Reading notes: Matthew Thomas, Maple King: The Making of a Maple Sugar Empire 📚

Thomas, Matthew M. Maple King: The Making of a Maple Sugar Empire. Published by author, 2018.

The eponymous “Maple King” of Matthew Thomas’s book is George C. Cary (1864-1931), founder of the Cary Maple Sugar Company of St. Johnsbury, Vermont. In Thomas’s telling Cary was not only a producer of maple products, but a key figure in the modernization of the industry. Before Cary, maple sugar was produced a few hundred pounds at a time by small farmers and sold to consumers for household use. But after Cary, maple sugar had become a commodity. Small producers sold to large “packers,” who mixed their purchases together and sold a standardized product measured in tons rather than pounds. The primary purchaser was now large commercial interests rather than individuals.

Maple King is organized chronologically, and serves both as a biography of Cary himself and a history of the rise, fall, and rebirth of the Cary Maple Sugar Company and its associated brands. It makes sense to write the two together, for Cary and his business were, Thomas argues, inextricably intertwined. Cary began the company with the money he had made purchasing maple sugar to sell to tobacco manufacturers. It ran on credit through the 1910s and 1920s, much of that credit backed by Cary’s personal wealth. When Cary was no longer able to finance operations the company fell into bankruptcy.

The book begins with the limited scale of maple sugaring in the early nineteenth century and the industrial progress that began after the Civil War that transformed the maple products as it did the rest of American agriculture. It follows how Cary entered the maple sugar business and how he steadily moved from a role as middleman to become a producer, refiner, and marketer of maple products. Succeeding chapters detail Cary’s expansion beyond his own company, via the purchase of failing competitors, partnership with successful ones, and innovative marketing of his products. The culmination of this period was Cary’s dominance of bulk maple sugar production in the United States by the 1920s. But by the end of the decade business had slumped, hit hard by the Great Depression, as credit tightened and the tobacco companies that were Cary’s primary customers pushed for lower prices. The result was bankruptcy, after which pieces of the Cary empire were split off, sold, and sold again, up to the present day. Yet one brand in particular – Maple Grove Farms – has stayed strong.

One of my favorite things about Maple King is Thomas’s use of both documentary sources and material culture. Company documents, newspaper accounts, and archival photographs are key to the narrative. But Thomas is especially interested in the built landscape of the Cary maple empire, including the company plant and Cary’s residence in St. Johnsbury, the stores and restaurants that marketed Cary products to tourists, and the farms and sugarbushes in outlying areas where Cary sourced its raw materials.

Cary’s story is that of a self-made man, skilled in the world of business, not just rising to the top of an industry but creating one where there was none before. And what Cary created really was an industry: bulk purchasing, bulk refining, and the sale of a commoditized product. Today the iconic images associated with maple syrup include log cabins, trees hung with buckets, and a strapping man in a red and black checked shirt. These are very much the opposite of the landscape of mass production that Cary created. And yet, it was Cary’s own marketing machine that sold us the images of rustic sugaring.

When I first read Maple King I wondered how Cary’s business compared with another large maple sugar operation of the early twentieth century, Abbot Augustus Low’s Horse Shoe in the Adirondacks. I was happy to read on Thomas’s blog Maple Sugar History that his next book will be on Horse Shoe.

In the meantime, Maple King is an excellent narrative of the transformation of the maple sugar industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, well worth reading for anyone interested in the histories of maple sugar and maple syrup, Vermont, or industrialized agriculture and forestry.