Maple syrup has always been a family affair. To some sugarmakers, it has been a part of their heritage for multiple generations and a part of their lives since before they were big enough to carry a bucket of sap. Five years ago, I came to maple syrup as a novice, one of the uninitiated. I was under the impression that I was doing something new, but I was wrong. It turns out my Great Grandparents, the Fox’s, were avid sugarmakers and in fact, I was at the farm while the Fox’s were boiling and finishing maple syrup. The smell of caramelizing maple syrup was locked inside my brain waiting for a reawakening. I wanted to find out more about my Great-Grandparents and during an interview with my Grandma Marian, I learned a great deal about farm life during the mid-twentieth century.
The Fox’s bought farmland in North Cohocton, tucked in the northwest corner of Steuben County, NY in 1925. My Grandma Marian was born at home in 1927. They were a typical pre-war farm family and a model of sustainability for a today’s generation of young farmers. The farm was centered around dairy production, but unlike dairies of today, they raised, grew or foraged everything they needed and had a diversified array of products for market. Any family that had cows made butter from the cream that was allowed to rise to the top of the milk using old-style butter churns. Butter was taken in crocks down to the corner market and traded for groceries. The Fox’s sent free range eggs on the train to a relative in Hoboken. They were then taken over to the Bronx by my Grandmother’s cousin Robert and peddled to grocers and on the street. Pigs were raised, butchered on the farm, and smoked in a smokehouse.
Everything they ate was grown on the farm and they grew some special crops sold at the roadside. One year, they grew 14 tons of squash, sold at 2 ½ cents/lb. Selling squash was how retired math teacher Grandma Marian learned math. They also grew and sold sweet corn and Red Pontiac potatoes. Dry kidneys beans, like many other indoor projects, were shelled during the evening after it was too dark to work outside. Cabbage was made into sauerkraut and they canned everything. They harvested nuts from butternut and walnut trees.
One of their big selling crops was strawberries and my Grandma was able to go to college on strawberry profits along with sales of blackberries and red raspberries. Teenagers picked berries and picked up potatoes. School ran on ½ days in the fall during the war so kids could go to work. They would ride by the farm standing on the back of a truck. Berry picking was a big day for them.
Grandpa Fox was also a forager. There was a patch of ramps, or leeks as they were called, in the woods behind the house where my grandparents live now. He would bring them home and they would sit on the kitchen table in a jar of water to be eaten raw with a dash of salt. They were also made into tasty potato leek soup. I have a tattoo of ramps that circle around my arm and remind me of my family’s relationship with this wonderful plant; one of the short-lived delicacies of spring.
My main curiosity centered on the family’s relationship with maple syrup. I had heard that the Fox’s made syrup and that my Great-Grandmother Mable passed away on April 1, 1979 after having canned up syrup the night before. What I didn’t know is that I had visited the day before she died. I remember the kitchen of the old farmhouse; one of those vague golden hued memories of a toddler. Grandma Marian said that the ceiling in the kitchen was ruined from the steam produced over the years during the finishing and canning stage of syrup.
I realize that during my visit that day, Grandpa Fox must have been boiling sap down in the big cast iron kettle over an open fire out in the yard. I can almost remember the smell. How much of an impression was made on me as a young child paying visits to the farm? How much did these early memories resurface in latter years and help to guide me along my life’s path.
The family only tapped enough trees for the family’s use. They ate pancakes two to three times a week along with canned sausage and potatoes raised on the farm. My mom still makes Grandma Fox’s pancake recipe and they are the best pancakes I’ve ever had. They tapped around ten big trees along the main road in North Cohocton and used a wagon and large milk can to collect the sap. The whole family helped with tapping and collection.
Like everything on the old farm, maple syrup was a symbol of self-sufficiency and independence. When you grow or raise everything you need, there is a certain pride and a deep feeling of security and satisfaction. Maple sugaring must have held a special place for the Fox’s, though, being the first crop of spring after a long winter of canned foods, the same fair on the table day in and day out. It was a sweet reprieve and wake-up call to spring chores. Soon the farm would be back in full swing.
This life-style has all but disappeared in the US, but there are many young people who are longing to go back to the land and some who heard the call a generation ago. It is important to remember where we came from. We are not blazing new territory; we are simply reviving the life ways of old. Here in the Northeast, there is a short and sweet season. If you look through the steam just right, you might see your ancestors.