I am very fortunate to have friends who believe in keeping traditions alive.
One of them, Tony Woodrum, Barboursville, W.Va., tries his best to make sure that the old ways are passed on to people who might not otherwise get exposed to those traditions. One of which is making sorghum molasses.
Tony works on a farm owned by family friend Tom Jeffrey, also of Barboursville. Tom's father, Millard F. Jeffrey, bought the farm in 1908 with his father and brother-in-law. Millard's stake in the 138-acre parcel was $900. Beginning at age 9, Millard worked in lumber-camp kitchens. When he was 11, the cook died and Millard took over, preparing meals for 27 men. He saved his money and by the time he was 22, he had saved $900 in $20 gold pieces. His father and brother-in-law raised their shares by cutting railroad ties, which they sold for 25 cents each.
Millard married in 1910, the same year he began raising cane. His was one of the only mills in the area, so after he completed his own 'make' of sorghum, he generated extra income by using his equipment to make the syrup at other farms. When he produced syrup for others, sorghum sold for about 10 cents a gallon; most of the time he'd work for one-third of what his customers sold. Millard quit making sorghum molasses in 1939 when he lost his equipment to a flood after the season had ended.
Cub Cadets help revivedecades-old operation
Half a century later, in 1988, Tom Jeffrey resumed the operation. He bought a mill that year, and a new pan in 1991. Tony was familiar with the mill, having worked on it as a boy of 9 or 10, when a different man owned it. Today, Tom is showing Tony the ropes, but the master doesn't give up working the pan easily, even if sitting in front of a fire all day at 85 years of age is starting to get a little harder to do.
Under Tom's watchful eye, a group of volunteers manage to have a little fun with the process. For one thing, it's not as hard as it used to be with horses and walking plows. The old International Harvester-built Cub Cadet is our tool of preference for plowing and maintaining the fields. It doesn't take much to get a few of us together. We put 10-inch plows on our stout little tractors and spend a couple of hours plowing the field. It's amazing how a 45-year-old garden tractor with a 7 hp motor can plow a furrow in second gear all day long. After a few hours it's a little hard on the back and the butt (don't forget to take your wallet out of your back pocket), but it's a price we gladly pay.
We throw a cultivator on one of our Cub Cadets and lay out the field for planting after running discs over the field with Tom's Massey or a friend's Super C. We've proved that Cub Cadet tires are just a little too small to disc a plowed field and none of us have the 'yellow fever' that bad.
Tony, who also serves as unofficial mayor of the IH Registry (www.ihregistry.com), an online Cub Cadet forum, has cut down the front axle of an original Cub Cadet and turned in the rear rims to make a narrow cultivating tractor for weed control. He also built a planter (pulled by a Cub Cadet, naturally) that does a nice job.
Long day starts early
When it comes time to harvest, the cane is hand-cut and stripped in the field, probably the hardest part of the process, and loaded on trailers with heads of seed saved for next year. The process of making sorghum starts early (or really late, depending on how you look at it). At about 4:30 a.m., the mill gets fired up to start working. We need to have a full barrel of squeezins before they start the fire under the pan.
The 'make house' can get pretty busy as the sun comes up and there's no stopping once you get the fire going. The cane mill, a Great Western No. 3, is an interesting setup modified by the mayor. He has an old Ford 300 6-cylinder engine from a Ford Bronco that runs in first gear through the four-wheel drive transfer case in low range hooked to an old truck rear end with one axle blanked off and stood on end to drive the bull gear on top of the mill. It sure beats horses.
Once you start running the mill, you don't finish working it until about 3 or 4 p.m. and the guys on the pan can get pretty cantankerous if you don't have enough juice to draw on. Two types of cane were planted in the field for last year's production: 'Sugar Drip' made about 16 gallons of finished product; 'Dale,' harvested about two weeks later than Sugar Drip, made 21 gallons - all out of a field of less than 2 acres.
Cooking with a deft touch
The juice is filtered through a screen as it pours into the holding barrel from the mill and filtered again before the fireman lets it into the pan. (The finished product is poured through a paper filter once again before it goes to the jars.)
Working the pan and the fire is not something you can just walk up and start doing. It takes years of experience to keep the fire just right and move the squeezins so as not to burn the pan or your juice. A burned pan will result in ruining just about the whole pan full by the time you get it stopped, cleaned up and going again. No less than two guys work the juice while cooking. Tom and Tony do most of the pan work while another runs the wood fire.
Two tools are used in working the pan. A skimmer is used to remove foam and impurities off the top of the juice, and a wood paddle is used to move the juice through the process. The pan is set up like a maze, divided into sections open at opposite ends. That allows precise control of the cooking process, splitting the juice into several small batches in the same pan at different levels of doneness. You watch the juice cook down as it is moved across the pan through the sections until you get a bubbly consistency and a golden color. No bells or buzzers tell you when it's done, only experience. So far, the most important thing I've learned is this: Don't mess with the make house guys, they are the boss.
Once the making is done and things are cleaned up, it's time to get the Cub Cadets out and plow. It's no problem to get a bunch of folks with the yellow fever together to plow a field. The fellowship is great and you can't beat a bunch of guys with a like mind spending a day together, listening to old Kohler engines pulling in the dirt. They may not be big, high horsepower tractors but a well-built machine of any kind is a treat to maintain and use to its full potential.
A country staple
Sorghum in West Virginia is a staple for a lot of folks. It's great on biscuits, cakes and ice cream, and is used in baking. My wife, Jill, makes the best molasses crinkle cookies you can eat, and that's not just my opinion. Whether I take them to the office or up to the cabin, they never last very long.
As I look back on the work of past years, I have to think about what I learned as I talked with Tom Jeffrey and others. Back then, making sorghum wasn't something you did for fun: It was for survival. I try to pass this information on to my kids and impress upon them the hard work, or some may even use the word toil, that was required in order to provide every day necessities we now take for granted. It gives me immense satisfaction to watch the process from start to finish, knowing that I had a small part in the end result. FC
Scott Cross, Charleston, W.Va., is moderator at www.ihregistry.com, a Cub Cadet collectors site. In his spare time, he collects, plays with and restores Cub Cadets and Farmall Cubs. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.