Historical Markers
Somerset County Historical Marker
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Somerset County

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
Somerset County Courthouse

Dedication Date:
October 22, 1982

Behind the Marker

On March 31, 1762, Christian Frederick Post and twenty-year-old markerJohn Heckewelder found themselves stuck in the remote wilderness of southwestern Pennsylvania. The swollen "Stony Creek" (near present-day Stoystown in Somerset County) had swept away the canoe that was supposed to be there and left them with no way to cross. The two Moravian missionaries were traveling out to "the Ohio Country" to preach to the Lenape Indians (also known as the Delaware) who lived on the Tuscarawas River, and it now seemed they would have to turn back and head home. But settlers on the other side of the creek came to their rescue.

After "many entreaties and promises," Heckewelder later wrote, "a sugar trough was brought from the woods; and in this novel vessel, we were safely ferried over." So the missionaries were able to continue their journey west thanks to a container the local people used for making maple sugar.
Black and white image of white maple syrup buckets hanging on the trees.
Black and white image of white maple syrup buckets hanging on the trees.

The production of maple sugar and syrup has been an important part of food production in Somerset County since the mid-1700s. European settlers to the region - many of them German or Swiss Amish, German Baptist Brethren (sometimes called "Dunkers"), German Lutherans, and German Mennonites - probably learned how to make maple sugar from any one of the several Indian tribes that lived in the region. Each March around the time of the full moon, Native Americans used a hatchet or knife to cut a gash into sugar maple trees, placed bark containers underneath the wound in the tree to catch the sap, collected the liquid in wooden troughs, and then dropped fire-heated stones into the sap to evaporate the water out of it, boiling and stirring until they made maple sugar.

It wasn't long before colonists began to develop their own methods for making maple sugar. In the mid-1760s, they "boxed" sugar maples by carving a half-inch square hole into the tree into which they inserted a wooden spout, or "spile," to channel the sap to a wooden trough. A decade later, settlers "tapped" trees with a hand-powered drill. Often using shoulder yokes, entire families would carry full buckets back to "sugar camp" and dump them into a large iron kettle in which they boiled sugar water into syrup over a huge fire. They processed most of the syrup into maple sugar, or "crumb sugar," as many called it. To do this they had to carefully boil syrup to just the right consistency, then pour it into wooden troughs called "keelers" - Pennsylvania German for "coolers" - and stir it until it thickened into sugar.
Shacks with billowing smoke stacks and stacks of wood. Snow on the ground and frozen creek bed.
Sugaring houses

By the late eighteenth century, maple sugar production was an important part of farm life in southwestern Pennsylvania, and the farmers of Somerset County were producing high-quality maple sugar and syrup. Today, Americans take sugar for granted. Every day we sweeten our beverages and foods with cane sugar grown primarily in the Tropics. In the days before cane sugar was so abundant and cheap, however, the sugar maple trees of North American forests provided the state's most concentrated and abundant source of sucrose. Farmers and their families used maple sugar and syrup in baking, curing meats, as a sweetener, and in making whiskey. Somerset farmers also sold their maple sugar in Baltimore, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and other urban markets, as well as locally. They used the valuable extra income to buy fertilizer, livestock, seeds, and goods they could not make themselves.

For families who owned "sugar bush," as acreage in sugar maples was known, making maple syrup and sugar was time-consuming work - it took forty to fifty gallons of sugar water to make a single gallon of syrup or eight pounds of sugar - but it produced much-needed income, and the work took place at a time of year when other farm activities were light. The sweet sap of the sugar maple ran strong for only about eight weeks early in the spring, a time before the spring plowing and calving seasons, so there was no planting or milking to be done. And maple sugar production, unlike other forms of farming, required little outlay of money, for it could be done with wooden buckets, spiles, and troughs made right on the farm.

In the nineteenth century, maple sugar production became more of an industry. By the 1840s, farmers were replacing their sugar camp lean-tos with more substantial "sugar houses" and replacing the old-fashioned cauldrons and wood fires with large, flat-bottomed iron boiling pans and metal evaporators that they placed on metal grates over coal fires. In 1850, Somerset County farmers produced 373,798 pounds of maple sugar and 7,667 gallons of maple syrup. Thirty years later, they made more than a million pounds of sugar and more than 15,000 gallons of syrup.

Today Somerset County continues to be the center of "mapling" in Pennsylvania and home to the state's annual maple festival. In the past 100 years, new equipment and technologies have made production more efficient, more sanitary - and more expensive. Maple sugar producers now tap their trees with spiles and buckets made of metal or plastic, rather than wooden ones, store the sap in large metal storage tanks rather than the old wooden, filter out micro-organisms and impurities with ultraviolet lights and small-pore filters rather than linen cloth, and boil away the water with fuel oil instead of wood or coal. Large commercial manufacturers buy much, but not all, of the maple sugar and syrup produced in Pennsylvania and bottle it with maple syrup purchased from other states for sale throughout the United States and abroad.
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