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Native Americans collecting sap and cooking maple syrup in pots, engraving (1724).

A Historical Engraving 

(1724) Native Americans collecting sap and cooking maple syrup in pots, tilling soil into raised                     humps, and sowing seeds, North America.1724. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of                 Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/90705836/.

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An antique maple sugar mold depicting a leaf and a beaver.

An Indiana Tradition

Today in Indiana, soy and corn fields blanket the state and maple syrup tops pancakes. However, for untold ages, the state was nearly completely forested, and Native American families turned maple sap into cakes of maple sugar. Indigenous peoples revered maple sugar and syrup as natural sweeteners and as important parts of their culture. It is estimated that at the time of European settlement, forests, filled with native maples, covered over 90 percent of the state's 23 million acres (Carman, 2013).  Lacking ways to store syrup safely for long periods of time, Native Americans coverted processed maple sap into hard blocks of maple sugar for consumption and trade. In Indiana, maple sugar was the predominant maple product until the late 19th century. 

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Reed, R., photographer. (ca. 1908) Indian Woman Tapping Maple Sap. , ca. 1908. [Photograph]                  Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/92511364/.

An Ojibwa woman tapping a maple tree (c. 1908)

After the American Revolution, settlers flocked to Indiana and modified indigenous methods of harvesting and processing. By1840, the state became the country's fourth largest producer of maple syrup, producing the equivalent of 5,628,970 gallons of syrup, an amount nearly four times larger than what today's top-producing state (Vermont) bottled in 2020. However, maple sugar and syrup production declined with Indiana's forest cover and changing society. With the advent of the sawmill in 1860, extensive commercial forest clearing operations began. Indiana's forests provided fuel and lumber to the rapidly growing state and country, and thousands of saw mills helped in supply building materials during Reconstruction after the Civil War.

 

Other crops began to dominate the agricultural landscape. Most row crops, such as corn and soybeans, that could be mechanized were preferred over the production of maple syrup. Also, new sweeteners came on to the market such as corn syrup or sugar from sugar beets, creating a competition for the consumer’s sweet tooth. Over the past century, world wars, urban migration, The Great Depression, and declining available labor on farms contributed to additional major reductions in maple syrup production.

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Gathering sap using oxen 

Detroit Publishing Co, P. Gathering Sap in a Maple Sugar Camp. United States Vermont, None.                   [Between 1900 and 1906] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,                               https://www.loc.gov/item/2016805916/.

Historic American Buildings Survey, C. & Arzola, R. R. (1933) Chellberg Farm, Sugar Shack, 900                 North Mineral Springs Road, Porter, Porter County, IN. Indiana Porter County Porter, 1933.                 Documentation Compiled After. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,                           https://www.loc.gov/item/in0437/.

A sugar shack, Chellberg Farm, Porter County, In.

For 100 years, between 1840 and 1940, the US Agricultural Census regularly tracked maple sugar  and syrup production in Indiana (Table 1). However, maple production in Indiana declined so significantly that after 1940 (51,113 gallons), the the Agricultural Census merged maple product sales into other reporting categories and stopped reporting production in gallons for the next 62 years. 

Table 1. Indiana Maple syrup production, 1840 to 1940 

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Originally, maple syrup was processed and turned into hard sugar cakes in order to safely store it. This is why for 1840 and 1850, there was no maple syrup reported and why maple sugar was produced in greater abundance until the 1890s. In order to compare the production totals across a century, researchers converted the maple sugar into its equivalent in gallons by multiplying the weight by 1.51. 

Note the preciptious drop-off in production between 1920 and 1930. Many small-holder farmers, who had been producing the majority of maple sugar and syrup in the state, lost their farms in the Great Depression. 

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References

Carman, Sam F. 2013. Indiana forest management history and practices. In: Swihart, Robert K.;                  Saunders, Michael R.; Kalb, Rebecca A.; Haulton, G. Scott; Michler, Charles H., eds. 2013. The          Hardwood Ecosystem Experiment: a framework for studying responses to forest management.              Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-P-108. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest                  Service, Northern Research Station: 12-23.

For the past 20 years, a new crop of maple syrup producers has started tapping trees and supply is steadily increasing as new technology is playing a role in production efficiencies. In 2020, the state only accounted for 0.6% of total USA production, however this is up 20% over the previous year. There are also advances in newly discovered benefits of maple syrup for human and environmental health.