When the Sugar Bird Sings: The History of Maple Syrup in Lanark County


105 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Bibliography
ISBN 1-896182-47-X
DDC 338.1'7364'0971382




Reviewed by J.H. Galloway

J.H. Galloway is a professor of geography at the University of Toronto.


When the Sugar Bird Sings is an anecdotal, somewhat whimsical, and
well-illustrated local history, but it is not an authoritative account
of what clearly once was an important rural industry of eastern Ontario.
The author, a resident of Lanark County, provides just enough
information to show the manufacture of maple syrup and sugar as an
unexpected but welcome source of income for pioneer farmers that has
remained an economically significant activity to this day. However, she
does not have the data (such as farm accounts) to show how much money it
brought in or still brings in, compared with growing grain, managing
orchards, or raising cattle. Nor does she analyze its place in the
annual round of work. For example, was the farmer’s time more
rewardingly spent in the sugar bush or in lumbering?

The main theme of the book is the very slow process of technological
improvement. Smith describes the bark containers used by Native people
and then the simple kettles and cans that were used during much of the
19th century. This equipment was remarkably unsophisticated compared to
what Caribbean planters used more than a century earlier to turn cane
juice into sugar. Only in the last years of the 19th century did newly
designed evaporators come onto the market. Tractors eventually took over
from horse and sleighs for gathering the sap, and the use of plastic
pipes to carry the sap from tree to boiling house is a very recent

The manufacture of maple sugar and syrup has remained a small-scale
activity, perhaps because the very short season makes investing capital
in one large central boiling house for all the producers in a district
uneconomic. It is today part remunerative activity, part folk festival.
Claudia Smith seems to like it this way.


Smith, Claudia., “When the Sugar Bird Sings: The History of Maple Syrup in Lanark County,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 24, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/4505.