Central Kentucky’s land­scape dur­ing the set­tle­ment peri­od was vast­ly dif­fer­ent from today.  At the time Fort Boonesborough and Harrodsburg were estab­lished (1775), new­com­ers tend­ed to describe the area as an end­less for­est, and many, fit­ting­ly, described them­selves as “woods­men.”

Most of the pri­mor­dial for­est slow­ly dis­ap­peared under the woodsmen’s ax.  At first, a few trees would be cut down for the pioneer’s cab­in.  Then sev­er­al acres of trees would be gir­dled, which killed them and allowed Indian corn to be plant­ed.  Over the ensu­ing years, the cul­ti­vat­ed acreage increased as more trees were killed and the stumps removed.  This process con­tin­ued year after year until one day, the “end­less for­est” was gone. 

Sugar maples on the author’s place at Forest Grove. (Photo by Harry Enoch)
Sugar maples on the author’s place at Forest Grove. (Click to enlarge)

One espe­cial­ly val­ued species—the sug­ar maple (Acer sac­cha­rum)—was spared destruc­tion for decades.  Given our mod­ern asso­ci­a­tion of maple syrup with New England, it may sur­prise some to learn that sug­ar mak­ing was once a com­mon late win­ter activ­i­ty in Clark County.  Trees were tapped with a hole drilled through the bark, and the sap col­lect­ed in buck­ets. Collected sap was then boiled to evap­o­rate the water, leav­ing syrup behind.  It took about forty gal­lons of sap to pro­duce one gal­lon of maple syrup.

Perhaps the ear­li­est report of sug­ar mak­ing in Kentucky comes from a March 1780 entry in Col. William Fleming’s diary: “The peo­ple [near Harrodsburg] were most­ly employed in mak­ing sug­ar by boil­ing up the juice of the sug­ar tree which is a species of the maple tree.  The sug­ar with a lit­tle care­ful man­age­ment may be made equal if not supe­ri­or to that extract­ed from the [sug­ar] cane.”

John Filson men­tioned the maple in his his­to­ry of Kentucky (1784):  “Those [trees] which are pecu­liar to Kentucke are the sug­ar-tree, which grows in all parts in great abun­dance, and fur­nish­es every fam­i­ly with plen­ty of excel­lent sugar.”

Much lat­er, Clark County native Elder Samuel Rogers wrote in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy that, while he lived in Clark County, “the maple sup­plied us abun­dant­ly with molasses and sug­ar.  Even the thought of sug­ar-mak­ing now stirs the old blood in my veins, as some of my most pleas­ant mem­o­ries are asso­ci­at­ed with the old-fash­ioned sug­ar-camp.  I have watched the boil­ing sug­ar-water for hours, wait­ing with impa­tience for the con­sum­ma­tion of my joys—the time of ‘stir­ring off.’  Always I have regret­ted the destruc­tion of our beau­ti­ful maple forests of Kentucky.”

Mrs. Julia Tevis, who grew up in the Bush Settlement, wrote in Sixty Years in a School-Room, “Sugar was made in abun­dance from the maple, whole groves of which were found in Kentucky before the util­i­tar­i­an ax of the wood­man laid them pros­trate to give place to the more use­ful blue grass.  One of these groves on my grandfather’s [Captain Billy Bush] place con­tained a thou­sand trees, many of which are still [1878] stand­ing.  The sug­ar-mak­ing time in February, when the rich sap began to flow, was a glo­ri­ous time and long looked for­ward to with as much delight as Christmas.”

The Clark County Chronicles* men­tions the 19th-cen­tu­ry Lewis farm, which was not­ed for its fine stand of maples: “The old home of Thornton Lewis on Pretty Run is a very exten­sive build­ing and was sur­round­ed by a fine grove of trees, large orchards and gar­dens, ser­vants’ quar­ters and oth­er out-build­ings.  West of the res­i­dence, at one time was a large sug­ar maple grove, from which large quan­ti­ties of maple syrup and sug­ar were made.”

