All this talk from me during the last two weeks about spruce-related subjects (Sprucelets and spruce beer) is linked to past conversations with my mom, a native of Churubusco in northern Clinton County. It’s officially known as the Town of Clinton, but to local folks, it’s just Busco — and about as country as it gets around here. Growing up there on a farm in the 1920s and ’30s, Mom partook in things that were once the norm, like drinking raw milk and chewing spruce gum.
Her repeated mention of loving to chew spruce gum intrigued me. But as a young boy, I made the mistake of thinking any old evergreen would do, so I tried white-pine sap, something I still regret to this day. Maybe it doesn’t actually taste terrible, but in my recollection, it was terribly terrible, like turpentine. To avoid steering anyone away from it based on an old memory, I confirmed through our state DEC website and others that white-pine resin can be used to make turpentine. And the higher the pitch level, the stronger the turpentine taste — so my memory is good that the taste of raw pine resin was awful.
No one has said that about spruce gum, which became part of the Adirondack region’s economic engine in the late 1800s when the popularity of chewing gum fairly exploded across the country. Like blueberries, hops, and so many other seasonal crops, harvesting spruce gum offered the chance for country folk to add valuable income to the family coffers.
While this was done at various locations, particularly in Jefferson and St. Lawrence Counties, one of the first true hotspots for harvesting spruce gum was an 80,000-acre forest in southwestern Lewis County’s Tug Hill region — what locals referred to in the late 1800s as the South Woods. Prime-time for gum-pickers generally spanned the months of March and April, but the season varied sharply year to year. Anytime between October and June could be fruitful, depending on weather conditions.
Early on, gum-pickers employed basic methods, reaching what they could from the ground and, either freestyle or using linemen’s spikes attached to their shoes, climbing trees and employing a hatchet or knife to remove deposits of resin. (The special knife was mentioned in a story distributed to many newspapers in 1885, stating that a man “had killed a bear that attacked him while armed only with a spruce-gum knife.” Geez … bears are scary enough already, let alone one armed with a knife.)
Less sporting than climbing, but certainly much safer, was attaching a chisel to a long pole and using it to separate chunks of sticky gum from a tree’s upper reaches. An improvement on that method added a can inches below the scraper to catch the harvest, rather than let it fall to the ground. Others further modified the apparatus, referred to by some as a “gum spud,” by removing the can’s bottom and attaching a two-quart bag so that the can funneled harvested gum into it. When the bag was full, the contents were brought to ground level and transferred into a large sack strapped to the user’s back.
Like any other commodity, raw gum’s price varied depending on several factors. During good years, Adirondack pickers generally earned between fifty cents and two dollars a pound for their efforts, with the overall average at about a dollar. The better pickers could make about $15 a day and perhaps $500 during an extended season, but during the best years, top gum pickers sometimes netted more than $1,000. Their chief target was prime resin — transparent and amber-colored, with a sweet taste. It took an estimated four pounds of raw gum to make one pound of product.
When leaves were mostly absent between October and June, pickers searched for trees with dark streaks on the trunks, indicating a flow of hardened sap. Experts learned to score trees with their hatchets to “seed” future sap flows for harvest, since resin is naturally channeled to scrapes and cuts in the trunk. It was roughly done, but based on science: “Sap flow, or bleeding, from a cut branch is part of a tree’s defense and is not harmful to the tree,” according to the University of Nebraska’s guidelines for pruning.
The competition for spruce gum was at times intense. In several locales, companies posted buyers as middlemen, ready to purchase at a moment’s notice. In the small community of Osceola, one of Lewis County’s busiest gum sites, there were sometimes three buyers seeking successful gum pickers.
The bulk of the Adirondack harvest was usually shipped out of state to distributors in Vermont (especially Bennington) and Massachusetts (the Green Mountain Spruce Gum Company). The Bennington firm operated by Herbert Martin at times had more than 100 men working the Tug Hill area in the Adirondacks to keep his Vermont factory workers busy. In the 1880s, annually handling up to ten tons valued at the modern equivalent of more than $250,000, Martin was reputedly the world’s largest spruce gum supplier.
While he also had pickers in the Vermont woods, Martin’s showcase product was made from Adirondack spruce. Large quantities of gum were shipped, although his company information could be misleading to those unfamiliar with the final product. Reports of 100-barrel shipments failed to disclose that Martin’s “barrels” were actually novelty containers standing just a few inches high.
Much of the annual crop was also used by Adirondack companies. At Port Leyden, several miles north of Boonville, was the Adirondack Spruce Gum Company, which in 1888 processed thousands of pounds harvested by workers collectively referred to as the South Woods Gum-Pickers. Large quantities were also gathered at other Adirondack sites: Lowville in Lewis County, Oswegatchie in St. Lawrence County, Elizabethtown in Essex County, and Wilmurt in Herkimer County.
