History of Subsistence Farming in New Hampshire
Why did people start farms in New Hampshire in the 1800s?
The history of Cragged Mountain Maple and the maple syrup we bottle for you is rooted in New England hill country. My great-grandfather found glass plate negatives at Cragged Mountain Farm in 1926 that were originally taken in the late 1800’s. They were left behind in the original post-and-beam farmhouse that stands to this day. Flash forward 90 years - my mom developed the negatives and brought the photos back to life!
The photos show glimpses of what life in the countryside of New England was like before the industrial revolution had transformed society into the modern day. It was a different world, and even that world was generations removed from the original hill country farmers on Cragged Mountain in the early 1800s. Living the past four years on Cragged Mountain, in the same space that rock-picking farmers lived just a few generations ago, continues to spark my curiosity about how the past connects to the present. Learning the process of producing maple syrup in the same space where those farmers made maple syrup has been awesome and humbling to imagine how much more difficult and isolated life was for folks running farms two hundred years ago.
When did Europeans learn how to make maple syrup?
Boiling maple sap is a culture that colonial America learned from the traditions of Native American peoples. Traditions that were passed on to new generations through storytelling and myth. No one can know "when" exactly communities began boiling maple sap down to syrup, but maple syrup production is without doubt one of the oldest agricultural traditions in America. There are accounts of French colonists boiling sap as early as the mid 1600s, and there is actually a small debate in the maple syrup community about whether the natives taught the colonists how to tap the trees or vice versa.
Is maple syrup production sustainable?
The maple syrup economy has come a long way since the days of subsistence New England hill farmers collecting sap in buckets in the lean weeks of early spring. With the industrialization of the modern day, exemplified by some farms producing on over 1 million taps, there are inherent losses of quality and culture for the sake of the benefits of scale. That said, maple syrup is, without a doubt, one of the most intrinsically sustainable products possible in the modern-day. There is only one ingredient, the naturally occurring sap from maple trees, and that ingredient is harvested in a way that the same trees can be tapped year-after-year and live on, happy and healthy, to be tapped by a farmer's great-grandchildren 100 years later.
Why are there stone walls in the forests of New Hampshire?
Historically, changes in the forests of the hill country, like ours on Cragged Mountain, were primarily due to fires and the receding glacier. In contrast, forests of modern-day New England hill country have undergone consistent major disturbances in being logged at least half a dozen times. It was only two hundred years ago when Europeans moved into central New England and cut down all of the old growth forests to farm sheep, cattle, and grain, and thereby creating farming communities to support these ambitious efforts. That experiment, with the massive amount of effort and labor involved to start those farms, only lasted a couple of generations. Farming families moved away because of the advent of the industrial revolution and the availability of superior farmland in the Midwest. For many families, these huge societal changes were good reasons to say goodbye to a subsistence lifestyle in the harsh climate and topography of central New England. This freed up thousands and thousands of previously farmed acres to return to forests with the only obvious artifacts being the thousands of miles of stone walls that exist in the middle of the woods now! Also, in those forests, there are a lot of maple trees to tap! At Cragged Mountain Maple, we’re excited to find and share the unique stories and histories relating to the hill country of New England and maple syrup.
Photograph is circa 1895 and the building on the far right of the farm is what was used as a 'sap house' in the early spring each year. The left side of the photo shows the old apple orchard!
Central New England hill country has cold winters, hot summers, steep hills and rocky soil. There aren’t many industries suitable to thrive in this extreme context. Maple syrup is one of those industries and is a bright spot of growth in small almost-forgotten New England towns. More and more people are learning about maple syrup and most everyone loves it!
- Nick and Dipper
March 3, 2019 - Brief History of the Maple Syrup Economy
Papa Hank the Maple Tree
What did maple syrup production look like 200 years ago?
The new shop/sugar shack is in the same location as the building, according to a letter written by Great-Grandpa Henry, that (200 years ago) "was originally the sap house and contained a large brick fire box and huge iron pot used to boil down the maple sap.” This method of boiling will create some very dark maple syrup as you keep adding sap to the same batch of syrup and thus the sap that is in the pot the longest will caramelize a lot which leads to super dark syrup. Sugarmakers didn't start using sheet pans and early forms of the modern evaporator until around the Civil War. Great-Grandpa Henry referencing the older method of sugarmaking shows that the original farmers on Cragged Mountain (John Brooks and family) were making maple syrup / sugar from when they originally started the farm in the early 1800s. Pretty cool!
Was maple syrup a significant part of the economy in the 1800s?
I've been realizing recently that maple was a big deal for a lot of people for a long time. 'Big deal' meaning it was the most available and relevant option for a sweetener for the Native Americans that lived in the northeast United States and Canada (for thousands of years) and correspondingly for the colonizers of the area (until 125 years ago).
An excerpt from Keller's "America's Native Sweet: Chippewa Treaties and the Right to Harvest Maple Sugar" (1989):
"Sugar from trees became a staple food and trade good unique to colonial North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, valued by the French and English along the St. Lawrence and by settlers and merchants in New England, New York and the Great Lakes. Access to sugar maple served as one of many incentives for white settlement of the upper Great Lakes region, peaking about 1860. Popularity of the sugar created a sizable industry in the eastern United States and Canada until 1890 when the mechanization and chemistry of beet and cane refining pushed maple sugar from the mass market, elevating it to a luxury item."
It's amazing to think that 'Papa Hank,' the tree we hang out with and see all the time, was alive when the economy surrounding maple, and the world in general, was totally different. Maple is still a 'big deal' even if it does cost a bit more than sugarcane sugar!