Old-Time Sorghum-Making

By William W. Milburn - 2000

Each year, we travel north for our annual family reunion. Each year, we recall and enjoy the memories of days past. Anyway, the older ones do. The younger ones are in the process of making memories to recall when they reach the ripe age of senior citizenship.

On our way home from the most recent reunion, we stopped to visit with others who didn't attend. One of our favorite places to stop is the home of cousin Hazel Milburn Jones in Livingston (Rockcastle County), Kentucky. Hazel is 87 years old now; still spry, but almost deaf. She's the daughter of Grover Cleveland and Luvinia Settles Milburn, from Jackson County, and was born in the vicinity of Wildcat Mountain, near Hazel Patch. "Cleve," as he was known, was a cousin of my father, Willie Milburn; so Hazel is a cousin to me. Cleve and my father married sisters.

My wife had in mind to buy some sorghum molasses to take home with us. It has been years since I poured this delicious treat on hot, homemade biscuits covered with creamy, home-churned butter. We asked Cousin Hazel where we might find a quart or so of molasses, and she mentioned a place just north of Livingston. We retraced our steps and found the place, but they didn't have any sorghum. They didn't know of anyone who made sorghum molasses anymore.

I felt a bit depressed, almost sad. My wife suggested that we travel south on U. S. Highway 25, moving slowly, while looking for an outdoor market that might have molasses. We drove in leisurely fashion, enjoying the ride.

Expressway travel is nice, but you don't have time to see and enjoy the countryside. People say, "I went through that state," but when asked what they saw, they can't remember. On the expressway, you don't really see anything except fast-moving traffic and billboards. Billboards are banned in many foreign countries.

But I digress, getting away from the molasses hunt.

We stopped at several places on our way south. Just north of Corbin, we finally saw the place; another outdoor market. Traffic was a bit heavy, but I made a left turn, slipping easily to a stop in front of the tomato counter. The young woman approached us with a friendly smile, assured us that she had molasses to sell, took our money, then wished us a happy trip home.

The jars containing the molasses didn't carry a label. To me, this was a sign the molasses were real. My wife carried the precious jar of molasses. I could already taste those hot biscuits (my wife makes good biscuits and is old enough to make them from scratch), the creamy butter (not homemade), and the sorghum molasses; the fruit of out search.

We moved back onto the expressway at Corbin. Florida was still a long way down the road. My watch showed 1:00 p. m. We had been moving south for six hours. We left Campbell County at daybreak, but we were still in Kentucky.

A neighbor lady watches over our home when we are gone for any length of time. She is a native of Sweden, 85 years old, and a jewel of a person. We shared our molasses with her upon our return, a tribute for watching over our home. Two days later, she asked my wife what molasses were and how best to enjoy them. It didn't enter my mind that there was someone who had never enjoyed the taste of sorghum molasses.

I started to tell her the history of making molasses, and the memories came back to me in a rush:
Today is the day for making the first batch of sorghum molasses. Just before daybreak, people started to assemble. Clouds covered the sky, and a mist lay in the air. They came in wagons, on sleds, and by horseback and muleback. That is, the men and children did. The women, as usual, walked.

The long, wide iron pan sat over the wood in the fire pit. Huge stones were stacked at intervals around the edge of the pit. These stones kept the vat several inches above the fire. A large pile of wood lay close by. A lot of wood was needed for the making of sorghum.

I don't remember the exact size of the pan, but I do know it was several feet long and about half as wide as it was long; I'm thinking maybe four feet by eight feet. It could have been only three by six feet. My memory also tells me it was about ten to 12 inches deep.

The long wood paddles for stirring the brew stood leaning against the post, holding the tin roof of the shed without walls. The mill for crushing the juice from the stalks of cane was some way from the pan and the fire pit. I remember the mill was placed on a stout platform. Four strong locust posts held the heavy boards steady under the mill.

Everyone hoped the wind would blow the smoke from the fire pit away from the mill, for they didn't need smoke in their eyes all day long. The person feeding the stalks pushed the ends into the revolving metal canisters. The one taking the crushed stalks from the mill stood on the opposite side. He didn't have time to stand. The crushed stalks coming from the mill kept him busy.

