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A sweet farewell
'Preacher' Ellis ends his run of syrup-making on the midway
Preacher Ellis, center, greets Caroline Sanders and Jim Borning, far left, and answers questions about the art and science of cooking cane syrup Friday during the 2012 Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair.

He is 79 and has a heart full of memories.
As Jesse "Preacher" Ellis worked Friday night making syrup at the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair, it was bittersweet.
After far more than 20 years, Ellis says he's hanging up his skimmer.
Cooking cane syrup has long been a major attraction at the agricultural fair, and Ellis has been overseeing the task for a long time.
"Billie Joe Deal got me cooking syrup here,” Ellis said. “Some of the men said I didn’t know how to cook syrup, but when I made my first batch it was clear as jelly. Billie Joe said I was hired."
Ellis began helping cook syrup with his father on Stoddard Deal's farm in Brooklet when he was 12 years old. It was just another part of farm life.
“I picked tobacco, hoed cotton, pulled corn and cooked syrup," he said.
When his father cooked cane syrup, Ellis fed the cane mill and watched the mule as it walked in circles, hitched to the grinder that rendered the cane into juice. He fed the fire that burned beneath the huge syrup boiler, and he learned.
“The key to cooking quality cane syrup is to stay with it," he said. "It takes about three hours to cook a batch."
Grinding sugar cane and cooking the juice into syrup, he said, is a dying art. As he handled the job throughout the years at the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair, he made friends and gathered memories.
"I really enjoyed it," Ellis said. "I met a lot of good people. A lot of older people come by and say they used to do this, and young folks ask about what I'm doing. I have a lot of good memories, and when I walk away from here tonight, I'll have a lot of good memories I thank God for."
He has mixed feelings about ending his tour of duty as the "cane man." He smiled and laughed as he remembered.
"You know I'll miss some of it,” Ellis said. “It's a job but I wouldn't take anything for it."
Cane syrup, he said, is one of the best foods in the world, although he admits it's not very good for you.
"I like to eat it on biscuits,” he said. “Sometimes I'll poke a hole in the biscuit and then sometimes I'll just sop it."
He said he prefers his syrup on the thicker side so it doesn't run and you "don't have to hem it up with the biscuit."
Ellis might be handing over the reins, but he said he is confident in the man who is taking over.
Steven Gordon, 36, of Glennville, was at the fair Friday helping Ellis with the syrup in preparation for taking over next year. Gordon admitted being rather young in the cane business, but learned the art from his grandfather.
"My granddaddy showed me how to do this when I was in my early 20's," Gordon said. When his grandfather had strokes and was unable to cook syrup anymore, it changed family tradition. At Thanksgiving, when no one was cooking syrup, "It just wasn't right," Gordon said. So, he decided to buy some cane and learn how to cook syrup.
"A lot of young people don't want to know how," he said. "It's work, but seeing people take interest in the art makes it all worthwhile. It's part of heritage, but it's dying -- fading away."
But as long as young people like himself make the effort to learn, cooking cane syrup is a skill that can continue to educate and preserve history -- as well as provide a delicious product for people to enjoy.

Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9431.

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