Where to do Maple Sugar in NJ: Howell Living History Farm

New Jersey has a dense winter and people are always looking for fun and exciting things with their family or significant others. Of course, there’s skating and skiing here, or sneaking up by the fireplace with a cup of steamy, hot cocoa.

But what if you do something else? How about maple sugaring? It’s a fun, delicious way to spend a winter afternoon, and it’s crazy as there are a number of events happening in the state, including Tenafly, Westfield, Mendham and Flemington.

But there is a farm in Hopewell Township, the Howell Living History Farm, a facility of the Mercer County Park Commission, where maples are sugared the old-fashioned way.

Kids collect sap from the maple trees. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Kids collect sap from the maple trees. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

What is maple sugaring?

Maple sugaring is the process of making maple syrup from the juices that naturally flow up and down between maple trees, said Kevin Watson, administrator and owner of Howell Living History Farm.

The syrup for pancakes is the result of a lot of work that starts with drilling holes in the maple trees. Depending on the size of the tree, people can drill one or three holes without damaging the tree, he said.

Jeb pulls the maple sap. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Jeb pulls the maple sap. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

What knocks the tree?

Watson said that tapping a tree requires drilling a small hole, half an inch or less, into the bark of the tree and drilling into the elephant of the tree, which is the long, hollow cells of the maple tree. From here, he hangs a spout and a bucket and collects the moisture for several weeks.

Maple water bucket. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Maple water bucket. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

The juice is then used in an evaporator. Boil a large pot of juice on the stove in a ratio of 40: 1 gallons of juice to gallons of syrup. “It takes 40 gallons of sap from a tree to make a gallon of maple syrup,” Watson said.

Maple flowering at Howell Living History Farm

Watson said it is a living historic farm. This means that the farm recreates life between 1890 and 1910.

So instead of tapping the sheep and sugaring with modern equipment like in Vermont, Howell Farm takes you back to a simpler time.

Jeb pulls a maple sled on the Howell Living History Farm (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Jeb pulls a maple sled on the Howell Living History Farm (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Visitors go out into the woods and knock down the maple trees. Others go out with a group of horses pulling a bob or cart and collecting the sap by taking full buckets off the trees and pouring the sap into the bobsleighs. These containers are then returned to the sugar hut on the farm, where the evaporator is used to boil the juice into syrup.

Tap the maple trees at Howell Living History Farm. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Tap the maple trees at Howell Living History Farm. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

“On the farm, we show the difference between life 100 years ago and life in our area today,” Watson said.

How was maple sugar discovered?

The history of maple sugaring dates back to pre-colonial times, he said. Native Americans used a version of wood knocking that did not drill a hole in the bark but cut a notch. Buckets made of birch bark, sewn with elder bark and sealed with pine resin were used, and the juice was collected in these homemade buckets.

Kids collect sap from the maple trees. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Kids collect sap from the maple trees. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Watson said it’s a great way to make local sugar in our area. For settlers, importing sugar from the West Indies was very expensive, so it’s a great way to get sugar in a climate where cane can’t be grown.

Kids collect sap from the maple trees. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Kids collect sap from the maple trees. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Over time, improvements have been made. The settlers realized that they could make a pin out of pieces of sumac – a small twig whose center would be dug, then a hole would be drilled in the tree and the twig would be inserted into the hole. They would then put a spout in it and a bucket would hang from it.

Indigenous Americans did not have an iron cauldron either. Therefore, stones were heated on the fire and the stones were poured into the homemade buckets to concentrate and boil the juice in place. As the settlers brought with them more sophisticated machines, they eventually made metal pins.

Maple Soup Trolley (Photo Source: Howell Living History Farm)

Maple Soup Trolley (Photo Source: Howell Living History Farm)

Boiling the juice to make sugar was durable. The concentration of sugar and starch in the juice is low and deteriorates over time. The juice lasts longer when boiled in sugar. Many early maple saccharification was the creation of sugar. The syrup could only be stored after the invention of canning.

What makes maple sugar interesting?

Watson said what’s interesting about the farm is that half of the maple flowering is done in their own period (1890-1910), which also includes horses pulling bobs or carts to collect moisture from the trees in the woods.

The other half of the process uses a more modern system in Vermont or other maple sugar states that involves a network of pipes that run down the hill and collect the moisture in a modern tank.

Jeb pulls the maple sap. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Jeb pulls the maple sap. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Education on the farm is part of the maple sugaring process. Farmers show how maple candy would have been made, as modern operations do today.

When can you go to Howell Living History Farm?

The tree-knocking event on the farm will take place on February 5th. This is the start of the maple sugar season.

Visitors can join Howell Farm’s expert lumberjacks to learn lessons about knocking out a backyard maple tree and cooking at home in syrup. The demonstration is open to a maximum of 25 participants. This is a free event. Just register online.

Kids collect sap from the maple trees. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Kids collect sap from the maple trees. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Then, on February 19 and February 26, maple sugaring on the farm from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Visitors help farmers split firewood. Seven cords of firewood are used throughout the season on the farm. That’s about 800 to 900 cubic feet of stacked firewood, Watson said.

Firewood sawing at the Howell Living History Farm. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Firewood sawing at the Howell Living History Farm. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Visitors then go out with horses and sledges to help farmers collect moisture in the woods. The syrup is then made in the wethouse and the finished product is tasted on whole-grain pancakes made from farm-grown wheat.

“Last year, we made 85 gallons of syrup out of 3,500 gallons of sap. Half of that sap was collected by visitors. About 2,000 gallons of sap is collected on the farm each year between visitors and horses,” Watson said.

Firewood splitting at Howell Living History Farm. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Firewood splitting at Howell Living History Farm. (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

The farm is free in the Mercer County Park Committee. Admission to the farm is always free. All they ask is to reserve space for wood knocking and maple sugaring.

There is a scent of maple syrup in the air at Howell Living History Farm!

Bottles of maple syrup with sweet maple syrup (photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

Bottles of maple syrup with sweet maple syrup (Photo source: Howell Living History Farm)

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