When the crushed stalks fell from the mill, he quickly pulled them away with a pitchfork, throwing them outside the circle created by the walking mule. Another person loaded the stalks onto a sled. When the sled was full, the stalks were hauled away, usually to fill a gully on the hillside, which helped prevent further erosion of the soil.

Both the feeder and the taker-away had to be alert. Both had to keep an eye on the long pole that went round and around over their heads. This long arm, a section of locust attached to the top of the mill, was also attached to the harness of the mule. The mule walked in a circle, pulling the pole with him. This turned the mill, which crushed the juice from the cane. Mules were better for this work than horses. I don't remember seeing a horse walk the circle around the mill in all the years I helped make sorghum.

The cane juice flowed down into juice buckets below the mill. All day that mule walked at the same pace, around and around, going no place, but getting the juice to flow.

Sugar cane is planted in the early days of spring; the same early days that see seeds from corn, lettuce, seed potatoes, and all the other crops put into the earth. If the elements are favorable; the right amount of rain, sun, hoeing, weeding, and back-breaking hard work; the cane grows tall, higher than a man's head. It grows until time for making sorghum molasses.

The first to enter the fields are the strippers, who move through the rows, stripping the long arms of the leaves from the stalks. The leaves are allowed to fall to the ground. The strippers wear long-sleeved shirts to protect their arms from cuts by sharp edges of the leaves. Those with gloves wear them, while those without gloves are careful to avoid cuts from the leaves. I have seen some strippers use short lengths of wood to knock the leaves from the stalks. Usually, before noon, hands and cheeks are bleeding from small cuts.

Strippers take turns throughout the day. No one wanted to be a stripper. From the top to the bottom, the stalks are shorn of their covering, leaving the stalks to stand tall with only the tassels of seeds remaining.

Then come the cutters, slashing their long knives, cutting the tassels from the top of the stalks. They cut the stalks close to the ground, laying them in bundles along the rows.

Next come the sleds and wagons; the drivers moving their teams in slow motion, while the stalks are loaded for the trip to the mill. All day, this will be repeated on farm after farm. Sorghum-making is a community affair. It was much easier to haul the cane to the mill and the vat than it was to move the mill and vat to each farm.

All day, the cane stalks will be brought to the mill. All day, the mule will walk around and around. All day, the juice will flow. It will be strained and poured into the long, wide vat. The fire in the pit must be kept at the right temperature to brew the sorghum; a slow fire, not too hot.

Only the most experienced women and men are allowed to stir the slow-making molasses, keeping the fire burning steadily. The paddles must stir the green liquid as it is poured into the vat. The juice will darken and become thicker, then darkness will come to the land. Men, women, and children will work, watch, and wait for the first run-off. There will be others, but the first one is always the one to wait for.
In late evening, with the autumn sun long gone from the land, cool night breezes start to stir. The hot, red embers show around the edges of the fire pit. The first pail of sorghum is finally taken from the vat and placed on a nearby table to cool a bit.

From bags and bundles, plates, forks, and spoons appear. From the house, plates filled with hot biscuits and pones of cornbread find their way to the table. A farmer gives thanks for the bounty from another good harvest. All those present say, "Amen."

Cornbread, biscuits, and hot sorghum molasses come together. The usual words, "mighty fine" and "better'n last year" fill the air. (The new sorghum is always better than last year.)

The vat is emptied of its contents into Mason jars; pints, quarts, and half-gallons. Glass gallon jugs are also plentiful. Later, there will be candy pulls, square dancing, and laughter.

Now the vat must be cleaned. The fire is allowed to die away, and the pit is refilled with wood. Coal oil lanterns are hung from tree limbs or posts or sit on tables. Some of the people are leaving, with the children already asleep on the wagons or sleds used to take them home. Tomorrow more cane will arrive at the mill. More sorghum will flow from the vat, but the first run-off is always special.

I tried to tell the Swedish neighbor about sorghum molasses. I hope she understood. Sixty-five years of memory are hard to put into words, but I can see the making of sorghum molasses in shrouded clarity. I don't know if anyone makes them like we used to.

Maybe sorghum-making has faded into the realm of quilting bees, taking honey from trees in the winter time, or gathering walnut and hickory nuts in the fall. Candy pulls (a result of sorghum-making) is also missing today, but it sure was fun while it lasted.

William W. Milburn, 200 El Camino Drive, Apt. 412, Winter Haven, FL 33884, shares this story with our readers.