Illustration by Billy Peavy
By Frances Lowery Garner
Country folk looked forward to syrup making time. They would have fresh syrup to “sop,” syrup to cook with (good ole syrup cake), and syrup to trade on the Rolling Store.
The cane plants were put into the ground in early March and were ready to cut in the fall. The cane stalks were stripped of the fodder (foliage) and stacked in neat piles. The fodder was placed over the stalks to prevent frost bite until it was ready to be made into syrup around Thanksgiving.
Syrup making time would draw people from miles around not only to be able to get fresh syrup but also to get a gallon of fresh cold cane juice to drink. There would be a handy dipper at the cane mill for those who just wanted a sample (most of them more than one sample at no charge, of course).
The peeling from the cane would have turned the juice a dark green but it would be cold, foamy, sweet, and delicious when coming straight from the grinding of the cane mill.
Some would go home with a shiny new gallon tin of new syrup, a jar of juice, and even some stalks of the cane to peel and chew later.
The cane mill would consist of a long brick furnace with a chimney at one end and tin vats would be over the top of the furnace. The vats would be 10-12’ long and hold about 50 gallons of juice.
Wood would be placed under the end of the furnace and once the fire got going, it would be pushed up to the front of the furnace with a long pole.
The syrup would cook quicker close to the chimney where the syrup would run out. The juice would go into the open end from the mule driven grinder and syrup would come out of the vat, once it was unplugged, at the chimney end.
The juice, when cooking, would form a skim over top and this would have to be skimmed off to make the syrup look lighter in color.
The cane mill was powered entirely by a mule and his job was to go around and around attached to a long pole that would grind the stalks as it was hand fed into the mill.
The pole would be balanced level over the top of the mill. You had to watch for the other end or you could be knocked out of the way if you were not careful.
The mule would be swapped out with a fresh replacement every two hours. The crushed stalks would go out to one side of the mill and the fresh juice would flow out the other into a waiting wooden barrel (cut in half) with a pipe running from the barrel underground to the vat.
This could be turned off at the vat. It would be 30-40 feet from the grinding to the finished product. The process had to be out of the way of the mule for sanitary reasons.
The grinding would begin about 2 a.m. to have enough juice to fill the vat by daybreak. The fire would be started using pine wood that was cut and split in the summertime so it would be good and dry.
This would burn well and make for a good hot fire. An experienced syrup maker could judge by the bubbles in the syrup while it was boiling and could tell when it was ready to turn off.
He could also pick up some of the skimmer and let it drip to test for thickness. Then the decision would be made as to when to pull the plug in the vat and when to stop it.
The hot syrup would be run off into a 20 gallon or larger wooden barrel that would have a faucet. The tin gallon cans would be filled and sealed from this making.
The tin cans were purchased in cases of 50. This quantity would not be enough for those who had planted a good size patch of sugar cane. It all depended on the size of the family also and what they might be giving or selling to neighbors.
They had to be sure and make enough for their own use for an entire year. Clean up would come after all the syrup had been run off for one day and vats would have to be washed thoroughly.
Things would be ready for the next morning when the process would begin all over again. The price of a gallon of the bright new syrup was 25 cents. That is hard to imagine when you could not even get a sample for that amount of money today.
To produce good quality syrup, you had to have an experienced syrup maker. There would usually be two or three men in the community who qualified for this job (old hands) so they would be in demand.
One neighbor would help another neighbor and no money would be exchanged. The labor at a cane mill would require four to five good men.
This would include the skimmer, the syrup maker, someone to pitch off the refuse from the grinding (called the chews), one to draw off the syrup, fill the buckets and stack, and two to feed the mill of 3-5 stalks at the time.
The mill had to be kept continuously running. At sundown the mill had to be shut down due to no outside lights.
As with all else on the farm, everything would be utilized to the fullest extent, from the chews being used for the compost to the skimming that came from the peelings. It would be fermented and made into cane liquor (I am told it was 100 proof).
This, of course, was not legal but known to be done anyway and those who took part of it said it was real potent. Nothing was wasted in those days!
Syrup cake recipe
1 cup sugar
1 cup oil
1 cup cane syrup
2 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 tablespoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 cup boiling water
Preheat oven 325 degrees. Combine eggs, sugar, oil and syrup until smooth. Blend in dry ingredients. Add water and carefully combine. Pour into a greased cast iron skillet (8-9 inch). Bake for approximately 30-35 minutes until toothpick comes out clean. It is real moist and good.