Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements

Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sweet Sorghum Syrup

Time was when almost every community in Union County had a sorghum syrup mill and someone versatile in the art of turning the cane juice into sweet sorghum syrup. September and October were the months for "making syrup" and all the attendant work connected with one of the important money crops of this mountain region.

But now, those old-time syrup makers are few and far between, and except for the Annual Sorghum Festival which will mark its 34th event the second, third and fourth weekends of October, 2003, many people would not even hear of sweet sorghum or have any inkling of what it is or why we observe a festival of remembrance. Thanks to the Blairsville Jaycees, these weekends are fun and preserve a portion of the county's rich heritage.

Being the history buff that I am, and since sorghum-syrup making has been a part of my family's farm life for generations, I wanted to know more about how the process started long ago and why it became important to us.

Sorghum was grown in India before recorded history. As early as 700 B. C., the crop was cultivated in Assyria. It is known to have reached China by the thirteenth century A. D. It is native to Africa, and many of the predecessors of today's varieties originated there. It came to the United States from Africa in the early part of the seventeenth century. Many of the slaves from Africa perhaps already knew how to cultivate the cane and how to extract the juice, boil it, and make sweet sorghum syrup.

Whether our ancestors who settled the area of Union County brought cane seeds with them and the knowledge of making sorghum syrup, we do not know for sure. We do know that the fall crop and its subsequent syrup have long been a substitute for sugar, and a staple food as well as a money crop for generations here.

Emil Van Watson of Fannin County told me this true story of how sorghum syrup seeds were introduced to this mountain region. In the early 1850s a stranger driving a small one-horse wagon came into Ellijay, Georgia, Gilmer County. We don't know his name or where he came from. He had on the wagon some seed heads that he tried to sell. The hawker promised that the seeds would grow into cane and that the heads would ripen in the sun. He explained that the stalks had a sweet juice which could be extracted by crushing or grinding, and that the juice, when boiled, became an edible sweet, sugary liquid.

Furthermore, the man promised, the large seed-heads from the cane could be ground and added to animals' foods to provide supplemental nutrients.

Many of the citizens doubted the stranger's claims for his heads of golden seeds, but one citizen, a Mr. Hansell, a well-respected man, confirmed the claims. Several citizen farmers bought seeds from the stranger at ten cents per head, and in May, as the stranger had directed, they planted the seeds.

The first cane crops in this mountain region grew well, for the climate and growing season were amenable. However, if a heavy windstorm came, the tall stalks, that sometimes grew to ten or twelve feet in height, would become entangled, thus making harvesting the cane very difficult.

Over the decades since the early 1850s, farmers and crop scientists have worked to produce better varieties of cane that will withstand lodging (as the twisting and tangling are called) and resist plant diseases such as stalk red rot and maize mosaic.

At first, cane growers in the mountains had crude wooden rollers to extract the juice, and much of it remained in the cane, unused, because of inferior methods of extraction. They boiled the juice in the largest iron wash pots they had. The resulting syrup was very dark, strong and stained teeth.

Being inventive, mountain farmers developed better ways of extracting and processing the juice. By the late 1860s, iron rollers for grinding the cane had been purchased from far-away places like Cincinnati, Ohio, where Belknap Hardware made them available. Long rectangular copper boilers, placed over a long furnace, were in place for cooking the juice. Better techniques for removing the green skimmings, a waste product, were used. The finished product was tastier and did not stain the teeth.

Sorghum syrup was a better cash crop than corn. A gallon of sorghum syrup sold for fifty cents then, compared to only thirty-five cents for a gallon of corn liquor, "moonshine". The latter had long been a money crop of mountain farmers who could evade the federal revenuers or saw no moral hindrance in producing corn liquor. But sorghum syrup was "within the law," and much in demand when sugar was scarce.

When you visit the sorghum festival, or find one of the few remaining family sorghum mills still in operation, know that the processing of this farm product is indeed a southern tradition. My brother, Bluford Dyer, is one of the few remaining syrup makers, having learned the trade from our father, J. Marion Dyer, and he from his father, Bluford Elisha Dyer. On a cool fall morning nothing is better than flaky biscuits covered in sweet sorghum syrup.

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Sept. 18, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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