The Evolution of a Maple Sugaring Landscape on Lake Superior's Grand Island

Article excerpt


When examined within their historic context, vernacular landscapes inform us about the behaviors, beliefs, and interrelationships of ordinary people and their surroundings. Through the integration of historical research with a landscape archaeology approach, this paper examines the evolution and abandonment of a landscape of maple sugar and syrup production in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, USA. Beginning with Native American occupation, through early Euro-American settlement, to commercial and corporate expansion by the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company, the history and landscape evolution of the Grand Island maple sugarbush reflect changing cultural practices, settlement patterns, land use, and land tenure in a portion of the Lake Superior region. Like much of rural America, continued changes in the technology and organization of the maple sugaring industry over the last fifty years are resulting in an increasingly rapid loss or replacement of the landscape and material record of maple sugaring. With abandonment nearly fifty years ago, the Grand Island sugarbush provides an opportunity to examine historic aspects of this unique forest-based food production landscape.


Since the 1850s, the state of Michigan has consistently been the sixth or better maple-producing state in the United States, occasionally ranking as high as third, behind the better-known maple-producing states of Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Ohio. (1) However, the history of maple production in Michigan begins with the state's first indigenous residents, long before the first tabulation of maple production statistics. Once an important activity in the Native American seasonal round, the tapping of maple trees and boiling of maple sap into maple sugar was carried out each spring in all parts of the state. In the nineteenth century, General Land Office surveyors throughout the state frequently noted and mapped the locations of Native American sugarbushes and sugar camps. Today, many sugarbush owners are quick to claim that their sugarbush was once tapped each spring by one of the local resident Native American tribes. As is shown in this study, that very continuity was the case with the sugarbush on Lake Superior's Grand Island (Figure 1), a maple production landscape that has evolved with the successive settlement and land use of the region.


Grand Island has witnessed three phases of maple sugar and syrup production. Initially, Native American Ojibwe maple sugarmakers occupied the island from at least the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s (Schoolcraft 1851). (2) Euro-American settlers and sugarmakers followed in 1840, beginning with the family of Abraham Williams. Later the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company (CCI), under the direction of its president, William G. Mather, purchased the island and developed it as a private resort and game preserve complete with sugarbush from 1901 to the late 1950s (Castle 1974; Harrison 1974). During these three periods of occupation, maple sugaring was a constant springtime occupation. Today the maple sugaring landscape is recognized from the archaeological remains and features developed over 150 years of working the Grand Island sugarbush.


To focus our understanding of the essentially archaeological remains of an abandoned sugarbush, this research embraces a landscape archaeology approach. (3) Similar to the study of cultural landscapes, landscape archaeology as an approach considers the landscape or land-use of focus in its entirely, examining the various components and their inter and intra-relations as an integrated whole. Surface archaeology is the study of the above-ground material remains of historic cultural landscapes and sites and is an important and spatially appropriate methodological approach to study historic archaeological landscapes, particularly those of the twentieth century. …