Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

Making Syrup At Home - For Fun!

by Norris Chambers

   We were never big sugar cane plantation owners, but every year up in the east sandy section of our north field, we planted about an acre of sorghum cane. This was for the purpose of having syrup on the table to eat with the hot biscuits and butter. Sorghum syrup was one of the staple items that small farmers produced each year, mostly for their own consumption. Some large families even saved it in 55 gallon wooden barrels. I know one old farmer who threatened to put the barrel in the attic with a pipe coming down over the table. The rest of the family thought this was a little crude, even for our crude way of living, and he never did do it.

  Just about every community had a man who owned a sorghum mill, and he made the syrup for others for a small percentage of the output. He usually sold it or traded it for things he could use. Nobody went syrupless in those days. There were a lot of bees in the woods, and most people found enough honey to alternate with the sorghum at the table. I will tell you about robbing a bee tree later. That can be an experience for an inexperienced bee man, and when Clifton and I robbed our first one, we were definitely inexperienced.

  A syrup mill was a rather simple machine. There were three big steel rollers, about a foot in diameter and two feet in height, standing side by side with about an eighth of an inch between them. There was a heavy gear on the top of each and they meshed in the center. A shaft from one of the rollers extended above the frame that held them for about a foot, and a long pole was attached to this shaft. The pole extended about fifteen or twenty feet in a horizontal position, and a horse or mule was hitched to it. He walked in a circle, pulling the pole and turning the three rollers. At the bottom of the rollers a metal pan collected the juice as cane was pushed between the them.

  Before going further with the explanation of syrup making, I will tell you how we prepared the cane for the mill. We carefully carved wooden swords from an old oak tree, using an axe and knife. Clifton and I went a step beyond this - we hardened the wood over a fire, holding it in the flame until it almost ignited, then withdrawing it and letting it cool. After many trips over the fire, the sword was just about as hard as a wild walnut. After hardening, we held them to a grinder that we were fortunate enough to have in our blacksmith shop and sharpened them to almost a knife edge.

  These weapons, or tools, were used to strip all the foliage from the cane as it stood in the field. After going over the patch and stripping it, we took a sharp hoe and chopped it all down close to the ground. It was then packed in the wagon, or trailer, with the tops all pointing in the same direction. It was now ready to haul to the mill.

  Usually two boys fed the mill. One carried the cane from the wagon to the mill and the other fed the stalks between the rollers. The pan had a spout from which the juice flowed. The pole that pulled the mill was well above the heads of the boys, and the mule was far enough away to offer no problem. When the bucket under the spout was full, another was placed under it and the first one was emptied into the cooking pan.

  The cooking pan was about three feet wide and twelve or fifteen feet long. It was made of metal, and had baffles across it so that fluid flowing from one end to the other had to go around them to the side, where it passed around the baffle and into the next compartment. The raw juice was poured in one end and worked with specially built wooded paddles toward the other. This pan was mounted on a rock base with fire underneath. There were holes in the side of the rock base through which wood was thrown in to fuel the fire. A tall smoke stack on one end kept air flowing and made the fire burn nicely.

  The juice started cooking at the upper end, and was pushed around the baffles by the operator. As new juice was added, the mass was kept moving toward the far end. At the finish line, there was a drain on the side with a home-made gate that allowed it to be opened and closed. There were about three men pushing the juice along the cooker, and one manning the gate and filling gallon cans, jugs, kegs or whatever the cane producer brought to put his syrup in. The mill operator usually put his syrup in gallon buckets with tight fitting lids.

  Some syrup makers added baking soda as the syrup was drawn and put in the container. This helped to keep the syrup from turning to sugar after several months of exposure to the air. Syrup that was not treated with soda would form heavy, brown sugar in the bottom of the bucket. This was not a serious thing because the sugar hardened and made a very tasty candy just as it came from the bucket. It could also be melted in a frying pan and used as hot sorghum. Some people said that the soda ruined the taste of the syrup. I could never tell the difference.

  When the sorghum began to turn to sugar, some of the farm cooks would mix it with corn syrup, which was cheap but had no flavor of its own, and cook it. This made an excellent sorghum flavored syrup that would keep indefinitely. In fact, I have know people to mix their syrup in the pan, adding a bucket of KARO occasionally when the mix was nearing the drain.

