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Reflections: March marks the dawn of spring on the prairie

This 19th-century illustration shows Native Americans collecting and boiling maple sap to create maple syrup and maple sugar treats.
This 19th-century illustration shows Native Americans collecting and boiling maple sap to create maple syrup and maple sugar treats.

For our pioneer ancestors, March finally offered the first real evidence of spring on the prairie.

As the days slowly lengthened, the additional daylight was welcomed after our Native American and white pioneer forebears managed to get through the deep winter months of January and, especially, February.

While snow was still frequent, the amounts were far less (at least in general; the occasional March blizzard still blew up out of the northwest) than in the preceding two months, and what snow did fall tended to melt much faster than it did weeks before.

Some Native American traditions named March’s full moon the Worm Moon. Others called it the Crow Moon, while others referred to it as the Sugar Moon. Each of those names is descriptive of an important part of Native American life.

The Worm Moon refers to those longer days and sun-thawed ground, with the occasional warm night that persuade earthworms to crawl out of their burrows for the first time. Even Native Americans used nightcrawlers and red worms for bait on the fishhooks they received in trade. And I suppose their ancestors used them on the bone hooks they fashioned in the centuries before white fur traders arrived as well.

Also in March, crows are noisily busy foraging among the unlucky animals that failed to live through the long winter. The retreating snow cover annually reveals this bit of spring bounty for the noisy and surprisingly intelligent birds, as well as the other scavengers who make up Mother Nature’s cleanup crew. A gregarious and social bunch, crows are not easy to dismiss, and their noisy congregations during this early season before true spring arrives undoubtedly gave the month’s full moon its alternate name.

And finally, the Sugar Moon name is a reflection of another of Mother Nature’s annual gifts, the rising of maple tree sap. Clear, watery, and nearly tasteless, maple sap can nonetheless be processed into about the only sweet that existed before Europeans arrived in North America. For it was the Europeans who brought the industrious honeybee to these shores.

But in those pre-honeybee days – and forever after – March’s maple sap was collected and boiled down to create the maple syrup and maple sugar treats so valued by the indigenous people of North America and then by the Europeans who supplanted them.

Since maple sap is only about 2 percent sugar, it takes a lot of it – 40 or 50 gallons – to boil down into a gallon of syrup or eight pounds of sugar.

It also takes a lot of firewood to boil the sap down over fires carefully tended and kept burning 24 hours a day.

In the pre-fur trade era, boiling was done in bark or hollowed wood vessels by placing rocks that had been heated red hot in fires into the sap. After the arrival of European fur traders, iron and brass kettles became available that could be heated directly over fires.

The first task for maple sugarers was tapping maple trees by cutting a diagonal slash in the bark and fixing a bark spout at the low end. The sap ran mostly during the daytime, running fastest when temperatures went below freezing at night and warmed up during the day.

One account of a Native American family group in Michigan during the 1760s reported that the eight men and women in the party tapped some 700 trees in order to gather around 13,700 gallons of maple sap, which collected from the taps in birch bark buckets. When the buckets were full of sap, they were taken to the sugaring camp where they were dumped into large tanks assembled from animal hides. The sap was dipped out of the holding tanks and poured into the 12 iron and brass kettles ranging from 12 to 20 gallons in size the group used.

Fires were kept burning under all 12 kettles around the clock, and during a month’s time, 1,900 pounds of maple sugar and 36 gallons of maple syrup were produced.

As you might guess, the process was pretty labor and materials intensive. It takes about a cord of wood – a stack measuring 4 feet wide by 4 feet high by 8 feet long – to produce around nine gallons of syrup in a modern sugaring operation, suggesting it would have taken at least 30 cords of wood to boil enough sap down into the 1,900 pounds of sugar and 36 gallons of syrup like the Native American family group.

Not everyone was kept busy tending fires and collecting sap, of course. Some of the men were detailed to hunt and fish to feed the group while they worked. And according to the account we have of the process, the group also ate 300 pounds of maple sugar while they worked. According to one expert, two pounds of maple sugar a day is sufficient to feed a mature adult. But, clearly, the bit of dietary variety provided by fish and other game the hunters brought in was undoubtedly welcomed.

We don’t do much maple sugaring around these parts any more, but at one time it was not uncommon – thus the name given to Sugar Grove in honor of the sugar maples that made up many of the trees there when the settlers arrived. As late as March 1893, Kendall County Record Editor John Marshall noted, “Pure maple syrup from the old Long Grove sugar camp is not bad eating with good warm biscuits or hotcakes.”

Nowadays, we buy our maple syrup at the grocery store or at specialty shops while on vacation, and we don’t have to wait until March to enjoy it, either. But the nightcrawlers still wriggle out of the ground on a warm, damp March night, and raucous murders of crows still gather to feed on the unfortunates who did not survive another northern Illinois winter as the nights grow a little bit shorter and a little bit warmer under the full March moon.

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