The air was crisp as helpers loaded the purple stalks of sugar cane onto trailers, brought them to the syrup house, and fed them through grinders to produce the sweet juice that would soon be boiled down into cane syrup.
Smoke streamed steadily from the eaves of the syrup house as men kept the fires stoked, cooking the thin sweet cane juice, skimming off the refuse until the liquid became thick, golden brown heaven to be poured over pancakes and hot biscuits.
Lannie Lee, patriarch of the 2010 Bulloch County Farm Bureau Farm Family of the Year, was surrounded by helpers, friends and curious onlookers as he oversaw the production earlier this week of the latest batch of cane syrup produced on the family farm off Pretoria-Rushing Road.
Cane grinding and syrup boiling are only a part of what the Lee family is known for as an agricultural family. While Lee has helped with cane all his life, he only began making his own syrup about 18 years ago. The Lee farm has been in the family for more than 100 years, and has produced cattle, cotton, tobacco, corn and much more.
"I love the smell of the dirt, and like the open spaces," Lee said, as he took a break from the syrup boiling. "I love to drive a tractor. Never did like to drive a mule, but I did it."
And in the morning, when chores were done, as a small child Lee drove a buggy horse named Maude four miles to school in Brooklet.
Lee just turned 90 and grew up on the farm between Brooklet and Statesboro, born to Brooks and Martha Lee. As he became an adult, he grew to love farming so much, he and his brother took over, tilling the soil and raising cattle until his brother's health resulted in the farm becoming his responsibility.
He recalls the thrill of getting his first tractor - a Model H John Deere - after years of following behind a mule.
"I felt like I could work all of Bulloch County," he said with a laugh.
Lee laughs often, a contagious sound that brings smiles to other faces. It's obvious he has enjoyed his life and isn't finished doing so. The spry 90-year-old hasn't learned what "slow down" means, and seems to want to keep it that way.
He loves tractors so much, he once purchased a truck without ever dismounting from the tractor he was using to plant a field.
Frank Rozier remembers going with his father to Lee's farm about 40 years ago to sell him a truck.
"Lannie was planting, and we pulled to the end of the field," he said.
Rozier's father, F.C. Rozier, told Lee he wanted to trade trucks. After a bit of dickering, with the senior Rozier writing figures down on his hand, Lee said: "All right F.C., I can't come in until tomorrow. I'll take it, and I'll be there tomorrow."
With that, he went back to his task. "He never got off his tractor seat," Rozier said. "That's the way they did business back in those days."
Troy Clifton remembers Lee from "back in those days," since he met Lee in 1935 in school. They reunited in 1998 at a Kiwanis Club meeting and Clifton began helping Lee with syrup making. Last year they produced 650 gallons, he said.
"I like associating with people, and just like to come help out," he said.
That's the reason Julian and Freddie Deal were at the farm recently during a cooking. Several people stop by each time they cook syrup - to chew on a bit of cane stalk, drink some of the freshly squeezed cane juice, or get some of the hot, fresh syrup for future use.
Also, the visitors enjoy reminiscing about the past, and joking around with each other as they wait the four hours it takes one batch of cane syrup to boil. The Deal brothers pitched in a little to help before leaving with a few bottles of the syrup.
Farm Family of the Year
The long history, the steady involvement and the dedication to agriculture Lee has shown are reasons why his family won the Farm Family of the Year award. It was quite an honor, Lee said.
"I never dreamed I would be selected," he said. "There are so many bigger and better farmers."
He has been involved with the Bulloch County Farm Bureau for almost 40 years, including serving the past four as president.
He is humble, but it is a well-deserved honor that reflects upon Lee's love for farming. He isn't as involved with farming as he once was, but activity with the cane grinding has not slowed at all, he said.
"I built the syrup house myself," he said. "I laid every brick in it."
But the memories still live. Lee began farming the property with his brother in 1947, and lives on the farm today.
"I was born and raised here," he said. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
Things have changed a great deal in agriculture since he began, he admitted. Hay balers, chemicals, and equipment have come a long way since the mule and plow days.
"I sure was glad to see the round balers," he said. "We would bale a million of those little bales."
His friend James Connor, who helps him still today with cane syrup making, agrees. He said Lee is the ultimate farmer.
"He stays after his stuff and keeps fields sprayed like he should," he said, adding that a sign of a good farmer is how he keeps his crops.
Connor said he enjoys helping Lee, whom he has known since 1946, because "of the people you meet. You see neighbors that you don't see very often and meet people you haven't ever met before."
Sometimes people will stop because they see the "Cane Syrup for Sale" sign in Lee's yard. That's something Lee enjoys, as well as the company of his friends. This year, one of his friends is absent, having passed away, and Lee misses his presence.
He knew William Hinely 45 years, he said, and Hinely had been helping with the syrup for 17 years.
"He was a dear friend, such a nice fellow," Lee said.
With the memories of those no longer around, and the company of those who remain loyal helpers each year, Lee still enjoys his cane grinding and syrup making, enjoys his family on the farm, and enjoys life.
He appreciates "good family ties, good church, (Bethlehem Primitive Baptist), good community. I'm in Bulloch County and I'll be here until I die," he said.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.