Update on the MSU Sugar House Project: Fieldwork has Begun!

Update on the MSU Sugar House Project: Fieldwork has Begun!

After receiving permission to conduct field work in the Sanford Woodlot, Jack and I (along with Campus Archaeologist Autumn Painter) were able to start mapping and surveying the remains of the MSU sugar house. While our work was impacted by snow and falling leaves, we were able to complete a detailed sketch map of the architectural remains and remnant equipment. We were also lucky enough to locate a few artifacts as well!

During our explorations of the area, we were only able to relocate the northern edge of the sugar house. The extant architecture was composed of concrete and rebar and was roughly 26 meters long, east to west, with a northern projection of the building present on the west side. While wall foundations were still standing at the northern projection, the rest of the concrete was collapsed and may have been either wall segments or the remains of a concrete floor. Directly to the north of this wall/floor was a field of small concrete pylons, which, based on archival documents (Campus Parks Office Sanford Walking Tour), served as supports for a small sawmill.  The building, located on the edge of a small flood plain, was built into the side of a gentle slope.    

Initial Survey Map

Overall, the construction of this building appears to match closely with the ideal building described in a 1949 report by Putnam Robbins, one of the researchers in charge of the sugar house. In this report, Putnam specifies that the floor and base of the walls should be constructed from concrete, and that the building should be built into a slope at the edge of the sugar bush, with a collection tank built at the highest elevation. This slope is very important, because this allows gravity to feed sap from the collection tank into the storage tank and then the evaporator without need of human or mechanical power.

But this work did provide one small mystery. In a 1942 map (MSU Map Library), the only map we have located that depicts an outline of the sugar house, the building is shown as a long rectangle with a projection on its south side. Our research, on the other hand, has found a projection of the building on the north side. Further, all of the images of the sugar house that we have, all showing the south side of the structure, do not depict a southern projection of the building, only a flat wall. Since the south side of the building is either buried or missing, it is not possible at this time to investigate this mystery, leaving the architectural design of the building unclear.

1942 Map showing the outline of the Sawmill and Sugar House. Note the southern projection of the building.

While mapping, we also recovered a few artifacts that we think were associated with the sugar house. Scattered to the northwest edge of the building are a number of large metal objects, presumably sawmill equipment that was left behind. Also found scattered around the edges of the building were three bottle bases, two shards of clear bottle glass, and one piece of electrical hardware. Two of the three bottle bases were old Coca-Cola bottles; one nearly complete Coke bottle is marked with a patent number of D-105529, dating the bottle’s manufacture to between 1938 and 1951 (See past blog). It also has an Owens-Illinois Glass Co. maker’s mark on its side, with the number 42 to its right, possibly indicating the bottle was manufactured in 1942 (https://sha.org/bottle/index.htm). The clear bottle base has a marker’s mark as well, a capital G within a square, indicating that it was made by Glenshaw Glass Co. (1904-2004, 2007-present). We can narrow its chronology down further based on the presence of stippling on the base, which was applied to bottles after 1940 (https://sha.org/bottle/index.htm). As the sugar house was in operation until the early 1960s, its possible both bottles relate to the use of the structure, but Sanford Woodlot is also a popular spot for nature walks and has accumulated its share of thrown away bottles over the years.

While we are currently taking a break in field work for the winter, we hope to continue survey work in the spring, so stay tuned for another update!  

Author: Jeff Painter


Lindsay, Bill
2019   “BLM/SHA Historic Glass Bottle Identification and Information Website.”  https://sha.org/bottle/index.htm

MSU Campus Parks Office
N.D.  “Sanford Natural Area: An Island of Wilderness on the Campus of Michigan State University, Walking Tour.”   MSU Archives and Historical Collections, natural areas file.

MSU Map Library
1942   Map of MSC Farm and Experimental Plots. http://archive.lib.msu.edu/maps/MSU-Scanned/Michigan/msu/msc%20campus%20300%20dpis/843-d-A-1942-planning-300.jpg

Robbins, Putnam W.
1949   Production of Maple Syrup in Michigan. Circular Bulletin 213, MSU Agricultural Experiment Station.

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