Sugar Bush

Spring is on its way. I know it still seems a long way off, especially since we recently received almost a foot of snow over a period of four days, but spring is on its way. I know this, not because it’s the beginning of Major League Soccer, or NCAA March Madness, or because pitchers and catchers are reporting in Arizona and Florida, but because when I head to work in the morning there is sun, and when I stop in the evening there are still traces of the sun’s light. The days are getting longer. Sugar bush season is here. That makes me think of Charles Ingalls in Little House in the Big Woods giving Laura and Mary their first taste of maple sugar in little brown cakes “with beautifully crinkled edges” that “crumbled in their mouths” (p. 121). Later, the Ingalls family travels to their grandfather’s home to help tap the maple trees and celebrate the coming spring season.

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Stereograph from a series by A.F. Styles of sugaring in Vermont, circa 1870. New York Public Library

While many Americans are familiar with maple syrup, maple sugar is less common, but the process for making both was largely the same. Pioneers were not the first to start tapping maple-sugar trees. Within Wilder’s Big Woods in Wisconsin, the Ojibwe, Dakota, Potawatomi, and Menominee all made maple sugar. When the warm days and cold nights of spring reawaken the sap, collectors tap a tree by making an axe cut or drilling a hole for a spiel. Then, as the sap travels through the tree awakening its photosynthesizing processes, some of the sap drips out through the spiel into a waiting birch-bark basket or pail. The sweet-tasting watery liquid is poured into kettles to boil over an open flame or in an evaporator in a sugar shack. Depending on the quantity of sugar to water, it could take between twenty-five to fifty gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. For sugar, the sap is boiled past the syrup stage until nearly all of the water is gone and then ground into sugar. For American Indians and early settlers, the sugar was lighter to carry and could be stored for months on end. It was also a welcome treat after the long cold winter.

I have been sugar bushing several times now. The smell of fires mingling with the boiling sap is magical. If your fingers start getting cold, you can always step near the boil kettle for a moment to inhale the warmth of the sugary flame. To find your own sugar bush this year, particularly those of you in the Northeast or Midwest, look for your local maple-syrup operation to see if it offers tours or check out a nearby nature conservatory or center. Many nature centers offer spring sugar bush special events. For those of you who live farther afield or out on the Great Plains where trees are scarce, check out the Fenner Nature Center’s Maple Syrup Festival for modern pictures of syrup collection, and the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary for a sugaring collection that showcases traditional practices.

Jacob Jurss

 

 

 

Buffalo Blankets and Heated Seats

I woke to single-digit temperatures and negative wind chills the other day. It wasn’t the first day of cold, nor will it be the last for this winter. It’s only December, which has always been a busy travel time for me, and keeping an eye out for snowstorms occupies much of my travel plans. My little family has crisscrossed the frozen Midwest dozens of times. Tied for our most harrowing journeys are (1) getting caught in a South Dakota snowstorm that forced us to find shelter at a ranch house and (2) driving from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan across the Mackinac Bridge less than a half hour before it was closed due to high winds and snow. Both of these trips happened around New Year’s, and both were made in the little rusted-out two-wheel-drive Pontiac-Grand-Am-that-could.

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Cutter in Cedar Creek, Dakota Territory. South Dakota State Historical Society

The Grand Am had a little more horsepower than Almanzo Wilder’s cutter had when he and Laura Ingalls were caught in the horse-drawn vehicle as a snowstorm roared across the frozen plains of eastern Dakota Territory (Pioneer Girl, pp. 264–66). Even though the Grand Am’s heater worked (occasionally), I did think about finding a buffalo blanket for the emergency bag that we re-packed each winter.

In thinking about this post, I wondered what the difference was between a cutter and a sleigh. Thanks to the Internet, it did not take me long to find out that largely it is a question of size.1 Cutters are a type of sleigh. Generally, sleighs accommodated larger groups, while cutters were sufficient for two people. Cutters were usually used for courting, as Wilder recalled in These Happy Golden Years in the chapter titled “Jingle Bells” (pp. 89–94). A racing cutter was likely the inspiration for James Pierport’s 1857 tune “Jingle Bells.” 2

Re-reading Wilder’s dangerous journey through temperatures dipping 45 degrees below zero, I’m thankful for a warm apartment and for finally having a four-wheel drive vehicle. Throughout the afternoon as I wrote of cutters and sleighs, the temperature warmed to the teens and low twenties, but I know another winter is upon us. If the last five winters are any indication, I’ll soon be driving in the dark, with wind-chills somewhere around negative thirty or forty and fifty-mile-per-hour winds whipping my vehicle back and forth. In that moment, I know I will be thankful for heated seats.

