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Catlin History Online

As winter winds down and people's thoughts turn to spring the old stories of sugar camp days began to be told again. If you ever had anything to do with a sugar camp I'm sure you have a great tale to tell! Memories of all the work involved, the fun of being out in the woods and of course the taste of wonderful maple syrup.

The following article should bring alive some of those wonderful days. Jamie Wieland of Catlin wrote this piece as her application for the Iris Davis Memorial Scholarship. She was the 1997 recipient. Enjoy!

Maple Sugar Camp

The invention of maple sugar has unofficially been credited to the squirrel. According to an old legend, an Indian watched a squirrel dig out a small hole in the trunk of a sugar maple tree with his teeth. Sap began to drip out of this hole and was quickly lapped up by the squirrel. Mocking the squirrel's method, the Indian pounded a hollow stick into the sugar maple tree and caught the secreted sap in a large dish. Most likely, an Indian woman discovered that this "sweet water" could be boiled down to make maple syrup.

By the time the Pilgrims arrive in 1620, the Indians had perfected the art of making maple syrup. It was from the Indians that our ancestors were taught how to make syrup out of maple tree sap. This process was used for the next 300 years, and maple syrup became a valuable sweetener at that time. Moreover, it is interesting to note that many of the sugar maple trees planted by the Pilgrims are still giving sap today.

The sweet-water sap used to make syrup is different from the circulatory sap of a growing tree. In fact, sugar maples are seldom good sap producers until they are at least forty years old. The sap excreted by a sugar maple is a colorless, watery solution that contains sugar, various acids and salts. Because of a physiological process that is not yet fully understood, sugar maples will bleed sap through wounds in their trunks under alternating conditions of freeze and thaw in late winter. This cycle of freezing and thawing is vital to extracting sap from the tree because if it remains either warm or cold, the flow of sap ceases. The amount of sap produced varies from tree to tree, but a good tree excretes an average of 35 gallons per season. Boiled down, 35 gallons of sap yields only 1 gallon or 8 pounds of sugar.

Remains of maple sugar camp

The annual sugar season begins in early spring and lasts about 4 weeks. In preparation for the sugar season, our ancestors did much work. The men would go down to the sugar camp to repair any damages in the furnace, vats or other supplies. Because many of the items necessary for making maple syrup were used only once a year, they often needed repair and cleansing. The women and children took care of the cleansing, carefully scalding out all of the buckets, jugs, barrels, kettles, and vats (shallow tubs that sat directly on the furnaces used to boil down the sap). Sugar camps were often established close to creeks or streams so the supplies could easily be brought to the water for scalding. Everything must be kept very clean in order to prevent the syrup from being spoiled by bacteria.

When the preparation of the sugar camp was finished, the "tapping" of the maple trees began. The trees were tapped by boring holes in the trunks of the sugar maples about two feet above the ground. Next, an iron spout was inserted into the hole. Finally, a large bucket was hung by a nail under the spout to collect the excreted sap.

Great care and skill were necessary to produce good syrup. The sap must be boiled down to syrup in the shortest time possible or else the quality of the syrup was diminished. The help of several people working around the clock was required in order to quickly and efficiently collect, boil down and store the syrup. The buckets hanging from the trees had to frequently be changed and emptied as they fill with sap. Codes were often adopted to monitor the sap. One of the more common codes compared a fast sap flow to a ticking alarm clock and a slow sap flow to the swinging pendulum in a grandfather clock. After the buckets were collected and taken back to the sugar camp to be emptied, the sap was strained. All of the foreign substances and objects had to be removed before the sap was poured into the vats.

Remains of maple sugar camp

During the boiling process, the vats constantly had to be stirred to prevent the sap from running over or forming a skin on the surface. This was a job in itself. At this stage in the process of making maple syrup, another method of purifying the syrup was used. Several raw eggs were dropped into the vats causing any unwanted debris to settle at the bottom. Meanwhile, another person was required to keep the furnace burning strong. Wood was chopped at the campsite and used for fueling the furnace.

When all of the sap had been boiled down to syrup or sugar, it was customary to have a "sugaring off." This was an annual social gathering, and all of the neighbors, friends, and relatives were invited. At the sugaring off, everyone ate all of the sugar they wanted; children were even given paddles, which were dipped in the kettles of syrup and quickly licked clean. Any sugar leftover from the sugaring off not needed by the family was bottled and sent to town to be sold.

One of these historic sugar camps is located in Sugar Maple Woods on the far west side of Catlin. Very little of this wooded area remains because Blue Needles Golf Course had been built in the area and much of the woods had been cleared for farming and building houses. As to this date, no historical information about this sugar camp has ever been documented. The only source of historical information on this camp lies within the memories of those who visited the camp as children and the remains of the sugar camp still located at the site today.

The history of the land where the old maple sugar camp was located can be traced back to 1875 when Joel Acree owned it. Most likely, these woods were part of the Acree Homestead Land. Joel Acree died at the age of 62 on November 17, 1880. His wife, Elvessa, died at the age of 75 on December 14, 1891. The land was then inherited by Martha J. Acree, Joel and Elvessa's daughter who was born July 9, 1858. Martha J. Acree married Layton McDonald, born October 19, 1856, but after he passed away September 14, 1901, she remarried to a man by the name of Dickinson. Martha and Layton's daughter Ona inherited the land after Martha passed away October 15, 1931. Ona McDonald married William H. Jones (1873-1947), and maintained the property until her death in 1960. Helen Jones, Ona's daughter-in-law, was the last member of the family to own the property where the maple sugar camp was located. She held on to this land for only two years before selling it to William Wise in 1962. William Wise established a residence on this property and sold the remaining land to Mike Asmar in 1993. In turn, Mike Asmar sold the property to Marty Hankins, in 1996. She has build a log cabin near the site of the maple sugar camp.

The maple sugar camp is said to have been in operation from the early twenties until the early forties. At this time, Ona Jones and her husband William would have run the sugar camp. The time of operation has been verified by Kathleen Harby, Ona Jones' granddaughter, who often visited the site as a child. In addition to this, Irma Jones, daughter-in-law of Ona Jones, remembers that when she moved to Catlin in 1943, the sugar camp was out of operation. However, Ona still had a few jars of syrup left in the cabinet. Evidently, the camp had just recently gone out of operation.

Many of the items used at the old sugar camp still remain today. When visited (1997), the site contained a large vat, a brick furnace, barrels and buckets, a kettle, glass syrup jugs, and a patch of coal ash, suggesting that coal was used to fuel the furnace. It is important to note that the campsite is located right next to a creek. As stated earlier, sugar camps were often built near a water source because the tools used to make maple syrup had to be kept very clean in order to prevent the syrup from being spoiled.

For more that 300 years, the process of making maple sugar syrup remained unchanged. This sweetener was extremely valuable to our ancestors because it was usually the only source of sugar available. However, in the 1940s industrialism took over the maple syrup business: tapping equipment was developed, better sanitary methods were used for handling sap, and tubing systems were designed to attach to the spouts in the maple trees and deliver the sap directly to the sugar camp. In addition the modern methods being used in the process of making maple syrup, other types of sugars were being mass-produced making them cheaper and readily available. For these reasons many sugar camps were shut down because they were simply out-dated and not needed. Most likely, considering the time period, the sugar camp in Catlin went out of operation for these same reasons.

Remains of maple sugar camp

Remains of maple sugar camp

  Joe Hipple remembers another maple sugar camp.


Catlin Historical Society
210 North Paris
Catlin, Illinois 61817
(217) 427-5766