Nature’s sweetest reward

The art of making maple syrup goes back centuries

My grandfather was born in 1872. As a young man, Grandpa made a living as a farmer and carpenter. He continued those endeavors his entire life. To help make ends meet, at the end of winter each year in late January and early February, Grandpa organized a huge “sugar camp” and tapped hundreds of maple trees to gather their sugar-rich sap. Cane sugar, if available, was expensive and considered a luxury for only the wealthy.

Grandpa’s mule team pulled a wagon loaded with small wooden buckets through the woods. At each mature maple tree, Grandpa drilled holes for the spigot taps to hang one or two buckets. The spigots would direct the sap into the small wooden buckets.

It was hard and demanding work. Once the trees were tapped, the team of mules pulled the wagon loaded with barrels for collecting the sap. Leading the team through the forest each day, the sap was collected from the little buckets and dumped into the barrels.

Back at the “boiling shack,” the sap was dumped into a large wooden vat. The vat held the surplus sap until it could be ladled into the boiling pot. The boilers tended a hot hardwood fire built under the boiling pot, and the sap was boiled down to the right consistency for maple syrup. It takes approximately 40-50 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup. Some syrup was boiled down even more to make maple sugar.

Gathering maple sap in North America goes back thousands of years. Native Americans collected the sap and put it in hollowed-out logs. They dropped in hot rocks from a fire to boil it to a thick consistency. It was their only source of a sweetener other than wild honey. Pioneers were quick to learn the process and their cast iron metal pots greatly simplified the process.

When I was 6 years old, Grandpa taught me about making maple syrup. We tapped four large maple trees around the old farmhouse. My job each evening after school was to collect the sap, strain it through cheese cloth and pour it into a holding barrel. After three weeks, we had collected about 25 gallons of sap.

On a Saturday, so I could help, Grandpa built a hot fire under a brass boiler and cooked the sap down. When the condensed sap was down to a gallon or so, Grandma finished it out on the stove in the kitchen. We only made about a half gallon, but I still vividly remember the wonderful taste of our own maple syrup over Grandma’s pancakes.

The process goes on today in Illinois. Modern processing and collection methods have replaced most of the bucket collection, but the product is still the wonderful, sweet maple syrup we all love. If you would like to learn how to make maple syrup, check out the detailed process at One of the tried-and-true Illinois maple syrup producers is Funk’s Grove. Check out their website at