Much getting-ready for the work preceded the actual time of sorghum syrup making. In last week’s column, I mentioned how the wood to fuel the furnace had to be cut, hauled to a location near the furnace, and stacked in readiness for the weeks of boiling the syrup. If the wood supply was not ready in advance, there certainly would not be any time to gather it in after the actual process of syrup-making began.
My father had to make necessary repairs to the mill, the furnace and the long copper boiler in which he cooked the cane juice to make syrup. The heavy vertical rollers that squeezed the juice from the stalks of cane had to be oiled and in good mechanical condition. The lever that pulled the rollers had to be examined and the traces for hitching the mules made sturdy. The wooden boxes for catching and straining the cane juice must be in good repair and chinked so that they would not leak. The iron pipes through which the juice flowed downward toward the boiler likewise had to be attached properly and in good order. The long copper boiler, with its wooden dividers likewise had to be taken from storage, examined for any needed repairs to the copper bottom or the dividers, and cleaned thoroughly. The furnace was inspected to make sure it had withstood a year’s idleness and had no stones amiss or chinks unfilled. Then the boiler was placed gingerly on top of the long furnace and filled with clear water awaiting that final washing before the first “run” of syrup.
There was preparation, too for getting ready to gather the cane from the field. If it had been a good year and no storms had downed the tall stalks of cane that filled acres in the fields, the cane fodder could be stripped off easily with slender hand strippers that looked like two-sided swords. My father fashioned a dozen or so of these using hardwood to make the strippers, and cutting each side to a slender sharpness. However, I can remember, later on, he could actually either make or purchase metal strippers for cane-stripping. These did not dull so easily and made this task of harvesting the cane more efficient. However, if a heavy windstorm had occurred, the cane field would be twisted and damaged so that it had to be cut down and stripped by hand. This was always a tedious task.
To cut the stalks of cane, we used long-handled scythes especially designed for cutting the tall stalks of cane near the ground. The scythes especially fashioned, with shorter blades than those required to cut grain, had to be well-sharpened. It took two people for this cutting operation--one to hold an armload of cane and the other to cut it with the scythe. The cane would be laid in piles on the ground, several feet apart. The next workers, the cane-head cutters, would come along next and cut off the seed pods at the top of the cane. The seeds, too, were placed in neat piles beside each stack of cut cane, because the seeds were used to grind into a cane-seed meal to supplement animals’ feed--or else the cane seeds were sold.
The stripped, deheaded cane was loaded into a wagon and hauled to the syrup mill. Since my father made not only his own cane but also for other farmers in the community, he would designate (and remember) which stack belonged to which farmer as they brought their crop to his mill for processing. He would ask those who brought the cane to stagger bringing it, or he would know about which day he could get to their loads of cane so that it would not lie too long at the mill and dry out. It took good calculation to figure the time required for making the various farmers’ crops. But the cane had to be cut before frost or the syrup would not be good.
In advance, he would have to engage people to help with the process of gathering the cane and manning the syrup mill, and he also hired other teams of mules from nighboring farmers to pull the syrup mill grinder, as the work for these animals was grueling and hard. He used a team for only about three hours and allowed them to rest.
He hired one or two men or older boys to feed the mill--put the cane through the rollers to extract the juice. Another had the task of keeping the cane chews (or ground stalks) placed away from the mill in a huge pile of refuse. A third person assisted him at the boiler, although he himself--for the long six or more weeks’ duration of syrup-making-- boiled the syrup. The other boiler worker would stoke the furnace and measure out cooked syrup. My father trusted only his eye and learned knowledge of syrup-making to know when it was ready for the strainer barrel as good-quality, cooked syrup. He taught my two brothers and others how to boil syrup to the right degree. He could tell by how the syrup looked at the “lower” end of the boiler, and also would lift the wooden stirring block and let the syrup drip off. If it made a certain string to his liking, it was done and would be quality syrup.
The cooked syrup was measured from the retaining barrel into pint, quart and gallon continental cans (or buckets). Later, it became popular to put it in glass jars, pints and quarts. Sometimes buyers would come to the syrup mill and buy the whole day’s yield while it was still warm in the buckets (and later jars). If we had no buyers, we always had to take the syrup to a storage barn on the farm to place it in safety until it could be taken to Gainesville to market or until a regular buyer would come to purchase a load. And for the “on shares” making for others, my father got (as I recall) one gallon out of four or five (20% to 25%) that he made, depending on the cost of workers he had to hire and other expenses of operating the mill.
Syrup-making time was a hard six-or more-weeks period every fall. But we earned enough for paying taxes on our farm, purchasing clothing for our winter use, and maybe some money to spare for other essentials. It was hard work, but a time of socializing, too, as we always had visitors at the syrup mill, watching the operations and passing the time of day. And oh, the good eating, all year long, as we made gingerbread sweetened with sorghum syrup, and had syrup to eat with hot homemade biscuits fresh from the oven. Life couldn’t get any better than that!
c2011 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published July 21, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.