Back then most farming folk would agree that fall — OK autumn — was the best time of the year. Gone was summer’s heat and hard work in tobacco and cotton fields.
Stiff new clothes and stiffer new shoes bought at the start of the school year had been softened by wearing. Cotton had been picked. Corn had been pulled and some of it ground into fresh meal and grits. Cows and hogs had been turned into fields to fatten on corn and other things left for their consumption until they were ready for market or butchered for home cooking. Sweet potatoes had been dug and stored in banks straw and earth, kept dry by the straw and ventilation and protected against winter freezes by the soil. If crops had sold well, there was some cash money.
First frost signaled that it was time to grind sugar cane and make syrup, a very important part of people’s diet year-round. Farmers wanted to leave cane in the patch as long as possible to develop maximum sugar content, but if it froze, that sugar would quickly sour. It took smart people, wise to the ways of nature, to extract a living from their world. “Cane grindings” (Why not syrup makings?) required hard work by skilled hands, but they were also festive events drawing visits by kin and neighbors to sample the juice and help if needed. Perhaps this is why my father scheduled his on a Saturday when children were free from school.
The process began in the cane patch, which was located in rich, moist soil protected from extreme heat and cold. Sugar cane develops joints or sections like many other grasses. Each joint grows a protective blade-like leaf similar to corn or Bermuda grass. The first step in harvesting the cane was to remove these blades with a cane stripper, a v-shaped tool attached to a wooden handle. Then the cane was cut off near the ground with a machete or sharp hoe and the top removed. Some of the cane was banked in mounds of soil as seed for next year. (Each joint has an eye that will sprout into a new cane in the spring.) Sometimes at harvest the cane was cut above its lowest joint so that the stubble in the patch produced new growth in the spring and the patch was expanded in size with stubble and new plantings.
By mule and wagon or pickup, cane was hauled to the cane mill, a marvelously complicated machine. It was built around two or three finely-grooved metal cylinders securely mounted about four feet above ground. When turned, these crushed the cane, extracting the sweet juice. Gears at the top of the mill turned the grinders. A long, slightly angled beam attached the gears to a power source, a mule led in a circle by a pole attached to the bridle. Use of a gentle mule — one not readily excited by human activity — was advised. When mules were replaced by tractors, some farmers figured out how to make one run slowly and in the necessary circle.
Juice crushed from the cane ran down a trough to a barrel covered with burlap cloth to strain out bits of cane released by grinding. One worker, often a boy, fed cane into the mill constantly to produce a steady flow of juice. The work was tedious and unexciting, but whoever fed the mill could drink the sweet juice at will. In truth, a lot of people visited the mill to sample the juice. A common cup — glass jar or gourd — was always provided.
My father remembered an event when a neighbor visited the mill and downed two sizeable gourds of juice. Wiping his mustache with the back of his hand, he declared, “Your juice ain’t good.” A cousin who was feeding the mill while sitting on a block of stove wood fell off backwards in surprise and mirth, leading the old man to ask, “What ails you, boy?”
The other central part of syrup making was a 60-gallon cast iron boiler set in a brick furnace. It was a perfect half circle with a 3- to 4-inch lip which supported the weight on the bricks, looking remarkably like a huge World War I Army helmet. It was sheltered by a roof and two side walls and used for many things including washing clothes and at hog-killing time. In syrup making, it was used to boil the juice to remove all water and impurities. Managing the heat and judging the syrup required skills that relatively few people had. My father was one.
Making syrup demanded constant attention and work. A long-handled skimmer was used to remove any foreign items not captured by straining at the mill. Emptied in a convenient bucket at the front of the furnace, these “skims” might ferment from the heat. Tales were told of adventurous males consuming skims and of hogs getting tipsy after drinking them from their feed trough.
Near the end of the cooking process, warm candy-like residue accumulated on the flanged lip of the furnace. Children might scrape it up on a strip of cane peel, an unusual treat not to be consumed in volume. It could do interesting things to stomachs.
When the maker judged that the syrup was done, the fire was pulled and the boiler was emptied using a long-handled metal dipper. The standard storage unit was a gallon syrup bucket, but other things from thick fruit jars to bottles could also be used.
All was done quickly. The boiler was refilled with juice from the mill. Work continued until all the cane was ground and made into syrup or it got too dark to work.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.