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.
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  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:
white oak 19
spanish oak 4
box elder 2
black oak 2
white walnut 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.