Native Americans have been credited as the first to discover that the sweet sap from a maple tree could be processed into maple syrup. It is one of the few processes that was not brought to the United States by European settlers.
While there are many interesting and wonderful stories about the origin of maple syrup, there are no authenticated accounts of how the process was discovered. One of the most popular legends involves a Native American chief who discovered the clear liquid sap seeping from a tree he had stuck his tomahawk into. As the day got warmer the sap seeped into a cooking pot on the ground. The chief’s wife, after tasting it and discovering it tasted quite good cooked his meat in it. The chief was so impressed with the sweet taste of the maple meat he named it Sinzibudkwud which means “drawn from trees”. Native Americans still quite often use this word when referring to maple syrup.
Soon they discovered that cutting or (wounding) a maple tree in early spring caused it to ooze a sweet clear liquid that could be processed into a sweet product they found to be delicious. Most stories probably have been modified over the years, but the discovery of maple syrup most likely was accidental.
Over the years they learned they could gradually reduce the sap to syrup by repeatedly freezing it, discarding the ice, and stating over again. They could store up to 30 pounds of maple sugar in containers made of birch bark. Best Maple Syrup
Eventually some of the Native American tribes began to process the maple sap over fire. The women would migrate to the maple groves or “sugar bushes” during early spring to process the maple syrup. They made troughs in which they collected the sap and brought it to the fire. The sap was heated by adding heated stones. Freshly heated stones would be added while removing older cooler stones to be reheated. Most early Native Americans preferred sugar over salt and used maple syrup or sugar on their meat and fish.
Early settlers imitated the Native American methods to make their maple syrup. They would boil the sap over an open fire until it reduced down to syrup. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, which was a labor intensive and time consuming operation. Not much changed for the next two hundred years, and then during the civil war the tin can was invented. It wasn’t long before syrup makers discovered that a large flat sheet of metal could make a much more efficient pan to boil maple sap than the previously used heavy rounded iron kettle.
Most original syrup makers were dairy farmers who made maple syrup and sugar for their own use, or a little extra income during the off season. They continually looked for a more efficient and faster way to make their syrup. Many innovative ideas and processes evolved over the years, but for the most part technology stayed the same for another century. In the 1960’s it was so labor intensive and time consuming it was no longer possible for small farmers to sustain themselves. They could not afford to hire the large number of people required to tap the trees and haul the small buckets to the evaporator house.
Finally with the energy crunch of the 1970’s another surge of technological breakthroughs occurred. Tubing systems were developed, and vacuum pumps added to draw the sap directly from the trees to the evaporator house. Pre-heaters were that “recycle” heat that previously was lost were developed, and reverse-osmosis filters that remove a portion of the water out of the sap before it is boiled were developed.