The Sweet, Sweet Science of Maple Syrup: An Update on the MSU Sugar House Project

The Sweet, Sweet Science of Maple Syrup: An Update on the MSU Sugar House Project

While Jack and I plan our field research on the old sugar bush that once stood in Sandford Woodlot, we have continued to do background research on the site.  With help from Whitney Miller, the good folks at the MSU Archives and Historical Collections, and archaeologist Matt Thomas, we have found out a great deal more about this past MSU facility.

Built in 1915, the Forestry Department established this sugar house in order to make better use of the Sanford Woodlot, educate students about the process of creating maple sugar and syrup, and to conduct experiments in order to make the process more productive (1915 Dept. of Agricultural Education Report to the MI Board of Agriculture). While this sugar house clearly had educational and economic purposes, learning about the scientific research that took place there has been one of the most interesting and eye-opening aspects of this project.

Image of Sanford Woodlot sugar house, date unknown. Image from May 1973 Michigan Science in Action periodical, pg. 12. Document on file at MSU Archives (MSU info files,, Sanford Natural Area folder).

When you think about making maple syrup, the process seems pretty straight forward: you tap a tree, collect its sap, and then boil the sap down to make maple syrup. This process has been used for hundreds of years, yet there are many factors that can be explored to improve one’s ability to make maple syrup. Investigating these factors was the job of those who ran the sugar house at MSU.

While documentation from the first few decades of research at the Sanford sugar house is scarce, one of the early projects was conducted to understand the effects of different numbers of taps and collection buckets on a single tree’s sap production and health (1916 Forestry Department Report to MI Board of Agriculture).

In later years, under the direction of Putnam W. Robbins, a number of different projects were launched. Robbins and his students continued research on tree tapping, examining what areas of the tree are most productive when tapped and when tapping should begin (Douglass 1955; Robbins 1948). In the early 1940s, they also collaborated with the MSU Weather Bureau to study the effects of weather on sap runs. Through this study, they not only narrowed down what types of weather affect sap runs and when it is best to start tapping, but also began broadcasting maple sap-related weather reports on the radio to assist farmers in planning their sap collection.  It is these radio broadcasts which are credited for an increase in production compared to other parts of the state and country during this time (Robbins 1954).

Plate 3 from Robbin’s 1948 thesis (pg. 13) exploring the effects of tap placement on sap production. This image shows trees with taps and collection buckets focused on the side of the trees that received the most sunlight.

Another research project undertaken during this time investigated the role of micro-organisms on both slowing the run of sap from tap holes and their subsequent impact on the quality of the maple syrup produced. Through this work, researchers identified the impacts of micro-organisms and developed a method, paraformaldehyde pellets, to introduce a germicide into a tap hole, helping to increase the amount of time that sap would run and eliminate contaminants that reduced the quality of maple syrup made from that sap (Costilow et al. 1962; Sheneman et al. 1958). In subsequent years, research conducted by other organizations have found that the use of these pellets affected the healing process in trees, leading to a ban on their use (Perkins 2010), but the effects of micro-organisms outlined in these studies is still an important factor to consider for those trying to profit from maple syrup production today.

Because of this research focus, the Sanford sugar bush was a central player in the broader sphere of the maple products industry during the early- to mid-1900s.  It was one of the few sugar bushes in the country that served primarily as a research laboratory, and research conducted within its boundaries had wide reaching impacts across the upper Midwest and Northeast. Who knew that such a small building could have so big an impact.

Author: Jeff Painter


1915   Dept. of Agricultural Education Report to the MI Board of Agriculture. MSU Archives and Historical Collections, MSU info files,, Sanford Natural Area folder.

1916   Forestry Department Report to MI Board of Agriculture. MSU Archives and Historical Collections, MSU info files,, Sanford Natural Area folder.

Costilow, R.N., Putnam W. Robbins, R.J. Simmons, and C.O. Willits
1962   The Efficiency and Practicability of Different Types of Paraformaldehyde Pellets for Controlling Microbial Growth in Maple tree Tapholes. Michigan Agriculture Experimental Station Quarterly Bulletin 44:559-579.

1955   The Effect of Date of Tapping on the Yield of Maple Sap from Sterile and Non-Sterile Tap Holes. Thesis, Michigan State College. Document on file at MSU Archives and Historical Collections, UA.16.51, box 527, folder 26.

Perkins,Timothy D.
2010   Antimicrobial Silver in Maple Sap Collection. Maple Syrup Digest22:11-20.

Robbins,Putnam W.
1948   Position of Tapping and Other Factors Affecting the Flow of Maple Sap. Thesis, Michigan State College.

Robbins,Putnam W.
1954   “Maple Sap Weather Forcasting: An Aid to Greater Production of Maple Syrup.” Paper presented to the Academy of Sciences Meeting. Document on file at MSU Archives and Historical Collections, UA.16.51, box 527, folder 18. 

Sheneman, J.M., R.N. Costilow, Putnam W. Robbins, and James E. Douglass
1958   Correlation between Microbial Populations and Sap Yields from Maple Trees. Food Research 24:152-159.

3 thoughts on “The Sweet, Sweet Science of Maple Syrup: An Update on the MSU Sugar House Project”

  • When i was a child, myself and several of my friends played endlessly at the Maple Sugar House at Sanford……. and in fact, several times we played there they were making syrup. We would quietly and carefully open the door, and inside were huge vats of Maple Syrup boiling away. The operators made us stay near the door, and then after a few minutes, they would bring us a cup of maple syrup to drink !! We really loved that …….. quite a fond memory. Back in those days, that Maple Syrup building was like Hansel and Gretel in the woods. It seemed like no one played, or visited there but us, it was quite magical.

    Thanks for posting all this wonderful information. Pat Walton

  • A follow up on my comments yesterday…….. the photo of the building is not the one that was there in the early 50’s. The building in the early 50’s
    was larger, and most importantly, had a roof that came nearly to the ground. The reason i know that , is because that is the first thing us kids
    saw when we came across the building, and naturally, we immediately jumped on it ! Back then the woods there were called the ‘Maple Woods’.
    We played on that roof many times (when it was not in operation of course !). It was a magical place and woods for us.

  • Hi Patrick,
    Thanks for your interest and the great information, its always fun to hear stories from people who have actually interacted with the buildings we are researching! If you have any photos of the building from this time period we would love to see them!

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