In the early days maple sap was boiled down and made into maple sugar, instead of the more common maple syrup that we see today. There was no easy way to store syrup as a liquid, but hardened, dry maple sugar was easily stored for use later in the year. The Native Americans of New England used their maple sugar as gifts, for trading, to mix with grains and berries and bear fat. During the heat of summer a special treat was a drink made of maple sugar dissolved in water. The early European settlers who came to New England made maple sugar in the way which they learned from the Native Indian population. The settlers set up sugar camps in the woods where the maple trees were most plentiful, and the trees were slashed with an ax to allow the sap to drip out and be collected. As early as 1790 it was suggested that. slashing the trees was not good for their health, and that a better way was to drill a half inch hole in the tree and insert a "spill" or spile to allow the sap to run out. The early spiles were made of a softwood twig such as sumac that had a soft center. The center was pushed out leaving a hollow wooden tube that could be inserted into a hole drilled into the maple tree. The sap would then drip out through the hollow tube or "spile", and into a collection vessel such as a hollowed out log.
Excerpt from: http://www.massmaple.org/history.php