A Good Read for the Maple History Buff

June 10, 2019

Maple Sugarin’ In Vermont: A Sweet History by Betty Ann Lockhart is a perfect fair-weather read for the Vermont history buff, but has hidden gems for all.

maple sugarin' in vermont bookWith a tone that toggles between history text and folktale, Maple Sugarin’ In Vermont: A Sweet History​ by Betty Ann Lockhart traces the story of Vermont Maple from the early recorded history of colonization to the middle of the 20th Century.

Although there are some unfortunate moments—such as the author’s reopening of the closed case as to who discovered maple—and despite the all-but-inevitable dryness of some of the weedy historical material, the book nevertheless left this reader hoping that Ms. Lockhart was well into her work on a sequel. Please, Ms. Lockhart, for your next book, take us into the contemporary era of Vermont maple, with attention to the back-to-the-land and organic food movements, the incredible recent industry consolidation, run-ins with labeling authorities, and (yes, selfishly) the backyard sugarmaking revolution currently underway among young people here!

Maple Sugarin’ is organized chronologically as much as it is thematically and opens with the Abenaki and early settlers. Ms. Lockhart’s treatment of the early recorded history of maple sugaring in Vermont is disappointing only in its suggestion that scholars are still at odds as to whether settlers from lands with no sugaring tradition could possibly have taught peoples having logged (tens?) of thousands of years in sugar country how to produce sugar from the maple tree. (For, surely that argument was satisfactorily dispatched by the prior scholarship of Helen Nearing in The Maple Sugar Book.) Nevertheless, these first chapters contain some gems; the story Lockhart tells of early sugar making is well illustrated both by words and by photographs of authentic and reproduction tools and equipment used by the first  Vermont sugar makers. The rudimentary nature of early methods will impress any modern sugar maker with just how easy we have it!

After deftly weaving a tale of the advent of the 1791 sugaring season in with the story of Vermont becoming the fourteenth state of the Union (both occurred on March 4th of that year), Lockhart turns in Chapters 3 through 7 to Vermont sugarmaking as it existed in the early days of the Union through the Civil War. With entire chapters devoted to Thomas Jefferson’s first exposure to Vermont maple (and subsequent failure to bring maple to Monticello) and the role consumption of maple sugar played in the Vermont abolition movement, Lockhart nevertheless pays scrupulous attention as well to advances in equipment and methods during this time, bringing us from wooden buckets and spiles and kettle systems to the advent of the evaporator, the sugar house, and all-things metal (even metal tubing—an experiment that would fail and keep on failing until its eventual demise in the 20th Century).

The balance of the book chronicles the rise of the Vermont maple industry through the middle of the 20th Century.  According to Lockhart, the turn of the 20th Century is about when syrup starts surpassing sugar as the maple crop of choice. Ironically, it is also when Vermont producers start getting organized through the Vermont Maple “Sugar” Makers Association, and otherwise, to advocate for the protection and promotion of their crop. Lockhart goes on to detail the contributions of such notables as George C. Cary (“The Maple King”) and the Proctor family. A reader’s reward for making it through the dry-but-important subsequent exploration of the legal and regulatory environment of the era are the absolute gems at the end. Chapter 13 contains entertaining tales of and by actual Vermont sugarmakers, and Chapter 15 a primer on odd tools of the trade that will pique the interest of any peruser of antiques. The book ends, as any book on maple probably should, with recipes—these ones a bit basic but purporting to be authentic to old Vermont.

Any maple history enthusiast will find value in reading this thorough and, at times, supremely entertaining book. Widely available online and orderable at your local bookstore, if you or someone you know loves all things maple, give Betty Ann  Lockhart’s Maple Sugarin’ In Vermont; A Sweet History a read one of these days!