The making of maple sugar was a traditional industry for Maine people, as it still is today. Johnson specifically traveled to Maine, his birthplace, in the early spring of the early 1860s to study and watch farmers as they tapped the trees, gathered sap, and then set up camps to boil the sap down to thick, sweet maple syrup. As scholar Brian Allen has pointed out, during the Civil War years, maple syrup was a patriotic alternative to the sugar cane sugar of Southern plantations [See Allen 2004]. Allen quotes the Philadelphia physician and abolitionist Benjamin Rush, who said in 1792: “I cannot help contemplating a maple sugar tree without a species of veneration, for I behold in it a happy means of rendering commerce and slavery of African brethren in sugar islands as unnecessary” [See Allen 2004, p. 47].
The camps became hubs of dancing, flirting, and jocular humor, and included children mingling with adults. Although Johnson worked on making sketches for years, he never completed a finished version of the “larger & more pretenscious [sic] sugaring picture” that he wrote to patron John Coyle he had planned to make. —PH