Kansas Collection books

Molasses Making Time

Grandma making the syrup

"The goldenrod is yellow
The corn is turning brown
The trees in the apple orchard
With fruit are bending down."

    You may remember these lines from the poem September.  It tells about the ending of summer and the beginning of fall.  To me that is the most delightful time of the year in our part of the country.  Days grow shorter, nights (and days) get cooler and there is a haze on the horizon, usually brought on by some cooling showers.

    Years ago, these signs signaled that it was time to mow the final hay crop and store it in the barn.  It was time to dig the potatoes and onions and store them in the vegetable bin in the fruit cellar.  It was also time to can the late tomatoes, make some piccalilli relish and time to make sorghum molasses.

    Our close neighbors came from Arkansas and they taught us how to make it.

    First, you have to plant a patch of sorghum cane.  I don't remember where the cane seed came from, but our neighbors had plenty.  They encouraged many of the neighbors to plant a patch.  They brought with them from Arkansas a sorghum press that they called a grinder.  It was simply a pair of rollers that squeezed the juice (squeezings) from the cane stalks and collected it in a wooden barrel that had a tea towel stretched over the top, to strain out the pulp.  The press was powered by a sleepy mule that walked around and around, pulling a beam that caused the press rolls to turn.

    But let's go back to that cane patch again.  Before the cane stalks could be squeezed, they had to be stripped of the leaves.  This was done with a wooden stripper --- much like a toy sword.  Usually one or more of the teenage boys was assigned the stripping job.  Then the cane was harvested with a sled-cutter.  It was a simple wooden sled on runners with a v-shaped front end.  Bolted on the V front end was a pair of sharp cutter blades.  A mule pulled the sled down the cane row, cutting the stalks close to the ground as it went.  The stalks were gathered by the armload and piled lengthwise on the back of the sled.  When the sled was full, it was unloaded in a neat rick next to the press and the heads of grain were then removed.  After all the cane was harvested, the sorghum making began.

    Additional equipment was needed to convert the cane juice into sorghum molasses.  There was a fire-box built from brick, that was about 3 feet wide and 9 feet long.  A cooking pan was constructed from a piece of sheet metal.  This cooking pan was probably 6 inches deep.  It would easily hold a barrel of cane juice.  The cooking pan was placed over the brick firebox and filled with cane juice.  A hot fire was built in the firebox and the project was underway.  The location was close to the creek bank, under a grove of shade trees.

    The women usually tended to the cooking, as the men were busy squeezing juice and cuffing wood for the fire.  As the juice began to boil, a green scum came to the surface, and had to be skimmed off.  The skimmer was a long-handled strainer that was used to keep the juice stirred and the green scum removed.  As the juice began to simmer, a delightful aroma wafted everywhere.  It was molasses making time, and neighbors from far and near appeared. Some came to help, while others brought their cane to be juiced.  The project would continue for nearly a week, or until all the cane was ground.

    The experts could tell by looking when the molasses was ready to bottle.  The cooking pan was transferred to a pair of sawhorses close to another table, where the clean and shining jars and bottles were lined up ready to be filled.  A second cooking pan was ready to be put on the fire box and filled with raw juice.

    The part that I liked best was the bottling of the molasses. As soon as nearly all the molasses in the pan was transferred to jugs and bottles, the children were allowed to "clean up the pan."  Each youngster had a piece of cane stalk with a slant-cut end and it was easy to run that stalk along the bottom of the pan and come up with a gob of molasses on the end.  That was the next best thing to a stick of candy.  If there were enough kids (and sometimes adults) around, it didn't take long to clean the cooking pan.  Finally, the women would wash out the remaining molasses with cold water and get the pan ready for the next batch.

    During the Depression years there was a demand for good sorghum molasses.  Most of us had enough to eat --- it was money we were short of.  Winter sweetening (molasses) was cheaper than refined sugar and provided a source of income for many of our neighbors.  We might not have been able to afford white sugar, but you can bet Grandma could make a lot of good things from the sorghum molasses.

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