Making Maple Sugar on the Banks of Honey Creek
By John Rooney, Arbor Cottage, Baraboo, WI
Read Nov. 27, 1911
Picture of Rural Life in the Sweet Seasons of 1858 to 1875 When Comforts and Luxuries Came from Nature’s Storehouse.
In the spring of 1858 myself and two sisters, Margaret and Annie, tapped a few maple trees on the north branch of Honey creek in the northwest corner of the town of Honey Creek. This was where the tepee poles of an Indian camp still stood and close to the old Indian trail, as the trail crossed a corner of the land we located on in 1857. We caught the sap in tin pans and boiled it on the stove in our home in this way. We got a fine quality of maple syrup that sold for $1.50 per gallon in Prairie du Sac. We sold ten gallons and kept two for our own use. Our mother wanted to sell another gallon, but as my sisters were great lovers of sweet things I persuaded mother to keep the two gallons. The next spring we found some trees up the stream about half a mile and tapped them. But it was too far to carry the sap, so we made a small camp and borrowed a few stove kettles to boil in, my mother gathering the sap near our home. My sisters and I took care of the camp. In this way we made quite a little sum that was much needed in the home. Besides, the school friends visited us and we got a good deal of amusement out of camp life. While we were working in our camp the deer would come and drink out of a brook close by. I will relate one incident. We had a small white pet dog and one afternoon three deer came to the brook to drink and the dog barked at them, but the deer did not mind it at all. The deer stopped and drank not more than 20 feet from where my sisters and I stood and did not seem at all afraid. We did not disturb them and when they got through drinking they walked off leisurely as though no one was there.
In 1860 I tapped 400 trees and made 500 pounds of sugar that sold for 25 cents per pound. We boiled the sap in a pan made of wood and sheet iron. In the spring of 1869 I again made sugar on shares. I had a partner by the name of Arthur Westenhaver and as we were both unmarried at the time, the young people of the neighborhood visited us frequently in our camp. We caught the sap in troughs that held about 10 quarts, drew the sap in a barrel on a bobsleigh with one horse and boiled the sap in kettles. We had five of those kettles in an arch made of stone. Each kettle held thirty gallons. We strained the sap through a cotton cloth to get the leaves out before boiling. When the sap was boiled to a thin syrup we cleansed it with eggs and then strained it through a woolen cloth. Then it was ready to boil down to sugar. I always enjoyed making sugar until my health failed me in 1876. >From 1872 to 1875 we had a fine camp fitted with a large vat and buckets and had a fine frame shanty to boil in, a large improvement over the old log camp and boiling outdoors. We sometimes made as much as 1,000 pounds in one season and never sold for less than 25c per pound.
From 1870 I always made sugar with my father-in-law, he doing the boiling while I gathered the sap. We had a 14-foot pan and sometimes boiled constantly for 48 hours without letting the fire in the arch go out. Prairie du Sac was always our best market. Prairie du Sac was mostly of eastern people at that time and they were all great lovers of maple sweet. The spring of 1872 Mrs. Rooney and I went to Prairie du Sac with 300 pounds of sugar expecting to trade the most of it for granulated sugar, getting two pounds of granulated for one pound of maple. But as soon as we got into town we met Lawyer Wilkenson and after the usual salutation. He said, “Johnnie, what have you got.” I said, “Maple sugar.” He said, “Let me look at it.” I uncovered the box and told him to break a cake and sample it. He did so and then asked me if I had scales, I said not, but we could go to a store and weigh out what he wanted. But, if he could take my word I knew how much each cake weighed. He said that is good enough and commenced to pick out what he wanted. I said, “Mr. Wilkenson, let me drive to your home.” He says, “No, I will take it right here.” He had not gotten what he wanted when there was a large crowd gathered and they wanted to know if he was going to be hog enough to take all there was, I soon could see that he took the course he did to help me and we sold every pound right there for the cash and bought our granulated for ten cents a pound, making two and one-half pounds of granulated for one pound of maple. We always had soft sugar enough that was made after the buds started to keep for pies and sweetening sauce. This was drained by using a half-barrel with a hole bored in the bottom. The drainage made very good vinegar.
When the young people came in we always sugared off and if there was snow had wax and warm sugar to eat. The wax was made by putting the warm sugar on the snow or on the ice. Thus the early settlers were enabled to make a neat sum before spring work, besides having many social gatherings that few of the people of the present day get with our advanced form of civilization.
Mrs. Rooney always enjoyed sugar making as she is a great lover of wax and warm sugar as well as a social time.
[Note—The foregoing article was read at the last meeting of the Sauk County Historical society by Mrs. Laura Martin.] Nov. 27, 1911
“Baraboo News”, Dec. 28, 1911.