourceful lady decided to add maple sap to the mix instead of water.  As the water in the sap boiled away the sap became thicker and sweeter.  The finished dish was quite likely the first maple glazed meat of any kind to be served; and thank goodness it wasn’t the last. 

Once Native Americans realized what they had found hidden within the trunk of the maple tree they further developed and refined gathering and processing the newly found, delicious treat.  The early attempts Indigenous people made at colleting maple sap called for cutting a V-shaped notch into a maple tree, inserting a short, wooden wedge at the base of the notch, and collecting the dripping sap in either bark baskets or hollowed out sections of tree stumps.  For some tribes the process stopped there, and the sap was enjoyed as a simple drink (and you thought energy drinks were something new).  Other tribes took the processing a step further after discovering if the sap was boiled the concoction became thicker and sweeter.  The syrup would be allowed to cool and stored to be enjoyed at a later time. 

When European colonists began showing up on the eastern shore of what would become the United States of America, it was the Native Americans that shared with them the secrets of the maple tree.  Over time the colonists further refined the Native Americans’ means of tapping the maple tree.  Instead of a cut notch and simple wedge, colonists drilled a hole into the tree using augers and placed a wooden spout in the hole.  A bucket hanging from the wooden spout replaced the bark baskets used by the Native Americans to collect sap.  Colonists also employed the use of draft animals to move larger quantities of sap to a main collection point, sometimes called a sugar shack, for boiling sap down to syrup and also sugar. By the mid-nineteenth century large metal, flat pans were beginning to replace the iron kettles previously used in boiling down the sap.  The larger surface area of these pans was more efficient, and that efficiency was further increased by the turn of the century when flues were added to the bottom of the pans. 

Now about the time a little movie called Star Wars hit the theaters for the first time, new technology was boosting the maple sugar industry’s production rates faster than the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run.  Instead of a handful of buckets hanging from trees, now many modern-day sugar camps have thousands of feet of plastic tubing running from tree to tree, linking a farm’s stand of maple trees together in a plastic, spider-web-like display.  Vacuum pumps have replaced old-fashion gravity and animal power to transport the sap from trees to a production point and modern maple syrup producers have even employed something known as a reverse osmosis machine (whatever that is) to aid in removing water from the sap before the boiling process begins.  It’s been a remarkable journey maple syrup has made from the days Native Americans first discovered the hidden, delicious treat to today. With Canada and the United States essentially producing the world’s supply of maple syrup, the classic breakfast topping is going strong with no signs of slowing down any time soon.          

Now, back to the question put forth earlier.  Why this brief history of maple syrup?  Namely, this year’s Mountain State Maple Days and the amazing opportunity set before you.  You see, as good as it may seem to have an academic appreciation of the history of maple syrup, it’s a lot more fun to see (and taste) the process and finished product firsthand – and that’s what Maple Days in Pocahontas County is about.  So considered this your invitation to join us on February 17, 2024, and again on March 16, 2024, as Pocahontas County celebrates Mountain State Maple Days.  

When you’re here start the day off with a maple-infused breakfast, ranging from pancakes and maple doughnuts to maple lattes with plenty of other options available throughout our county’s eateries.  And once you’ve fuel-up for the day, choose from four different sugar camp tours available throughout the county.  And keep in mind, nothing says you’re limited to just one.  Each sugar camp has their own way of harvesting and processing their maple sap into syrup.  With four camps running this year, you can elect to visit a modern-day camp, including an array of plastic tubing and vacuum pumps, or opt to step back in time with at least one sugar camp still operating in the 19th century fashion, complete with spout-tapped trees, hanging buckets, and wood fire boiling.  Whichever method you choose, we guarantee you’ll come away with a whole new appreciation for how that delicious liquid gold makes it to your breakfast table. 

Once you’ve toured a sugar camp or two, perhaps indulged in a few tasty samples, and purchased jugs and jars of maple syrup to bring home, finish out your day with one of the maple-based dinners offered by any of our participating restaurants.  Whether it’s maple glazed chicken wings, maple candied bacon, or a grilled brie and pear sandwich fried in maple butter, you’re bound to find something for that sweet tooth.   And once the day is done, there’s no need to hurry home; we’ve even brought the maple celebration to a number of our lodging destinations.  For a complete list and details of sugar camps, restaurants, and lodging click here.                       

Well, I think it’s fair to say maple syrup has come a long way; from bark baskets and tomahawks to vacuum pumps and reverse osmosis machines.  Who knew maple syrup had such a colorful history?  Well now you know.  So, the next time you rush out to the grocery store to grab a bottle of your favorite maple syrup, don’t be too surprised if you find yourself a little over anxious to tell the cashier just how maple syrup came to be.  Better yet why not hit the road (enlightening the family along the way with your new-found knowledge of all things maple), and join us here in Nature’s Mountain Playground for a sweet getaway as we celebrate Mountain State Maple Days 2024.