By Elaine Bay
(with personal comments from Alba Inez Stroup Humphrey)
(edited by Jeri McAree Humphrey)Syrup making was a part of most families' yearly chores throughout the southern United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries. There were two types of cane used for syrup making: sorghum and ribbon cane. Which cane was better? This can be a very sensitive and, most certainly, a subjective subject. Ribbon cane made thinner, sweeter syrup. Sorghum cane made darker, stronger flavored syrup. The process for making either type of syrup was the same.
While often called sorghum molasses, the correct label for the final result of all this hard work is "sorghum syrup" or "pure sorghum." But whatever you call it, this tasty syrup sure is good poured on a hot biscuit! It is a sugary, dark syrup that was widely used throughout the South. Besides being a table spread, molasses/syrup was used in gingerbread, cookies and cakes, to sweeten pumpkin pie and spice wood tea, to make popcorn balls and taffy and in many other foods.
The size of the patches of cane depended on how much molasses was needed, usually enough for just the family; a small family patch which would produce ten to twelve gallons, which was enough for one year's supply. Usually molasses making for a family was a one or two day job.
Cane plants reached maturity in late September or early October when the seed tassels changes color from green to medium brown. Harvesting began with stripping the leaves from the stalks because debris from the leaves, if run through the mill, would make the molasses bitter. The leaves were stripped before the first big frost to prevent damaging the juice in the stalk.
Next the heads of the stalks were cut off with either a corn knife, a sharp hand sickle or butcher knife in the field and left there to make excellent feed for wildlife or for stock that might later be turned out in the field.
The last step in harvesting was cutting the cane stalk itself as close to the ground as possible. Since the larger lower end of the stalk contained much of the juice, as much of the stalk as possible was cut without getting into the dirt, since dirt on the stalk would get into the juice. Next the farmers would process their crop at local mills on their farms or on a share arrangement with a mill owner.
The following paragraphs are a personal recollection of the syrup/molasses process taken from the journal of Alba Inez Stroup Humphrey. Her German maiden surname "Stroup" was pronounced "Strapp." Note her humorous personal association of the syrup's name to her own origin. Her recollections are of her grandparent's farm and syrup mill located in Verona, TX during the 1920s and 30s. The mill no longer exists; however, many of the Stroup family still live on and near the farm.
"Across the road from the house was the barn and syrup mill. To this day I feel that "Black Strapp Molasses" started at our mill.
Oh, a syrup mill is a wonderful place for a kid-- heavenly nibblings. I remember each fall the lines of wagons coming loaded with cane, buckets and people (and kids).
We got cash for making the syrup or we got part-a percent of the gallons. Needless to say we had dozens and dozens and dozens of gallons of syrup, thus the reason we ate so much syrup. We had it at every meal, in every dish, fixed every way. Gosh, now 60 years later I'm getting an urge for syrup."
At the mill the cane would be run between rollers to press out the juice. A horse or a mule was harnessed to a pole and walked a slow, steady around and around in circles; the pole was attached to gears which turned the rollers of the mill.
The cane stalks were inserted into one side of the mill. The rollers crushed the stalks, squeezing out the juice, much like a wringer washing machine. The juice flowed off the rollers into a metal trough leading to the collection bucket or barrel, which had several thicknesses of cheesecloth over the bucket to filter out any pieces of stalk or seeds that might have dropped down with the juice. The stalks flattened by the three rollers went on through the mill and came out on the other side as pulp or "plummies", to be used as feed or compost.
Next the juice was strained and cooked in the evaporating pan. A pan has several compartments, and the juice would be moved from one to the other, becoming thicker all the while.
The following is another personal recollection of Alba's. "Another thing I remember was that big, hot cook-off vat - a big flat pan, holding gallons and gallons of cane juice. The vat was mounted over a fire box that was big enough to take long fence post size logs. It was cooked for a few hours, sweet and thick. Now we were allowed to dip up the foam and eat along all day. Oh! It was delicious and hot - I do mean hot! We did not have to be told but once to let it cool. There was just NO WAY to get hot syrup out of your mouth. Another thing we were told was 'don't start eating while it is still raw - wait for it to cook." Never has there been a modern virus that sends you running to the john faster nor more frequently than hot cane juice uncooked! Many times I've been ask about this open vat, what was used to keep flies and flying bugs out? Well, I have to tell you - nothing! But they cook up very well, I think. Must help thicken the syrup some."
The finished product of molasses was stored in stone crock jugs that would keep the molasses well through the winter months, but could also be stored in jugs, barrels, crocks, metal buckets or other containers until it was used. By spring the liquid might turn to sugar, but all that needed be done was to get the jug out of the cellar and put it on the back of the wood stove to heat up. The molasses would pour as well as before.
Again, Alba's recollections: "Oh! the meals - all country fixings; I remember grits a lot - boiled for dinner, seasoned over for supper, sliced and fried at breakfast. 'Course we call this dish mush and there are hundreds of variations on it - sweet, hot, cold, etc.; however, any way you dress it, the fact remains it was still home ground corn. Now you might think we would love it when we had molasses with grits or mush, but that had a catch too. If there was one thing we had more than mush, it was "Black Stroup Molasses".