Have you ever wondered how maple got big? How it went from a subsistence crop to a farmer's sideline, to a product that could mount a flavor challenge to pumpkin spice? Well the answer may surprise you: it was the Maple King who made it happen.
Who was the Maple King? George C. Cary. And how can you learn more about him? By reading "Maple King: The Making of a Maple Syrup Empire" by Matthew M. Thomas, a fascinating and well-written book about a personality that looms as large in the (relatively small) world of maple as Rockefeller does in oil, Carnegie in steel, and the Great Gatsby did in your high school English class.
"The Maple King," is the story of Cary's life as well as the story of the commodification of maple syrup. It is as academic as a history text, but entertaining enough to make a reader wonder when the movie rights will be sold. There are antic-prone travelling salesmen, epic train journeys, New York City eateries, women on the side, a stock market crash, bankruptcy and sudden death between this book's covers. And plenty of the action takes place in the roaring twenties. What's not to love!? We've already purchased our popcorn.
Thomas starts by describing just how different the maple business was in the nineteenth century from what it is today. For those of you who have read either The Maple Sugar Book, or Maple Sugarin' in Vermont, the narrative covers familiar terrain by describing maple sugaring---and by that, we mean the boiling of maple sap down to actual sugar---as an ancillary springtime activity on the farm or rural homesteads of northeastern United States and southeastern Canada during that period. What you wouldn't have known was that people like Patrick J. Towle of Towle's Log Cabin Syrup Company (purveyors of what we sugar makers pejoratively call "the fake stuff" since 1887) were actually responsible for creating a national market for table syrup as such. In fact, without the marketing efforts of Log Cabin and the like, it would have been harder for maple producers to transition from selling sugar to selling syrup when, after the Civil War, the price of cane sugar dropped to below the price of maple sugar for the first (and all) time, and for that and other reasons became more popular than maple.
Cary's reign as Maple King spanned that whole transition, and then some. But we're getting ahead of ourselves, for one of the most interesting parts of Cary's story occurs before he's a maple man at all, and is theatrical in its serendipity (cue the dramatic music, here).
Cary started life as a member of the merchant class in a small town in northern Maine. He was educated at public school, attended college, and began his working life as a rural school teacher and local farm-machinery salesman. Just a year after Cary took up work as a travelling grocery salesman, however, he started selling maple sugar accidentally. Hard pressed to make a grocery sale in Craftsbury, Vermont, Cary agreed to take a large amount of maple sugar as payment for an order instead of cash. His bosses were none too pleased, and told Cary to turn the sugar into money. Cary, who would show himself to be capable of that alchemy until the end, did just that. While on the road once again, Cary convinced a tobacco salesman to use maple sugar in his plug tobacco instead of cane sugar, at a savings to the tobacco company. The switch stuck, and pretty soon, Cary was out on his own, buying up almost all of the maple sugar made in Vermont and selling it to big tobacco. He was, as such, the first to consolidate the small maple crops of thousands of farmers, create a standard maple product, and sell it in bulk, the precursor of how maple syrup is traded today.
The rest, as they say, is history, including the transition from sugar to syrup, the boom and bust of Cary's businesses, and with it St. Johnsbury, Vermont, the creation of the Fédération des producteurs acéricoles du Québec, the maple cartel that grew from the need to compete with the Maple King and that still sets global prices today, and the legacy---still going strong---of finding new and different ways to sell maple products.
"Maple King" is a good, fast read that will teach you your maple history while holding your interest with more than just places and dates. While Thomas doesn't stray far from his original source materials, he gives the reader enough extra to truly enjoy imagining the life and times of maple's own magnate.
Maple Sugarin' In Vermont: A Sweet History by Betty Ann Lockhart is a perfect fair-weather read for the Vermont history buff, but has hidden gems for all.
With a tone that toggles between history text and folktale, Maple Sugarin' In Vermont: A Sweet History by Betty Ann Lockhart traces the story of Vermont Maple from the early recorded history of colonization to the middle of the 20th Century.
Although there are some unfortunate moments---such as the author's reopening of the closed case as to who discovered maple---and despite the all-but-inevitable dryness of some of the weedy historical material, the book nevertheless left this reader hoping that Ms. Lockhart was well into her work on a sequel. Please, Ms. Lockhart, for your next book, take us into the contemporary era of Vermont maple, with attention to the back-to-the-land and organic food movements, the incredible recent industry consolidation, run-ins with labeling authorities, and (yes, selfishly) the backyard sugarmaking revolution currently underway among young people here!
Maple Sugarin' is organized chronologically as much as it is thematically and opens with the Abenaki and early settlers. Ms. Lockhart's treatment of the early recorded history of maple sugaring in Vermont is disappointing only in its suggestion that scholars are still at odds as to whether settlers from lands with no sugaring tradition could possibly have taught peoples having logged (tens?) of thousands of years in sugar country how to produce sugar from the maple tree. (For, surely that argument was satisfactorily dispatched by the prior scholarship of Helen Nearing in The Maple Sugar Book.) Nevertheless, these first chapters contain some gems; the story Lockhart tells of early sugar making is well illustrated both by words and by photographs of authentic and reproduction tools and equipment used by the first Vermont sugar makers. The rudimentary nature of early methods will impress any modern sugar maker with just how easy we have it!
After deftly weaving a tale of the advent of the 1791 sugaring season in with the story of Vermont becoming the fourteenth state of the Union (both occurred on March 4th of that year), Lockhart turns in Chapters 3 through 7 to Vermont sugarmaking as it existed in the early days of the Union through the Civil War. With entire chapters devoted to Thomas Jefferson's first exposure to Vermont maple (and subsequent failure to bring maple to Monticello) and the role consumption of maple sugar played in the Vermont abolition movement, Lockhart nevertheless pays scrupulous attention as well to advances in equipment and methods during this time, bringing us from wooden buckets and spiles and kettle systems to the advent of the evaporator, the sugar house, and all-things metal (even metal tubing---an experiment that would fail and keep on failing until its eventual demise in the 20th Century).
The balance of the book chronicles the rise of the Vermont maple industry through the middle of the 20th Century. According to Lockhart, the turn of the 20th Century is about when syrup starts surpassing sugar as the maple crop of choice. Ironically, it is also when Vermont producers start getting organized through the Vermont Maple "Sugar" Makers Association, and otherwise, to advocate for the protection and promotion of their crop. Lockhart goes on to detail the contributions of such notables as George C. Cary ("The Maple King") and the Proctor family. A reader's reward for making it through the dry-but-important subsequent exploration of the legal and regulatory environment of the era are the absolute gems at the end. Chapter 13 contains entertaining tales of and by actual Vermont sugarmakers, and Chapter 15 a primer on odd tools of the trade that will pique the interest of any peruser of antiques. The book ends, as any book on maple probably should, with recipes---these ones a bit basic but purporting to be authentic to old Vermont.
Any maple history enthusiast will find value in reading this thorough and, at times, supremely entertaining book. Widely available online and orderable at your local bookstore, if you or someone you know loves all things maple, give Betty Ann Lockhart's Maple Sugarin' In Vermont; A Sweet History a read one of these days!
On Teaspoon of Sugar, we write about maple sugaring, maple syrup, starting and running a small business, and living the sweet life here in beautiful, downtown Montpelier, Vermont.