Ever since I was young, I felt that I should have been a lot older. Not saying that when I was 10 I should’ve been in college but rather, I should already be well past 100. Children of all ages always dream about adventure, sailing the high seas in search of the edge of the world or searching the Wild West for gold. This phase usually wears off once they start to get distracted with things like video games and school. But for me, this shift never happened. To this day I still dream of being the first foreigner to explore new land or having a town that I settled carry my family name. But this era speaks to more than just exploration, it is also about innovation and creativity.
Many of the skills that people from the 1800s created that are still utilized nowadays are considered folk art. These skills were originally used for self-sustenance but morphed into industries that supported small populations in extremely rural areas - one such area being the North Country of New York.
I would be willing to bet a gallon of New York's best maple syrup that at least 90 percent of students at SLU consume something containing maple syrup. Most students don’t know this but most of the maple syrup consumed at SLU is from a local farmer! Personally, this has become a facet in my diet; I pair anything I can with maple syrup. I drizzle it over vanilla ice cream, pancakes, eat pure maple sugar, mix it in apple pies, glaze it over salmon, and even add a healthy dose into chocolate chip cookies! It is an extremely versatile product. Most people are not aware that you can completely remove cane sugar from recipes and replace it with a proper quantity of maple syrup.
Unknown to most people, maple syrup used to play a vital role in the North Country economy. Sugaring, the process of producing syrup, and logging were two of the largest markets in Northern NY from the mid-1800s all the through the early 1900s. Also included in this was tourism, queue Adirondacks, and boat making. A man by the name Abbot Augustus Low ran one of the largest sugar bushes ever known. His operation covered over 47,000 acres and was located just south Tupper Lake between Horseshoe Pond, the modern Boy Scout Camp Sabattis, and the Bog River. He originally logged part of this land but quickly took to sugaring. He produced over 20,000 gallons of syrup, not including exported maple sugar, from 1898- 1901. “Gus” Low also holds the record for the 2nd highest number of patents to his name, behind Thomas Edison. The majority of these patents were for inventions pertaining to the maple syrup!*
In the NoCo there are a large number of farmers, as well as non-commercial gardeners, who are taking to the folk art of sugaring. As you drive around St. Lawrence County there are two different styles of sugar-bushes you will see. First there is the classic, “romantic”, buckets filled with sap hanging off of taps in huge trees. These are more commonly families making syrup for themselves and friends, in much the same style as “Gus” Low. The second kind of sugaring you will notice are large swaths or Sugar Maples with bright blue tubing running between them all. These are the more commercial, yet surprisingly sustainable, operations. The tubes are connected to taps on one end and then to a vacuum system on the other. This collects all the syrup into a single vessel that can be easily transported and reduced.
I have been very fortunate to satiate my deep interest in this traditional folk art. One afternoon during my freshman spring (2015), myself and another student drove a mere five minutes to Hurlbut Maple. They gave a grand tour of their sugar shack, where sap turns into syrup, as well as their extensive vacuum systems around the trees. They save a sample of every run they have ever completed and I was able to find one from my birthday back in 1997! This little adventure got me hooked on sugaring and last spring I attended a workshop run by Nature Up North at the SLU Sustainability Farm where we learned how to tap trees and, if I remember correctly, tapped over 50 of them.
So while you are sitting at home or at the Northstar Café enjoying some maple syrup, think of the effort and skill that was put into each bottle of syrup and back to the good ol’ days when maple syrup helped run the North Country.
*Special thanks to TupperLake.com for some interesting history!