Let sugar season be a time of year for reconnecting to community and strengthening your sense of place through value-based community engagement that supports learning. Maple sugaring is a centuries-old tradition in New England, and the seasonal industry remains an important part of the foundation upon which local agricultural is built. Additionally, maple sugaring brings opportunities for families to engage in intergenerational community-based learning through visits to farms, community meals, living history, and experiential hands-on activities. April and May might be filled with the blossoms of spring, but there is no need for flowers when we have sweet maple syrup to enjoy on our pancakes with family and friends!
Sugaring season has been a New England tradition since practically forever. It was written about by English settlers as early as the mid-1600’s, and was a Native American harvest long before any Europeans set foot in North America. The history of this annual sap-harvesting tradition can’t really be boiled down to any specific time period or group of people, but it has nevertheless been done year after year for countless generations.
Families can experience what maple sugaring was like in the days of old New England at living history events where museum interpreters dressed in period clothing demonstrate life and skills from Colonial New England, including: tree tapping, sumac spile making, sap boiling over a fire, open hearth cooking, and other early American skills. At living history museums, history comes alive and are wonderful community-based resources for curious minds wanting to learn about New England history and lore of maple syrup.
A popular sugar season tradition for families in western Massachusetts is visiting a nearby sugar shack. There are sugar shacks to visit all over the region, and a great many of these can pair the experience of watching fresh maple sap be boiled down into a thick syrup with a homemade stack of maple syrup-covered pancakes. Many sugarhouses offer informative tours of their facilities, demonstrating their process of tapping, collecting, boiling, and bottling their syrup. In addition to learning about the sugaring process, a visit to a sugar shack can also be a lesson in local history and community resilience – many local sugar houses have been owned and operated by the same families for a few generations, making sugaring an important part of the local economy as well as a strong link between local families and their physical surrounding.
The maple tree and sugar season have been a source of inspiration for artists and poets in New England. Here we take a look at Western Massachusetts landscape painter, Robert Strong Woodward (1885-1957), and contemporary poet, Hannah Fries. In the early 1900’s, Woodward captures a typical New England scene that one can still witness driving along the same road in the Hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. And Fries takes the seasonality of New England living and rural life to describe a shared sentiment felt by two people in love in her poetry. See and read the influences of the maple tree and seasonal living in art and literature in the region.
If sugaring is something that your family is particularly interested in trying and you’ve got a yard full of maples, try it out for yourself at home! With the right supplies, sugaring can be a fun and fairly easy family activity. Kids will get to practice math and science skills while selecting trees to tap – first, they’ll need to identify the proper species, and then they’ll need to determine the diameter of the tree at a specific height. Lots of careful observation, use of tools, and recording of data will need to be done! Then, while you wait for the sap to collect, kids can track the amount that fills the bucket each day. Older students might even be able to figure out the percentage by which the volume of the sap decreases after it has been boiled down into syrup!