How Sweet It Is - two kids in front of sap bucket

Historical accounts from early New England settlers describe the art of maple sugaring by the Abenaki and Wabanaki Indians as early as the 1500s, according to research compiled by the Nulhegan Abenaki Historical and Cultural Preservation Department. But before this, legends and stories passed down from the Abenaki, Wabanaki, and other Native peoples suggest that boiling sap to make granulated sugar for seasoning meats and vegetables, as well as for medicinal purposes, was taking place for many generations before the Europeans came to the New World.

According to the Massachusetts Maple Sugar Producers Association, there are many Native American legends about how maple sugar was first discovered: “One Iroquois legend tells how Chief Woksis had thrown his tomahawk into a maple tree one late winter evening. After he removed it the following morning, the weather turned sunny and warm. Sap began to flow from the cut in the tree, and drip down into a container at the base of the tree. The sap was used to boil the meat for dinner. As the water in the sap boiled away, a sweet maple taste was left with the meat.”

How Sweet It Is - man in sugarhouse with wreath above door
Reid Burris boiling sap inside the Delucia/Gardener sugar house

From early sap buckets made of birch bark to traditional metal spouts and pans, and to today’s plastic sap lines and reverse osmosis technology (removing much of the water from the sap before boiling), maple sugaring has undergone a slow but steady transformation throughout its history. Yet many family farm producers still collect sap in traditional metal buckets and gather annually around the boiling pan inside the sugar house. Some maintain that sap from the honored sugar maple tree boiled down the old fashioned way over a wood fire yields a more flavorful result and inspires an enduring sense of community. One Norwich resident, Graham Webster, is a long-time maple sugar maker using traditional methods with his grandmother’s boiling pan, which was passed down from his uncle. “I prefer the old school method and smoky flavor of maple syrup made over a wood fire, but the syrup still tastes great either way,” says Graham, who produces about 50 gallons of syrup a year to give away.

Commercially, Vermont produces the most maple syrup in the United States by far, reporting two million gallons in 2023, which is roughly 50% of the total produced nationwide according to the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association. With the benefit of ideal climate conditions, thousands of acres of sugar maple trees, and a rich tradition of maple sugaring, Vermont’s maple syrup industry is a vital part of the state’s economy as well as a rich family and community tradition.

How Sweet It Is - family standing in front of tree with sap bucket
The Van Arman Family at their family farm in Norwich: Tom Van Arman, Emily Myers, Deb Van Arman, Jay Van Arman, Eva Van Arman.

For Emily Myers and her family, producing maple syrup is now a fifth generation family activity. Emily learned to tap trees and boil sap from her parents, Deb & Jay Van Arman, on the family farm where she now resides in Norwich. Before that, Deb and Jay maintained the tradition begun by Deb’s grandparents, running their home sugaring operation for 18 years in the old sugar house near Union Village Road. “It’s been a family operation for five generations,” says Deb. “We’re so pleased that Emily and her family do everything together and that the kids are just as involved as their parents.”

How Sweet It Is - draft horse team in front of red barn
The old draft team, Queenie and Babe,
that carried sap on Deb & Jay’s farm.

Deb and Jay acknowledge that maple sugaring has changed quite a bit over the years. Deb recalls everything being done by hand – drilling the trees, installing metal taps, gathering the sap from the buckets into a metal tank. “I lived with my paternal grandfather, my parents, and my brother, and we had a sugarbush in the woods. We accessed it with our beloved draft horses, Babe and Queenie, pulling a sleigh with a big gathering tank, then we walked to the woods to gather the sap from the really old maples.” Back then, boiling was done outdoors in anarch (wood fired boiling structure), going well into the night. Deb notes that sugaring was important during the depression and World War II because of a sugar shortage, and with no farming to be had in the winter, boiling sap for a reliable source of sugar was common.

How Sweet It Is - woman testing sap in sugar house
Norwich local Lisa Gardener testing to see if syrup is ready to draw off.

Eventually, Deb’s father built a sugar house on the 116 acre family farm and sugaring continued into the ’80s. “The camaraderie was out of this world,” recalls Jay. “The old sugarhouse didn’t have electricity, but we had a lantern and we loved to cook eggs in the boiling sap.” Deb favors using sap and syrup in a variety of ways. “Using sap is a great way to cook a ham because it really enhances the flavor, and maple syrup has a greater nutritive value than refined sugar.” Indeed, modern analysis shows that maple syrup contains several important minerals and a few vitamins, and new research is discovering that it may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Other traditional uses of maple syrup include flavoring coffee, sugar on snow, donuts dipped in syrup, and making maple candies, maple butter, and maple cream. Who knew something so delicious could be so good for you?

The family shifted to transporting the sap to Etna after state regulations required upgraded boiling pans, but eventually returned the boiling activities to Norwich. When their neighbors Dave Delucia and Lisa Gardner built a new sugarhouse with a wood fired stove, Jay introduced Dave and Lisa to the fun of maple sugaring, and they began boiling together. Even though Emily now carries on the family tradition with Dave, Deb and Jay still help out from time to time. “There’s a mystique about it,” says Deb. “You’re surrounded by steam, Dave serves up beans and franks around the arch, and it energizes you because you know that spring is coming.” For his part, Dave enjoys the social aspect.“ We get help from lots of friends and neighbors and people enjoy participating in the tradition. All together, we make about 50 gallons of syrup a year to give away to family and friends who help make it.”

How Sweet It Is - boy holding up sap bucket to maple tree
Jack Myers hanging a sap bucket during sugaring season in Norwich.

Emily has many fond memories of maple sugaring from her childhood that inspired her to carry on the tradition with her own family, including her teenage son and daughter. “March was always maple sugaring season and family members from around the country came to Norwich to boil. I wanted our kids to learn the values of hard work, community, bringing people together, and seeing what nature has to offer.” Emily’s son and a friend handled the important step of tapping the trees recently. “It’s nice to know that they are mature enough to understand how everything works and to see the full cycle of tapping, boiling, and eating the syrup on pancakes. It’s definitely a proud parent moment to think about passing the torch to the next generation.”

From the Native American tradition of generations past to today’s modern families, maple sugaring continues to bring people together to celebrate community and the wonderful bounty of the sugar maple tree.