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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

An Old Sugar Camp

Dallas Bogan on 6 September 2004
The following is taken from Dallas Bogan's, The Pioneer Writings of Josiah Morrow."
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

Maple Sugar Made on the Little Miami River by Indians
and the Early White Settlers.

Magnificent Old Sugar Orchards in Wayne Township--Visited By Indians--The Old Time Way of Making Maple Sugar and Molasses Important Industry--Value of the Sugar Tree.

March 7, 1910

Some maple sugar is still made in the Miami Valley and more perhaps in Warren than in any adjoining county; but a generation is growing up that has never seen an old-time sugar-camp or a sugar-trough. Today where maple sugar and maple syrup are made of a high grade and on an extensive scale as in Geauga county, Ohio, improved methods are employed. Buckets with covers to keep out the rain and dirt are used in place of troughs hollowed out of split logs. Metal spouts instead of split pieces of elder are inserted in the auger holes in the trees, galvanized storage tanks are used instead of barrels and improved evaporators instead of pots for boiling.
The making of maple sugar was a most important industry in early Ohio and it furnished many settlers with the only kind of sugar they could obtain and it is certainly known that Indians in Ohio made maple sugar thirty years before the first settlement at Marietta.

Indians Make Sugar in Wayne Township.

Some of the finest sugar orchards to be found any- where were in Wayne township on both sides of the Little Miami, much of this township being sugar tree land. The Indians had visited this region for the purpose of making sugar long before the country was settled by the whites, and they continued to visit it for the same purpose after the white settlements were made. George T. O'Neall records that the red men made these visits as late as 1804 or 1805, and that he had often heard his father, William O'Neall say that when a boy he used to run races and wrestle with the Indian boys when they were on their annual visits.
When the first entries of Virginia military land warrants were made on the east side of the river in this township there was found an "old sugar camp." This was 1787, long before the arrival of the white settler and the old camp must have been used by the Indians. Whether any old sugar camps of the Indians were found by the early surveyors on the west side of the river, I am unable to say.
The Indians probably learned the art of making maple sugar from the whites, and there is no reason to believe that they ever made it by boiling until after they obtained pots and kettles from the white man. The first account we have of red men making sugar is that given by Col. James Smith, a prisoner with a tribe in Ohio. He records that in 1756 the Indians had two large brass kettles, holding about fifteen gallons each and some smaller vessels in which they boiled the sap. These vessels were of course obtained from the whites. It is possible to reduce the sap to sugar without boiling, either by freezing or by natural evaporation, but is not known that the Indians ever practiced either method.

A Large Old Sugar Orchard.

One of the largest and finest of the sugar orchards in Wayne township, if not in the whole valley of the Little Miami was on the farm of Thomas Smith at the mouth of Caesar's creek. The widowed mother of Thomas Smith with her sons and daughters made their home at this place in December, 1800, when there were only a few acres of cleared land but the family from the start were able to supply themselves plentifully with sugar and maple syrup. The trees were probably at first tapped with a giblet and wild turkey quills used to convey the sap into the wooden troughs. Afterward a half inch auger was used for tapping and spiles or spouts made of elder were used instead of turkey quills. The sap was at first boiled down in kettles and pots hung over two logs between which the fire was built. In later years, the kettles were placed in furnaces for boiling the sap.
Hon. John Quincy Smith, of Clinton County, was the son of Thomas Smith and in an unpublished manuscript has left his recollections of sugar making as it was carried on in his boyhood. So generally was the business engaged in by the farmers of the region at that period that about the middle of February the larger boys would be called from school to assist in the work, and in the early spring the only scholars left in school were girls and smaller boys.
His father had a great many sugar trees, sometimes more than a thousand would be tapped. They were bored with a small auger about three and half feet from the ground and an elder spike about ten inches long driven tightly into the hole. At first only wooden troughs were used to catch the sap. These were made by cutting down blue ash trees, sawing the trunks into lengths of about two feet which were split in the middle, and hollowed out with an ax so as to make a trough holding two or three gallons. A first rate ax man could make forty or fifty of these troughs in a day. After 1830 earthen crocks, costing 6 or 8 cents and holding about two gallons each were used. They were cleaner and better than troughs, but if a sudden freeze came when they were full of water, a great many would burst, and nearly every year a new supply of crocks would be purchased to make up the loss from breakage.
The furnace was built for about a dozen kettles holding ten or fifteen gallons each. The sugar water was hauled to the furnace in a hogshead standing on end and placed on a two horse sled. At the furnace it would be emptied into other hogsheads, or into a large trough dug out of a big log, or into a wooden cistern made of wide poplar planks.
Sometimes during a very heavy rain it would be impossible to prevent a great waste of sugar water. The vessels would all be running over, and in order to save as much as possible, it was necessary to boil all night. John Q. relates that when he was about thirteen he and his brother Joseph spent several nights pushing the fires and filling the kettles when there was a heavy rain. They had a shanty just in front of the furnace in which was a pile of straw and some bed covers. They slept turn about, one watching the fires while the other slept. John Q. had borrowed a copy of Pope's translation of the Iliad which he read thru by the light of the furnace fires, and Joseph read Scott's novels.
Making sugar was always a hard and laborious job. The ground was always wet and muddy, and the work had to be done often in rain and snow. The boy remembers to have worked at the sugar camp hauling when the snow was deep and it was raining so hard that for hours he had not a dry thread on him. But the work during a "strong run" was regarded as very profitable.
The father made sugar not only for use at home, but for the market, some seasons selling several barrels of it. It brought a good price, sometimes as much as 15 or 16 cents a pound. He usually made two or three trips each year to Cincinnati with a wagonload of produce for market consisting mainly of maple sugar, bacon, lard, and sometimes sweet potatoes. He would sleep at night in his wag- on at the Fifth street market, where the Fountain now is. The journey to the city and the return would each take a day and a half, and he would get away from home four days on each trip to market.

The Sugar Tree's Blessing.

At so great a distance from the ocean, the early settler of Ohio found salt made from sea water and sugar imported from the West Indies so high that he could not purchase them. An inferior kind of salt could be made in a few places from the water of salt springs and salt wells; in most places a delicious and wholesome sugar could be made from the sap of the maple tree. Unlike the trees of his fruit orchard, his sugar trees were already grown. Five pounds of sugar could be made from one tree in one season, and it was believed that repeated tappings improved the quality of the sap. No costly machinery or apparatus was necessary. The only implements required for the manufacture of sugar for home use was an ax and a kettle. It required no more knowledge or skill to make maple sugar than to make soap or cider. It was said that one man sold 600 pounds, all made by his own hands in one season. Thousands of families in Ohio made sugar and syrup for their own use and thus saved a large expenditure of money.
In the third edition of Gilbert Imlay's "Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America," printed at London in 1797, twenty-five pages are devoted to the maple tree and the sugar made from it, so great was the importance attached to this tree in the rise and growth of the new American Empire. The eminent Dr. Benjamin Rush was one of the first to write on the benefits to be derived from this invaluable tree at a time when the West India islands had a monopoly of the sugar and molasses industry which was carried on under slave labor. Dr. Rush looked on the tree with affection and even veneration and hoped that in some way it might be protected from destruction by the settlers, or transplanted and cultivated in sugar orchards. He stated that Thomas Jefferson used no sugar in his family except maple sugar and he had lately planted an orchard of maple trees on his farm.

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This page created 6 September 2004 and last updated 28 September, 2008
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