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The Spruce Gum Story!

Odds and Ends From The MUSEUM!


             Did you ever chew spruce gum? I did. Like many rural Maine boys and girls, a walk in the woods often led to the discovery of a lump of spruce sap that had hardened into resin. Some patience and the careful softening of the lump eventually allowed for the chewing of this “spruce gum.”  Spruce gum has a rather strong taste that many might say is an acquired taste.

            Spruce gum was a rather large industry in Maine in the 1800’s when lumbermen, trappers and a few professional “gummers” collected the dried resin. Ranging in price from ten cents to a dollar a pound, depending on quality, some lumbermen’s picking earnings was more than they earned lumbering (maybe $3.00 to $5.00 a day back then). Some of the gum was sold to companies who marketed the gum or sold it for its

medicinal qualities (cough syrup or digestion aid). Note this was before any of the brands of chewing gum as we know it was manufactured.

            The Northern magazine (March 1927) has an interesting interview of Harry Davis, the Spruce Gum King. Davis began by stating “spruce gum and marketing it is not as popular as 20 years ago.” Back then there were often 100 gum pickers in the Maine woods. Davis stated a dozen companies were purchasing and processing the spruce gum for the marketplace. Davis was the only one left in Maine in 1927.

            Davis had his factory in Monson and often had 12-15 “professional gum pickers” gathering gum in Maine forests. He also bought from others “who can furnish me the required standard.” Davis stated he “handled a ton to perhaps 2,000 to 2,500 pounds of the finest quality gum; and about 20,000 to 25,000 pounds of inferior quality or by-product as we call it. The latter is melted or strained and made up into penny sticks. The gum is just as pure as the prime nuggets, not being adulterated in any manner, only softened a bit to make it more chewable.”

            Asked why the decline in the demand for spruce gum, he stated, “Boys and girls today chew the sweet manufactured article. Give them a nugget of spruce and set them to work on it and they would probably spit it out and swear you were trying to poison them.” When asked about the current market (1927), He said “mostly older people and New Englanders.”

            Davis described spruce gum “as the resin from a spruce tree where there has been a bruise. No, sir, no bruise, no gum! Professional gummers carry a light, sharp hatchet, a long pole with a sharp chisel fastened to one end and just under it an open-mouthed canvas bag. When they spot the little gum nugget, they snip it off with the chisel and it falls into the bag. Nearer the ground within hand reach, they use the hatchet.” The bag is emptied into a pouch attached to the picker’s belt.

            There is more information in the interview. The museum has all copies of The Northern magazine (1921-28) scanned to a thumb drive available for sale ($50). Stop in at the museum to see “spruce gum boxes” carved by loggers with “crooked knives.”

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