In Sweet Anticipation of Sorghum Molasses

Sorghum molasses making was hard work, but oh, those rewards!

This McCormick-Deering Chattanooga Cane Mill, belt power-No. 92

This McCormick-Deering Chattanooga Cane Mill, belt power-No. 92: Weighing in at 2,750 lbs., this was a large mill similar to that used in the Howard operation. The manufacturer said the McCormick-Deering mill would generate 250 gallons of juice per hour.

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The old sorghum mills of yesterday have all but vanished from the countryside, but the memory lingers on.

I remember the first time I saw sorghum molasses being made. Almost every farmer planted a patch of sorghum cane. The thick, honey-like amber-colored syrup made from the cane was a staple in most homes.

To make the best sorghum molasses, the cane had to be cut at just the right stage of ripeness and before the first frost. The leaves were stripped before the cane was cut. Stripping leaves was a family affair, and everybody worked as fast as possible. It was a hard job done by using a wooden, paddle-like tool in each hand.

The reward for doing such hard work was chewing a freshly peeled piece of cane, and going to watch the process of making molasses.

But the greatest reward was the anticipation of tea cakes, candy and hot buttered biscuits with molasses oozing down the sides. In warm weather, soft butter and molasses were combined to put on hot cornbread.

After the cane was stripped and cut, it was hauled to the nearest mill. It only took three or four people to run the mill. Some fed the stalks into the hopper, while others watched the copper cooking pan and tended the fire. A press was used to squeeze the juice from the stalks. A horse or mule hitched to a long pole operated the press. The patience of the animal was important. It walked around and around at the same speed. Sometimes, a mill operator would have two horses at the mill site, changing every few hours. This was an all-day endeavor.

The fire was the key to good molasses. Too much heat would scorch the sweet, watery liquid. But if the fire wasn't hot enough, the molasses would be too strong and dark. The boiling liquid had to be stirred almost constantly, and the greenish scum removed. When cooked to perfection, the syrup was poured into containers, usually gallon buckets.

The fire was the key to good molasses. Too much heat would scorch the sweet, watery liquid. But if the fire wasn't hot enough, the molasses would be too strong and dark. The boiling liquid had to be stirred almost constantly, and the greenish scum removed. When cooked to perfection, the syrup was poured into containers, usually gallon buckets.

Molasses served as an iron-rich substitute for sugar, but no one counted calories. Social gatherings would include taffy pulls (and that is a whole different memory). Those who grew the cane, made the molasses, and served the molasses took pride in a job well done. FC 

Opal Blaylock is a freelance writer based in Bartlett, Tenn.