By Emily Koetsier, Collections Manager
Welcome to the third installment in our year-long series, “Machine of the Month.” As winter is slowly starting to give way to spring, and Vermont is known as one of the largest producers of a certain product, we are focusing on a small piece of technology used for Maple Sugaring.
All throughout New England, the practice of gathering sap from maple trees is well underway. Sap can only be gathered when the nights are freezing cold and the days are warming up. This freeze-thaw within the trees creates the necessary pressure for the sap to run. Tapping into the tree and gaining access to the sweet, flowing liquid has evolved and changed over the years, but in many ways has remained the same.
Sap is water within the tree that has taken in the frozen starches the tree stored over winter. Maple trees with higher sugar content in their sap are ideal for sugaring; sugar maples (Acer saccharum), black maples (Acer nigrum), and red maples (Acer rubrum) are varieties that have 2-5% sugar content in their sap.
To gain access to the sap, the trees are tapped. Tap holes are drilled one and a half inches deep to reach the sap wood and are no more than half an inch. Spiles are then tapped into the hole. Spiles are the spout that will pour the sap from the tree into the gathering implement; buckets and lines are both common today.
Over time, spiles have changed and evolved as sugaring has evolved. Spiles began as primitive pieces of reed or concave bark. Their basic function was to direct the flow of sap into the waiting container. Spiles soon evolved into whittled pieces of wood that were simple in shape and had the same purpose. As sugaring practices progressed, spiles started to be made of metal and small rings with hooks were developed to pair with them. The hooks were added so the spile could support the gathering container; in these cases, sap buckets. Galvanized spiles were developed with the hooks as part of their design. In more recent times, plastic spiles are molded in shape to attach to pipelines instead of buckets. Each evolution of the spile has allowed for a more efficient tapping processes, but has not changed the spile’s purpose: to direct sap out of the tree and into a waiting container. This important step in the sugaring process makes possible the delicious maple syrup we enjoy each spring!
In the year 2020, 36 cultural institutions from every corner of Vermont will collaborate on a suite of exhibitions and events on the theme 2020 Vision: Seeing the World Through Technology. Billings Farm & Museum will be participating through an installment of Windows to the Past and a Machine of the Month blog posting. Billings Farm & Museum will reopen April 10th and 11th for our Baby Farm Animal Celebration. Check in regularly for updates and details on what we have to offer!