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Molasses Making Continues in Mississippi in The 1860's
Photo from Elwood Community, Clarke County, MS, Robert Price Farm (32"00'43"N 88"48'48"W)
by S.F. Kennedy Jr.

Growing up during the Great Depression in rural Mississippi, I was heavily involved in helping our family to produce and preserve the necessary foodstuff to keep vittles on the table. One of the late season activities on many farms was the production of syrup for the oncoming year. We called it molasses or just sorghum. During the early fall there was lots sorghum molasses production activity. Later, in late fall, this shifted to sugar cane molasses. Our family preferred sugar cane molasses because it stored better over the winter. We would trade with other families who raised sorghum, By doing so, we had fresh molasses early in the season and they had fresh molasses late in the season. Molasses would become �strong� flavored after a few months of storage. Sugar cane molasses often crystallized after a period of storage, forming large rock crystals on the inside surface of the can. A teaspoon of vinegar or other ingredients were often added to the new molasses to retard crystallization. During WW-2, when sugar was tightly rationed, it was advantageous for the molasses to crystallize, thus producing your own sugar supply. However, no matter how much processing you did, it still tasted like dark brown sugar� but it was sweet. As a kid, I was always confused whether the word molasses was singular or plural. I thought the singular form sound right, but most folks said things like, �them molasses are really good� or �they really have a good flavor this year�. Regardless of what you called it, there was nothing like a hot buttered biscuit with fresh (them) molasses. Unless it was perhaps several hot buttered biscuits with plenty of molasses.



The Squeezing Operation...Tractor Powered
Photo from Elwood Community, Clarke County, MS, Robert Price Farm (32"00'43"N 88"48'48"W), Worker Unknown.
by S.F. Kennedy Jr.

Sorghum is a grain type plant that has high sugar content in the juice of the stalks. The sorghum plant is grown from seed and is akin to corn. Sorghum grows well in Mississippi as well as in the more temperate northern states and is used for silage and grain. Sorghum reaches the harvesting stage for molasses production some time in August to early September. This occurs after the main crops are maturing and no longer require attention. Even so, it is awful hot that time of year for cooking molasses. Sorghum was easier to raise and harvest than sugar cane, but the sugar content of the juice was not as high and it required more evaporation to become molasses.

Sugar cane is a tropical plant. While it does produce seed in some climates it was propagated in our part of the world by saving an adequate supply of whole stalks of cane over the winter. This was called was called �seed cane�. It was usually dug up roots and all and placed in a flat well drained area where leaves and soil was placed over it so it would not freeze during the winter. In the spring, the stalks were removed from the bed and chopped up so each piece had a joint and a bud on it. This was placed in the ground and the new stalk of cane grew from it. You had to be careful of the type fertilizer that you used. Cottonseed meal was the favored fertilizer for this purpose. However due to the fact that it was a slow releasing organic product it had to be applied on or before the cane was planted. When manure was used, it really made the cane grow and produce well, but the salt in the manure would be picked up by the cane and cause the molasses to taste salty. Some farmers worried about �other� products being picked up as well. Other non-organic fertilizers would have similar effect on the taste of the molasses

Harvesting the cane was a big job. The leaves had to be stripped off, topped and the stalks cut so it could be hauled to the cane mill. Sugar cane leaves are very stiff and can give nasty and serious cuts. A double blade tool similar to a machete was used for stripping. Some farmers would resort to burning the sugar cane leaves while it was still standing, thereby saving lots of difficult labor. But guess what! The resulting molasses was dark and you could taste the difference.
 

The Business Arrangement:

In our community there were two farmers who operated cane mills for their own purposes and for hire. Mr. Guy Scott had a permanent mill site and Mr. John McLeod had another. Both claimed superior results. Due to the large volume of business in season, you had to use the one that could work you in on your most favorable schedule. The standard business arrangement was that the mill owner would provide all the equipment and would supervise the cooking operation. The customer furnished the cane, the cans and lids, the firewood, the labor (other than the cook/supervisor) and the mules for powering the roller squeezing press. The mill owner usually sold new molasses cans; however, unless the farmer's old cans were completely worn out, they were cleaned and reused.

