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Mining for ‘White Gold’

Discover this special tree and try its sweet syrup.  

Early settlers who populated the northeastern and Great Lakes section of the country discovered large stands of sugar maple trees gracing the landscape. Standing more than 100 feet tall, these mature maples launched their winged helicopter seeds each spring, provided a shaded respite in the summer, and each fall displayed brilliant orange, rich crimson and golden foliage.

The sugar maple was admired on the family farm, but as a hardwood timber, its real value was its usefulness as a fuel to heat the home and as an excellent material for making furniture and household items. This sturdy, smooth, fine-grained wood was transformed into rolling pins, apple grinders, cheese and butter boxes, bread boards, spoons, spinning wheels, violin backs, carriage spokes and cabinets.

The Legacy of ‘White Gold’

These tall treasures had something else in store for early settlers: syrup. One of the oldest agricultural crops native to North America, maple syrup was once referred to as “white gold.” Native Americans were likely the first people to discover the many uses of maple syrup from sweetening their meats to using it as a treat for small children. It is commonly thought that they then shared their discovery with early settlers. Colonists provided for their families by living off the land. They produced numerous agricultural products, ideally with a surplus so that some could be bartered or sold for items not produced on the farm. On farms where a sugar bush or sugar grove was present, maple sap was collected and processed into syrup and sugar.

Maple syrup production occurred in late March, during a time everything on the farm was relatively dormant – fences were mended, logging was completed and it was still too early to plow. Farmers used maple sugar to make maple honey, sap beer, maple cream and maple butter. A good yield of syrup might also have been used to trade or barter to buy new shoes, seed, fabric or even to pay taxes. Over the years as new materials became available, farmers would share their new methods and techniques for sap collection in agricultural publications like The New England Farmer. More modern technologies continued to transform the way maple sap was produced, collected, processed and marketed.

Maple syrup production has since played an important and interesting role in rural United States history. In The Chronicle: Sweet Days in the Sugar Bush, author Paul Wood writes, “Prior to the Revolutionary War, many considered it patriotic to use maple sugar rather than imported cane sugar on which the British imposed a sugar tax. The 1803 ‘Farmer’s Almanac’ advised, ‘Make your own sugar and send not the Indies for it. Feast not on the toil, pain and misery of the wretched.’ In the years before the Civil War, maple sugar was promoted by the anti-slavery movement as an alternative sweetener whose production did not involve slave labor. The idea was that a boycott of slave-produced cane sugar would persuade Southern cane sugarmakers to end slavery on their plantations.”

In the 1860s, production of maple syrup soared with the availability of sheet metal, which allowed for the manufacture of tin to make maple sugar buckets and bucket lids, metal spouts and evaporator pans. When food was rationed during World War II, people in the Northeast were encouraged to stretch their sugar rations by sweetening foods with maple syrup and maple sugar. However, after 1900, when white sugar was mass-produced and the price dramatically reduced, maple sugar became a luxury item that was then marketed as a nostalgic and pure, handmade American product.

The Festival of the Sugar Maples

The Festival of the Sugar Maples is an annual celebration of maple sugaring held the first two weekends in March at Coral Woods Conservation Area (school tours are hosted during the weekdays). March is chosen because by late February, a thawing/freezing cycle begins where temperatures rise above 40 degrees during the day and drop below 32 degrees at night. The daytime warmth causes sap to flow to the tree’s branches to nourish developing buds, and then back to the roots when the temperatures drop again. It is during this up and down flow of the sap that collectors can catch the sap run.

Coral Woods is unique because it is one of the few remaining groves of sugar maples in the county, and there is evidence that it was used as a sugar grove dating back to Native American times.

Since the first festival in 1979, this event, hosted by McHenry County Conservation District, has educated thousands of visitors about the process of turning the sap from maple trees into delicious maple syrup.

An hour-long walking tour starts with a stop in the woods to learn how Native Americans developed the process of making maple syrup, and how pioneers adapted the process to make it easier and more efficient. As visitors move along the half-mile trail, the modernized process that is used today is demonstrated. The tour ends with a visit to the evaporator house and a taste of real Coral Woods maple syrup.

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