In 1889, the Adirondack Spruce Gum Company moved to Gouverneur, where, according to building manager Samuel Potter, a two-ton supply was processed in the following manner: “The gum is first reduced to a liquid by steam heat, then strained through cloth, which removes all the impurities. It is then cooked in copper pans to just the right point when it is cooled with cold water and rolled into sticks, wrapped in prepared paraffin paper, and boxed for shipment.” Daily production plans called for 400 boxes containing 200 sticks each, shipped to many New England cities and such faraway locations as Utah and Washington.
In Keene Valley in 1895, the Adirondack Forest Novelty Company advertised a product similar to Martin’s in Bennington: “Miniature Barrel of Pure Spruce Gum by Mail, 10 Cents.” Malcolm Row of Russell in St. Lawrence County operated a factory that shipped packaged gum in boxes, and employed a salesman who toured New England for three months a year to advertise and sell his product. In 1907, Isaac Daniels opened a factory at Boonville, selling “Pure Adirondack Spruce Gum” for a penny a stick or five cents a box. Similar companies operated at Lyonsdale, Antwerp, and Poland.
At all locations where spruce was found, average folks were part-time pickers, collecting supplies for personal chewing, making spruce beer, and/or for resale to local businesses, like Malone’s Symonds & Allison, makers of Sprucelets in the early 1900s. Aggressive individuals like Dan Doty of Malone and John Kelly of Croghan represented the extreme, selling between a thousand pounds and a ton each year when conditions were good and the market was ripe.
Certain families also earned substantial annual income by harvesting spruce gum. Notable among them were the Shurtliffs, a multi-generational family of gum pickers led in the early 1900s by Ben and Ike, who worked The Plains south of Wanakena. There were also the Pascos of Little Tupper Lake, and the Bullocks in the Cranberry Lake area, led by Aaron, a well-known guide. In fact, many professional guides seeking supplemental income were among the ranks of pickers, while others, sought out for their knowledge of the woods, were hired to locate spruce stands. Loggers partook in the bounty as well. When spruce forests were ravaged for pulp production, lumberjacks often scraped off the resin to sell later and make a few extra dollars.
Products made from Adirondack spruce trees were available everywhere: chewing gum, of course, along with cough drops, lozenges, soothing syrups, and various flavored drinks, including beer. More than a few folks swore by it as a glue, and according to a pair of unnamed travelers who toured the Raquette River in 1843, it could fix a leaky boat as well, at least in the hands of famed guide Mitchell Sabbatis.
The duo, a New York City teacher and one of his students, described the following: “One morning as I lay awake, just before rising, I saw Mitchell go to our canoe — which lay as usual bottom up — and kiss it in several places.” When asked what he was doing, the guide replied, “Suckin’ for holes!”
When Sabattis found a leak, said the traveler, “I noticed that he had in one hand a small brand from the fire, and in the other a small piece of old rag. He was also chewing something which on inquiry I ascertained to be spruce gum. Tearing off a small corner of the rag and putting it on the hole, he placed a small piece of the spruce gum upon it, and blowing on his fire-brand so as to get the greatest heat, he melted the gum so that it went through the rag into the hole, closing it securely.”
The adventurer further confirmed that their watercraft was, in fact, a spruce-bark canoe.
As Wrigley’s brief history of gum reports, lumps of spruce gum sold in the early 1800s were America’s first commercial chewing gum. When mass production of multi-flavored gums skyrocketed in popularity during the 1920s because of men like William Wrigley, the use of Adirondack spruce gum declined. Having gone full circle, it became once again a local product.
Wrigley’s name brings up a strange memory: when my siblings and I were young, we literally stuck our gum to the bedpost before going to sleep. (Apparently uppity folks used gum parkers.) Sometimes it was rechewed the following day — and if anyone thinks I’m making that up, it was actually a song-worthy subject. Check out this old tune that we often heard on morning radio before heading off to school.
I’ll end here with a nod to my mom, who was born in 1921 and died a little more than three years ago. Her frequent fond remembrances of chewing spruce gum back on the old Churubusco homestead were the inspiration for this look at a genuine Adirondack product, and for recent pieces about Sprucelets and spruce beer.
Photos: Adirondack Spruce Gum made in Poland, N.Y. (worthpoint website); advertisement, Martin’s in Bennington, circa 1890 (Boston Public Library, Print Department); box from Adirondack Spruce Gum Company, Port Leyden, 1888 (liveauctioneers website); advertisement, Harpers Round Table magazine (1895)
A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.