Jacob Jurss

 


1. Kimberly Turtenwald, “The Difference between a Cutter & a Sleigh,” Gone Outdoors, goneoutdoors.com/difference-between-cutter-sleigh-8560748.html; “Sled” and “Cutter: Sleigh,” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com.

2. “History: One Horse Open Sleigh,” Equestrian Culture, equestrianculture.com/custom_type/one-horse-open-sleigh. See also Joel Brown, “Jingle Bells’ History Takes Surprising Turn, BU Today, Dec. 8, 2016, www.bu.edu/today/2016/jingle-bells-history/.

Reflections on LauraPalooza and the International Wilder Experience

The vast conference room had few empty chairs as LauraPalooza go underway. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

The vast conference room had few empty chairs as LauraPalooza got underway. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

In July, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association gathered scholars, amateur historians, and avid “bonnetheads” in Brookings, South Dakota, for LauraPalooza. The association is a worldwide, nonprofit organization whose membership is dedicated to preserving the legacy and encouraging the research of everything related to Wilder. Those who attended LauraPalooza, including myself, wanted to learn more about the famous author who introduced millions of readers to the American frontier.

The conference did not disappoint. From novelists and academics to translators and meteorologists, the presenters were varied, and each one looked at unique facets of the Wilder experience. For me, having grown up on the prairie that Wilder writes about, the session covering non-American perspectives of the pioneer family was especially interesting. I find it amazing how Wilder’s novels, and now Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, speak to readers everywhere. How can you understand the harshness of a prairie winter if you have never experienced one—the wind blowing ice into your eyes as you struggle to figure out where you are in a vast white landscape? Even though some of the commentators at LauraPalooza had never seen snow or the limitless prairie until well into adulthood, Wilder’s writing had forged a connection with them and thrust the author into international stardom.

Wilder scholars William Anderson and John E. Miller took time to speak with attendees. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

Wilder scholars William Anderson and John E. Miller took time to speak with attendees. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

Japanese translator Yumiko Taniguchi, for example, was one of those children who, though living in a mountainous region of Japan, connected with the Ingalls family’s struggles on the open prairie during the long winter of 1880–1881. Little did Yumiko know at the time that she would go on to translate all of Wilder’s books for new generations of Japanese children. From the earliest translation of The Long Winter, the first of Wilder’s books to be published in Japanese, prairie life and frontier themes worked their way into Japanese popular culture. According to presenter Hisayo Ogushi, in addition to the television show Little House on the Prairie, Japanese comic books and resorts give visitors the “Laura Ingalls Wilder” experience. Both Taniguchi and Hisayo spoke about how the resoluteness of the Ingalls family and the strength of character they found in Laura made them fans of her books.

In another vibrant presentation, Eddie Higgins talked about the joy and confusion of reading the Little House books for the first time in a version of English—American English—that sometimes seemed as obscure as Japanese. For Higgins, growing up in England, it became a matter of deciding whether Wilder’s words were simply antiquated or different. Scenes like the one in which Laura and Carrie go to the Loftus store to buy Pa suspenders for Christmas made Higgins pause and reread the words over and over again. In England, “suspenders” refers to what we in the United States would call a woman’s garter belt (the conference hall in Brookings burst into laughter at this revelation). Other words, however, can give even Wilder’s home audience pause, much as they did in the Pioneer Girl Project staff post New Words. Higgins and young American readers today may try to imagine what a “pie plant” is, but, in Wilder’s day, it was simply another name for rhubarb.

In contrast to the lack of technology in Wilder's day, the facilities at South Dakota State University were top-notch. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

In contrast to the lack of technology in Wilder’s day, the facilities at South Dakota State University were top-notch. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

In reminiscing about their first experiences with the Ingalls family, LauraPalooza presenters also shared their exuberance for works like Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, which gives more detail to the Little House stories that, though they were worlds away, made these women dream of life on the American frontier. In the end, their comments about the place, spirit, and community of the books gave me more insight into why Wilder’s work remains so popular.

Jennifer McIntyre