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A taste that resonates through time

(Photo by Emily Thurlow) Rob Hoogs stirs the fire during a demonstration of Native American maple sugaring techniques at the Bidwell House Museum.

Maple syrup is ubiquitous in pantries and breakfast eateries in the U.S., but how did it get there?

The sweet and sticky pancake topping was first introduced to European settlers by Native Americans and a Saturday, March 23 event at the Bidwell House Museum in Monterey will detail how that historical process has evolved over time. There, Rob Hoogs, who has been involved with the museum since 2007 and is current the president of the Board of Trustees, will demonstrate Native American techniques for collecting and cooking sap.

Maple syrup was very important to Native Americans, said Hoogs. They referred to the season of winter as the maple moon or sugar moon.

“It’s estimated that 12 percent of their diets were comprised of maple sugar,” he said. “When the colonists came, they learned from the Native Americans how to make maple syrup and maple sugar, and gave maple syrup the name ‘Indian Molasses’.”

To gather the sap, Native Americans cut a v-shaped groove in the bark of maple trees, which they allowed to drink into a pail that was folded together by birch bark. The maple sap was boiled down by dropping hot rocks from an open fire into a hollowed-out log. The hot rocks, Hoogs said during a recent demonstration with this newspaper, caused the sap to steam and boil the sap into a sweet syrup.

Organizers decided to host this maple sugaring event because they felt that the topic is not only interesting, but also informative in a very practical way, said Heather Kowalski, executive director of the museum.

“Almost everyone living in New England has had some experience with maple syrup but is likely not aware of effort it takes to produce, even today. Seeing the way it was done historical will likely be even more surprising,” she said. “As a museum that is only open May through October, we also want to find ways to engage with the community in the off-season. This year that included a very well-attended monthly history talk screening at the Monterey Community Center and now this educational program on maple syrup.”

Last year, the Bidwell House began telling the part of the Native American story detailing not only the history of their woodland experience, but also through archaeological evidence and stone tools and projectile points, medicinal uses of plants, agricultural practices, woodland hunting village as well as active management of the woodlands including underburning, woodland trails and maple sugaring. While some historical sites began tours citing the arrival of colonists, the museum feels it’s important for visitors to understand that the land on which the museum sits had an extensive history of settlement and use long before Adonijah Bidwell arrived in the area in 1750, said Kowalski.

For several years, under the guidance of the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area, the museum — a private, nonprofit — has been developing The Native American Interpretive Trail. Housatonic Heritage brought together a number of organizations who might be interested in collaborating on telling the Native American story in the Upper Housatonic River Valley in Massachusetts and Connecticut, which included naturally the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans.

“The ultimate aim is to have a number of interpretive sites which locals and tourists can visit to learn about the long and important history of the Native Americans to this region and to the country as a whole,” said Hoogs.

For Hoogs, the tours and demonstrations also provide an opportunity to dispel myths that Native Americans were here, settlers came and the natives left. This story, he said, interrelates with the settlement of the Berkshires, and specifically of Tyringham and the Bidwell House, which was built by Adonijah Bidwell, the first minister to the new frontier in Township No. 1.

The creation of that township, which became Tyringham in 1762 and Monterey in 1947, could only happen after the Stockbridge Indians agreed to settle in Stockbridge, formerly Indiantown, in 1736, said Hoogs. They agreed to sell the land for the four new townships in 1737, he said.

Following Hoogs’ demonstration, participants are invited to drive about 2 miles to the sugar house at Lowland Farm/Berkshire Maple Products at 129 New Marlborough Road to see how modern maple syrup is produced and partake in some samples.

Roger Tyron and his father started sugaring maple trees 33 years ago as an alternative to their dairy business.
Annually, the farm makes between 250 to 350 gallons of maple syrup each year and has approximately 1,500 maple taps out, said Tyron.

The March 23 event starts at 10 a.m. and is free, but donations are welcomed.

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