Have you ever wondered how maple got big? How it went from a subsistence crop to a farmer’s sideline, to a product that could mount a flavor challenge to pumpkin spice? Well the answer may surprise you: it was the Maple King who made it happen.
Who was the Maple King? George C. Cary. And how can you learn more about him? By reading “Maple King: The Making of a Maple Syrup Empire” by Matthew M. Thomas, a fascinating and well-written book about a personality that looms as large in the (relatively small) world of maple as Rockefeller does in oil, Carnegie in steel, and the Great Gatsby did in your high school English class.
“The Maple King,” is the story of Cary’s life as well as the story of the commodification of maple syrup. It is as academic as a history text, but entertaining enough to make a reader wonder when the movie rights will be sold. There are antic-prone travelling salesmen, epic train journeys, New York City eateries, women on the side, a stock market crash, bankruptcy and sudden death between this book’s covers. And plenty of the action takes place in the roaring twenties. What’s not to love!? We’ve already purchased our popcorn.
Thomas starts by describing just how different the maple business was in the nineteenth century from what it is today. For those of you who have read either The Maple Sugar Book, or Maple Sugarin’ in Vermont, the narrative covers familiar terrain by describing maple sugaring—and by that, we mean the boiling of maple sap down to actual sugar—as an ancillary springtime activity on the farm or rural homesteads of northeastern United States and southeastern Canada during that period. What you wouldn’t have known was that people like Patrick J. Towle of Towle’s Log Cabin Syrup Company (purveyors of what we sugar makers pejoratively call “the fake stuff” since 1887) were actually responsible for creating a national market for table syrup as such. In fact, without the marketing efforts of Log Cabin and the like, it would have been harder for maple producers to transition from selling sugar to selling syrup when, after the Civil War, the price of cane sugar dropped to below the price of maple sugar for the first (and all) time, and for that and other reasons became more popular than maple.
Cary’s reign as Maple King spanned that whole transition, and then some. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, for one of the most interesting parts of Cary’s story occurs before he’s a maple man at all, and is theatrical in its serendipity (cue the dramatic music, here).
Cary started life as a member of the merchant class in a small town in northern Maine. He was educated at public school, attended college, and began his working life as a rural school teacher and local farm-machinery salesman. Just a year after Cary took up work as a travelling grocery salesman, however, he started selling maple sugar accidentally. Hard pressed to make a grocery sale in Craftsbury, Vermont, Cary agreed to take a large amount of maple sugar as payment for an order instead of cash. His bosses were none too pleased, and told Cary to turn the sugar into money. Cary, who would show himself to be capable of that alchemy until the end, did just that. While on the road once again, Cary convinced a tobacco salesman to use maple sugar in his plug tobacco instead of cane sugar, at a savings to the tobacco company. The switch stuck, and pretty soon, Cary was out on his own, buying up almost all of the maple sugar made in Vermont and selling it to big tobacco. He was, as such, the first to consolidate the small maple crops of thousands of farmers, create a standard maple product, and sell it in bulk, the precursor of how maple syrup is traded today.
The rest, as they say, is history, including the transition from sugar to syrup, the boom and bust of Cary’s businesses, and with it St. Johnsbury, Vermont, the creation of the Fédération des producteurs acéricoles du Québec, the maple cartel that grew from the need to compete with the Maple King and that still sets global prices today, and the legacy—still going strong—of finding new and different ways to sell maple products.
“Maple King” is a good, fast read that will teach you your maple history while holding your interest with more than just places and dates. While Thomas doesn’t stray far from his original source materials, he gives the reader enough extra to truly enjoy imagining the life and times of maple’s own magnate.