EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third installment in our year-long examination of the adventures of Knox County farmer Harvey Devoe, who kept a diary for the year 1861, which has been annotated and published by historian Alan Borer and is available through online retailers. The series began on Jan. 4. It continued on Feb. 1. Harvey's spelling and punctuation have been left as they originally appear in the diary.
As March came in like a lamb in 1861, Harvey Devoe was busy at one of the 19th century farmer's most important tasks: sugaring. In those days, one didn't hop in the buggy and zip down to Walmart for a bag of sugar or some maple syrup.
Farmers had to make it for themselves, and the time to do it was late winter, when the constant up and down of freezing and thawing would knead sugar maple tree trunks like today we squeeze a tube of toothpaste.
This squeezing would send a weakly sweet sap upward in the tree, waking the tree up from its winter slumber. If a farmer drove a metal spile a couple of inches into the wood, some of the sap could be bled off from the tree into buckets. Once the buckets were collected, the watery sap would be poured into a large tub or trough over a fire.
Water would be boiled out of the sap until the sweetness was concentrated as a syrup. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, so the boiling process was long and relentless, going round the clock to make the most of the supply the few short weeks it was available.
Since crystalized sugar was preferable for some uses, the farmer could also continue boiling the sap until all water was removed, leaving crystals of maple sugar. Ideally, the farmer would hope to make enough syrup and sugar to supply his family's needs for the year, plus have a little left over to sell to others who did not make enough for themselves.
March 1, 1861, was warm with sunshine, though a chance of rain. Harvey took advantage of the weather to chop some wood, as the maple sugaring took a constant supply of wood to feed the fires running constantly. He noted in his diary that Jacob Leedy, a resident of nearby Ankenytown, had passed away.
Leedy was one of the pioneer settlers of the area, arriving around 1814 to join his relatives in what became known as Leedy Valley, the land along the East Fork of the Kokosing River. Leedy's farm was where the Toby Run crosses Ohio 95 north of Ankenytown to join in the East Fork.
Leedy was laid to rest in the Owl Creek Cemetery two days later on a rainy Sunday. Devoe remarked that Leedy was quite an old man.
The big event of the following day was going into Fredericktown to vote for the next postmaster. As Alan Borer points out in his notes to the diary, this seems odd, considering that postmaster positions were appointed jobs. Since Abraham Lincoln had just been elected, he would of course be appointing new postmasters all over the country.
Presumeably the voting was local residents deciding who to put forth as a suitable candidate for postmaster, as the president certainly didn't know all the people in all the small towns throughout the fast-growing nation. Lincoln appointed George W. Ball postmaster later in the month, a fact that Harvey does not record in his diary, possibly meaning that he favored someone else for the job.
On Monday the 4th, Devoe opened the sugar camp, but didn't run much, as the weather had turned windy and cold. “Froze a little,” was his comment on that. The following day brought snow squalls.
Devoe and his sugaring partner, Elijah Wheeler, got 10 pounds of sugar made before the cold drove them home. It was simply too windy and cold to stay huddled all day around an open fire, so on the following day, they started cutting wood for building a sugar shack around the fire, so they'd be able to go full bore, regardless of the weather.
The structure was erected and covered with clapboard in just a few days. Meanwhile, the sugaring went on, even as they built the shed around the fire.
As Harvey details the building of the sugar house, he also mentions seeing a few large owls about and taking shots at them with his rifle, but missing. Borer notes that farmers of this period often chased off owls, fearing that the big birds would kill their small livestock.
What owls tend to feed on mostly, however, is rodents. Thus farmers like Harvey Devoe were actually hurting themselves by chasing off owls. It seems particularly futile in the valley of the Kokosing River, an area so populated with owls that it was known as Owl Creek (“kokosing” being the settlers' approximation of the Native American word for that exact phrase).
Three inches of snow fell going into the following weekend, but thawed that Saturday. Harvey noted the sap was now running fast, and they collected nine barrels of sap that morning, yielding 22 pounds of sugar. Snow and cold returned the next few days, slowing the sap down again.
By Tuesday March 12, the farmers were starting to run the camp 24-hours-a-day, keeping the fire boiling sap all night long. Devoe and Wheeler took turns sleeping and tending the fire in the sugar shack for the week where production was highest.
As the month wore on, intermittent work at the sugar camp continued, though sap gradually slowed to a trickle. This gave Harvey the chance to work on moving into the farmhouse he and his wife had rented near his father's farm.
He bargained with William Strang to buy a table and chairs and additional household furniture for his new house, finally agreeing to pay $4. Strang was moving out of state soon, and was ready to part with a lot of furniture. Next Harvey bought a stove and other household items at an estate sale.
Some days that wintry March were better for nesting at home. Harvey's entry for Thursday the 21st says, “At Home West wind, cold and cloudy ... Freezing and Snowing done the choars ... set a round the stove ... and read Sheled some corn regular winter weather."
During the last few days of the month, Harvey noted the deaths of elderly widow Jane Eliott and the young wife of his friend David Willits, also named Jane. She was only 24 years old. On Saturday the 30th , Harvey and his wife moved into their rental home and were paid a visit by their landlady, Mrs. Cummings and her teenage farmhands (possibly grandchildren?) Wilson and Ann.
On the last day of the month, Harvey noted that the sap flow had died so low it was no longer worthwhile to attempt processing. Sugar season was over. Before going home, he said he “done some jumping,” proving that even in those days of hard farm labor, a little exercise was a good way to perk yourself up.