The mill operator received 1/8 or sometimes more of the finished molasses as payment. The mills were typically mule powered. It required two mules for continuous operation. Each mule would take turns in to round in 50 ft diameter circles for about an hour. The off duty mule would be fed a small amount and watered. It wasn�t hard work for the mule but must have been awful boring. The juice extraction normally involved three people. One person to feed the squeezer, one to receive and dispose of the �chews� and one to carry the cane to the squeezing operator.

Since there were several wagonloads of cane involved, it was hauled the day or two before the scheduled operation and stacked near the squeezing operation. Several customers would have stacked their cane in different areas. When one customer�s batch was finished, the mill could continue operation with a new customer�s batch without interrupting the flow. At the end of the day the cooking pan had to be flooded with water and cleaned up. It was difficult to work into the night in that there was usually no electric lighting available.



The Operation:

In all stages of the operation there was an abundance of sweet juice on everything. Every day was a very bad hair day for all those working there. At that time in history, there were honeybees everyplace and all sorts of other bees and yellow jackets that loved the cane juice and resulting molasses. Bee stings were common during the operation and sometimes a cooked bee would wind up in the molasses. During the cooking operation the juice was continuously foaming, which had to be removed with a skimmer. The skims were placed in a barrel and fed to the hogs. Sometime the brew fermented before it was used. One time I saw the mill owner�s pigs get drunk. A bunch of drunken pigs are worse than a bunch of drunken people. They probably all lost weight with all the running around they did.

Enough firewood to do the cooking had to be delivered in advance. It had to be cut to long lengths and well seasoned so that the fire could be precisely managed� the job of the cook. If the cooking molasses was even slightly scorched it resulted in a bad taste in the resulting finished product. The juice being cooked had to be stirred constantly. Each cook was very proud of their reputation and liked to boast of producing the best molasses in the county. Keep in mind that with sugar cane, it took approximately 100 gallons of juice to produce about 10 gallons of molasses. Lots of water had to be evaporated. Sorghum required even more. Different operators had different ways to determine when the batch was finished. One such test was to drip a drop of the molasses in a jar of cool water and see if would stay together or dissolve.

The squeezing operation had to make enough juice to stay ahead of the cooking operation. It rapidly became a crisis if there was no supply of juice and the batch being cooked was finished and ready to pour. If this happened, to prevent scorching the cooking pan had to be supplied water instead of juice causing a serious interruption to the process. The squeezing operation was always located up hill from the cooking operation so that the juice could be gravity fed, there were no pumps were involved. The juice had to be piped under the mule track so as to not interfere with the mule�s path. The juice had to be filtered before being piped down hill to remove the particles of fiber that were remained after the squeezing operation. The filters were clumps of grass that had been pulled up with roots and thoroughly washed. The filter material was located in an open wooden trough. It was primitive, but quite effective. A receiving barrel was located firebox end of the cooking pan with a spigot to regulate supplying juice to the pan. The cooking pans were about 8 ft long and about 4ft wide. The best pans were made of copper but more economical plated steel pans were available. This type cooking pan was baffled in such a way as to form one long back and forth channel about 5 or 6 inches wide. Most of the mill equipment was available from Sears-Roebuck by mail order.


The Copper Cooking Pan
Dimensions and descriptions are from childhood memory and are subject to error.
by S.F. Kennedy Jr.

    

I could tell you more about the operation but it is sufficient to say that it was a very happy event when the mules were hitched up to the wagon and the 35 or more gallons of hot molasses was loaded and we headed home. We always had enough to share with family and friends. We had a standing order to ship a few gallons to uncles, aunts and other relatives who had moved away and lived in "town". I suppose there are a few cane mills left and a few farmers who still grow cane� but not very many.

Happy Sopping!

 

 

� COPYRIGHT 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BILL EDDINS & APPROPRIATE AUTHORS