Syrup

One of our most important food sources was homemade syrup.  With six to one hundred gallons in the larder, along with huge quantities of butter and corn for cornbread, we had a ready and abundant supply for breakfast and a ready dessert for the end of meals.  A container filled with syrup was always on our kitchen table.  In cold weather, the only head in the dining room came from the kitchen stove.  Heated syrup with butter, hot biscuits, pancakes, fritters, sweet potato biscuits, or even cornbread sent you off to school or work with a contented stomach.

Syrup making on our farm was a most serious and long-term affair.  In the winter prior to syrup making season in the fall, plans were made to get the proper wood for heating the pans.  First, the pinewood had to be cut in the proper phase of the moon.  I don't recall what the proper phase was, but I think it was when the moon could not hold water.  The wood was cut and split into the proper size and stacked very carefully to let it dry.

In the spring, with the wood ready, we chose a fertile area to plant the seeds.  The area had to be accessible to the road so the cane could be carried to the mill.  Once the seeds were planted, the cane plants required little care until the matured.  The cane was ready when the top of the stalk (the head) was mature.  This was when the seed for next year's planting was obtained.  In addition, the heads were a great source of feed for the chickens and other farm animals.

At maturity, always in the hottest part of the fall, the first step in harvesting was the stripping of the blades from the stalk.  Because of the thick rows, and blades on each stalk, the working area had little ventilation.  The heat was oppressive.  After the entire field had been stripped, the next job was to cut the stalks and stack them in piles.  This required the effort of two workers.  One would hold the stalk, while another cut them at the base with and ax or knife.  After the stalks had been stacked in piles, the top (heads) were cut off and placed in piles to dry.  The bare stalks were now ready to be hauled to the syrup mill.  They were picked up by the armful and loaded on the wagon as it drove through the field.  We never owned syrup mill and always traded with an owner to move his mill to our farm.  The equipment to make syrup consisted of the mill and the pan.  The mill had two rollers that moved in opposite directions, turned by a mule pulling a pole round and round.  Someone took the cane stalks and fed them to the mill, where the rollers squeezed them and extracted the juice.  The juice ran through a funnel and into a fifty-gallon barrel.  This part of the operation was always uphill from the pan.  Since the pole pulled by the mule was very low, the person feeding the cane had to duck very low to avoid being hit in the head.  As the juice was extracted, the stalks landed on the other side.  These were pulled away and piled into the mounds of 'chaws.' When we made a large quantity of syrup, the mound could be huge.

The syrup cooking apparatus was a copper pan divided into sections by dividers.  A fire from the carefully prepared wood was was built the pan.  The pan was placed so that the finished end was slightly lower, allowing gravity to help the flow.  The syrup maker would allow the proper amount of juice to enter the pan.  As it cooked, he would remove the impurities with a skimmer, which he threw into a hole prepared for the skimming, the skimming hole.  By changing the cooking time, a skilled syrup maker could control whether the syrup was thin or thick.  We always had somewhat thin syrup.  At the first end of the pan, and exit hole allowed the syrup (still boiling) to flow into metal syrup buckets.  In our case, each held a gallon.  I am a bit hazy as to the division of the finished syrup, but think the mill owner got a quarter of the total.

Once started, the syrup making continued around the clock.  The fire under the pan lit the area, and people within walking distance would come to observe the operation.  As a part of the observing, they would drink some of the raw juice.  (As a by-product, cane juice was an excellent, if extreme, laxative.  Using bucket lids and a piece of stalk, visitors would also sample the syrup.  When all the juice had been cooked and put into buckets, the finished product was divided, The mill would be moved to another farm.

This still left one additional chore.  The cane heads piled in the field had to be gathered and carried to the barn, where they would be fed to chickens or cows, or used for seed.

Not only was syrup a huge staple of our diet, it also was a source of income since there was usually a demand.  As I recall, in the depth of the depression, it brought fifty cents per gallon.  I have known of a farmer swapping a day's work for two gallons.

The skimming hole was allowed to dry (evaporate) and was then filled up.  The pile of cane chaws remained.  They were soft, and a great play area where children could turn flips and tumble.  An insulation against freezing, the chaws were also great cover for the potato hill.

One thing that always amazed me about the syrup makers was their ability to drink or sip boiling coffee.  Since there was no stopping once the pan was heated, they often worked many continuous hours, and a stimulant was needed.

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