  That was the syrup making process practiced in our area, and the story should end here. Clifton and I decided to build our own blending vat. We found an old iron tool box that had been abandoned in the oil field. It's dimensions were approximately two feet by six. We thought this would serve our purpose well, so we took it to the shop and began working it over. When we got through, we had a pan, complete with baffles and standing on six two inch pipe legs that held the pan to a height of about two and a half feet. This was much smaller than the regular cooking pans, but we were not cooking juice, which took a lot of evaporation. We tried different ratios of sorghum, Brer Rabbit Ribbon Cane, Karo and honey, cooking them and adding water as required to keep the thickness about right. We poured the ingredients in the top of the pan and pushed them along with the special paddles as in regular syrup making.

  We were well pleased with the results, and got a few compliments on our special syrup blends. Perhaps our best version consisted of nothing more than brown sugar and water with a touch of vanilla flavoring. Brown sugar was cheap and could be bought in the grocery store by the pound. The brown sugar then was much better than that which is available today. It still had much of the syrup still in it. Now it is refined so much that it has little more flavor than white sugar. This mixture, when cooked to a rather heavy consistency, made a great syrup for pancakes. Pancakes were served with regularity on most farms in the days when most of what you ate was what you cultivated on the land. Waffles did not make their general appearance until much later. Pancakes were also called hotcakes by many old timers, and many a farmer prided himself on his ability to flip them with the pan.

  It's not likely that any of today's youngsters will have the opportunity of make syrup, but that was one of the experiences that those of us still living and remembering the good old days will never forget.

  To find FUN in syrup making, we sometimes resorted to a dirty trick. We dug a hole to bury the skimmings. A lot of foam came to the top when cooking, and this was skimmed off with a long handled ladle. The skimmings were poured in this hole, and when it was about full, it was covered with the squeezed cane stalks, which were called "pummies." An unsuspecting watcher (there were those who came to watch the process and to taste the new syrup} who tramped around the area inevitably stepped in the hole and his foot buried in the sticky mess. It went in the shoe and was very uncomfortable and hard to get rid of. There was always a roar of laughter when this happened. Experienced "syrup making watchers" were very careful where they placed their feet. But there was always a green horn or two to catch with the trick.

  Making syrup was one way of having FUN.


By James Phillips

I enjoyed reading your article on the net about "Making Syrup at Home - For Fun". My Dad died October 19, 2000, at the age of 91. Here is what he had to say about making syrup when he was a boy growing up in Calhoun county, Alabama:

"During the years we were farming, we would make sorghum syrup in the fall. Mr. John and Tom Burgess were the syrup makers. They would bring the mill and equipment to our big spring where our cane was piled high, and also all our nieghbors would have their cane there too. I fed the cane into the mill to make the juice from which the syrup was made. It was cooked off in a large pan with a wood furnace under it. We always made 200 to 300 gallons. Girls and boys would come from miles around to gather at the syrup mill at night, as it would run a lot of nights until midnight. They had a lot of fun. We would dig a hole in the ground near the syrup pan and cover it with pummies from the cane stalks. Then we would try to get somebody to step into it. They would think they had fallen into the skimming hole, and everyone would laugh. We'd drink the cane juice and sop some of the hot syrup. I'd put apples into the pan where the syrup was cooking. They would be really sweet when they cooked."

At another place in the journal....

"Well, I might as well tell you about boys and girls coming to the syrup mill at night. They would walk for miles, especially the boys. So the local boys didn't like for the boys from the next community to come and talk to the girls, so they would slip off early and go down the road about a half-mile or so, and when the other boys came along going home, they would get rocks thrown at them for several hundred feet. They would jump up and throw at them. This was supposed to be fun, and also to put a stop to the boys coming back."

When confronted by a difficult problem, you can solve it more easily by reducing it to the question:
"How would Roy Rogers have handled this?"

Copyright © 2007 James Phillips

Return To Main Page (and select another Old Timer's Tales to read)

Please Click Here To E-Mail Me
Copyright © 2007 Norris Chambers