* This col­lec­tion of arti­cles from the 1920s penned by the Clark County Historical Society has been tran­scribed and anno­tat­ed by Rosemary Campbell and reprint­ed by the Bluegrass Heritage Museum.

Sadly, we can­not time-trav­el back to see the old forests for our­selves.  However, we can deter­mine what trees were preva­lent in the land­scape then.  A unique record of local flo­ra is pre­served in a rather unlike­ly source—the metes and bounds record­ed in land sur­vey­ors’ notes.  The descrip­tion of every tract of land includ­ed the cor­ner trees mark­ing the prop­er­ty bound­aries.  For exam­ple, John Strode’s sta­tion tract, locat­ed just west of Winchester, was bound­ed as fol­lows, “Beginning at a Buckeye, thence North 73 degrees West, at 100 poles cross­ing Strodes fork, the course con­tin­ued in all 400 poles to a White Ash.” 

Using this tech­nique to exam­ine the ear­ly trees of any par­tic­u­lar water­shed, we can deter­mine what trees were found in the land­scape, which species pre­dom­i­nat­ed, and how those com­pare to today’s species.

To illus­trate the process, I select­ed 29 sur­veys con­duct­ed between 1780 and 1785 along Lower Howard’s Creek and not­ed each cor­ner tree.  The sam­ple includ­ed 24 dif­fer­ent species.  A total of 280 trees were dis­trib­uted as follows:

sug­artree                    92
wal­nut                        37
hick­o­ry                       25
buck­eye                      20
white oak                   19
dog­wood                    16
elm                             14
ash                                8
bet­ty­wood                    7
mul­ber­ry                      5
hoop­wood                    5
linn                               5

sas­safras                       4
span­ish oak                  4
hack­ber­ry                     4
cher­ry                           3
box elder                      2
locust                            2
black oak                      2
iron­wood                      2
white wal­nut                1
beech                            1
mahogany                    1
red oak 1

By far the most com­mon tree, 33 per­cent of the total, was the “sug­artree” or sug­ar maple, fol­lowed by wal­nut, 13 per­cent; hick­o­ry, 9 per­cent; buck­eye and white oak, 7 per­cent each.

(The sur­veys can­not give pre­cise dis­tri­b­u­tions since only trees select­ed for mark­ing cor­ners are includ­ed.  Evergreens are con­spic­u­ous­ly absent and may have been hard­er to mark.  Chestnuts were not not­ed either, as this once pre­dom­i­nant tree of the east­ern hard­wood for­est was essen­tial­ly absent from the inner Bluegrass.  Several of the vari­eties named in sur­veys are unfa­mil­iar today.  “Linn” prob­a­bly refers to the lin­den tree, but the iden­ti­ties of “bet­ty­wood” and “hoop­wood” are still uncertain.)

Examining a sam­ple of Boone Creek sur­veys con­sist­ing of 260 trees, we find the fol­low­ing species pre­dom­i­nat­ed:  sug­ar maple, 22 per­cent; hick­o­ry, 16 per­cent; white oak, 10 per­cent; elm, 8 per­cent; wal­nut, 7 per­cent; and hack­ber­ry, 6 per­cent.  These are the chief species found on creek bot­toms and hillsides.

Shifting to the upland ter­rain sur­round­ing present-day Winchester (277 trees), a slight­ly dif­fer­ent pat­tern is observed:  hick­o­ry, 19 per­cent; sug­ar maple, 16 per­cent; white oak, 12 per­cent; buck­eye and red oak, 8 per­cent each. 

Encouragingly, all of these vari­eties are around today, and sug­ar maples are still plen­ti­ful in our creek val­leys.  The hand­some sug­ar maple deserves a more impor­tant place in the urban land­scape.  They are easy to trans­plant and fair­ly fast grow­ing.  The species is dis­ease resis­tant, cold hardy, shade tol­er­ant, rel­a­tive­ly long-lived and has strik­ing gold, yel­low, and orange fall foliage.

  • Harry is a Mt. Sterling native who has lived in Clark County since1999. He has a pas­sion for the past and has researched and writ­ten exten­sive­ly about the his­to­ry of this area.