Memories of our county – Making Sugar Cane Syrup

Nannie Maude Reynolds shares memories and thoughts about Winston County’s past.

The days are getting shorter and there is a chill in the air. The sky is blue beyond belief and the leaves have turned a beautiful array of colors. The sugar cane has been cut and laid in the middle of the rows and covered with some of the fodder in order to prevent freezing before we can get it made into syrup. We had two kinds of cane for syrup. Some folks had another kind called POJ. It was a tall, white cane and it was used by many of the families in our community. We rarely raised POJ because the taste of the blue cane was my family’s favorite. We had sorghum cane which has a tall green stalk and makes delicious syrup. The syrup from the sorghum is darker and usually has a thinner consistency. It is not as sweet as the ‘blue cane’. The blue cane is shorter and stubbier, blue in color, and is much sweeter, therefore it is more desirable. Sometimes sorghum was used for feeding the farm animals. We usually did not raise enough to for feed, but we did make sorghum molasses. This molasses was used in making all kinds of good things to eat. We made cookies, puddings, cakes and it was used for sweetening other things when the sugar was scarce.  Blue cane was the cane of choice for our syrup making.
Blue cane is aggravating to produce. It can be kept from one year to the next in the patch and the young tender shoots come up from the stubble of last year’s crop. It has to be tilled and hoed and the young tender shoots look a lot like grass and sometimes the hoe clips them before one realizes he has cut down a cane stalk. We usually did not raise our cane from last year’s stubbles. My Daddy cut down enough cane to make a bed. He dug out a section in the cane patch and laid down a bed of fodder. On top of the fodder he placed cane stalks in a huge pile. Then he covered the pile of stalks with another layer of fodder and then shoveled damp dirt over the whole thing. It would not freeze during the winter and in the spring we dug it out and laid it end to end in the furrow to produce cane for another year.  On cold night around the fire, we often dug out a few stalks and chewed cane around the fireplace after supper. We threw the chews into the fire as they became dry of juice. We also ate popcorn and peanuts around the fire on cold nights. There was no TV and the radio was on a battery which was often low on power.
Wood for cooking out syrup was cut in the summer while we were out of school. We cut wood for the stove and the fireplaces too. But for syrup, we hunted and found the tallest and straightest pines we could fine in the forest. They were thrown and cut into sections around 30-36 inches long. Then they were split into sticks and stacked for drying. Before the day for making syrup we hauled the wood to the syrup mill and stacked it out of the way. The mill we used most often was owned by Mr. Theodore Ray. He cooked out the syrup and took a toll of the syrup for his efforts. He sold his share and that is how he made a profit.
We were allowed to stay out of school on the day we made syrup. It took all hands making syrup. Sometimes more than one family would work together and the task was much easier.
The first step in making syrup is the grinding of the cane in order to get juice for making the syrup. After the cane is cut down, stripped of the fodder, and piled into piles, it is hauled to the cane mill and stacked in preparation for the day of syrup making. The cane is fed into the mill by hand. One man stands near the mill and feeds the cane. A mule is hitched to a long pole which is attached to the mill at the top of the grinder. He goes in a circle around the mill from daylight until dark and after if it is necessary to finish a batch of cane.  I have always felt so sorry for the mule that had to go in the same tracks day after day to grind the mill. In later years, my Daddy bought a Farmall Tractor and tied the stirring wheel to make the tractor go in a circle all day long without having to be on the seat of the tractor. The gas lever was set and it ran all day until it ran out of gas. I felt so much relief for the mule when Daddy bought the tractor.  We were allowed to taste the juice as it came from a spout at the base of the mill. We were cautioned time and again to watch for the pole as it came around and duck as it approached. We carried the juice from the grinder to the pan and it was poured into a wooden tub until it was needed by the cooker. He dipped it out and added it to the pan as he drew off the cooked syrup.
The stalks came out of the mill on the back side and they had no juice in them. They were carried by another worker to a pile around the mill. I have seen piles of cane stalks pile up in a circle around the mill until they were around 6-8 feet tall and more.  We ran and played on top of the pile of cane stalks. We slid down the back side and climbed back up and slid down again. No skier in Aspen ever had more fun than we did on that pile of cane stalks. Flies and honey bees and wasps also loved the cane stalks and many times one was stung by an insect while playing there. I guess we became immune and I never heard of anyone being allergic to them.
The cane mill was made of brick much like a BBQ grill is made today only larger. It is around 8-9 feet in length and around 32 inches high with a smoke stack on one end for the smoke to escape. On the top of the structure is a metal pan. It is made with partitions all along the length of the tray. The partitions are made in such a way that one open on one side and the next one open on the other side, making it necessary for the cane juice to be stirred from the beginning to the end of the pan. It is pushed along the pan with a wooden spatula and is maneuvered along the length of the pan. By the time a making of syrup is stirred along the way of the grid, and cooks all the way it is done to perfection when it reaches the far end. There is a spigot with a stopper at the end near the smoke stack and when it is done, a bucket is held under the spigot and fresh, hot, syrup is drawn from the pan. Bucket after bucket is drawn and much tasting is done.   It takes a skilled cooker to make the syrup done to perfection. I remember two other mills in the community. One was located on what is now Tuck Wilkes Road across the road from the old home place of Mr. Raphael Snow. I expect one could still find the remnants of the old stalks if one looked carefully. Even though it has been 75 years since it was in operation. Then there was a cane mill at the home of Mr. Earl Smith near the old mill that I have described above in the Liberty Community. This mill was in operation much later than the other two.
One thing I cannot forget and do not want to forget is the fellowship among neighbors as they worked hard to provide sweetening for their families. At lunch time, the women spread lunches they had brought from home under the trees and everyone gathered around and ate together. They brought good food such as biscuits with sausage, fried apple pies, fried chicken, potato salad, deviled eggs and many other good foods. A full coffee pot was kept hot on a ledge near the smoke stack and it was emptied many times during the day. My Papa was usually asked to say Grace at meals as he always did at the table at home. He was a huge man and he bowed his head and spoke with God. I remember his words, “Father, Would’st Thou bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies and make us grateful for these and all other blessings?” His voice became husky as he finished speaking. As he bowed his head to pray, the fat around his neck cut off the air to his lungs and his voice was almost mute.  What a blessing to have the means to supply good food for our families. Good neighbors to help, Good work for our hands, and the good sense to know who gives all these blessings.

Nannie Maude Dewease Reynolds