Sorghum in My Blood

# Picture 01

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7500 Pinemont #311 Houston, Texas 77040

'The Old Cane Mill!' 'What's become of that old cane mill once responsible for that annual barrel of sorghum molasses? Gone the way of old Dobbin? Let's hope not! Definitely that old mill has a place in the agricultural set up of a community. From cane stalks it excavates juice from a molasses now found scarce and growing in demand. Let's hope the old cane mill rolls on.'

This sign was found in my grandfather's (Thomas L. Bentley) sorghum cooking shed for many years prior to his death, in 1968. In fact, my family produced sorghum near Sorento, Illinois, from the time it was introduced to the United States in 1857 and 1858.

The first sweet sorghum seed (the type of sorghum that produces a sugary juice) was brought to the United States in the early 1850s from France, where they were experimenting with sweet sorghum to produce sugar as an alternative to sugar from sugar cane. Sweet sorghum was first cultivated in Eastern Africa's Sudan and Chad regions soon after Christ's death.

The seed was first distributed in small seed packets through a popular farm magazine of the era. U. S. Congressmen also distributed the seed to their constituents. Distribution initially was in the Midwest states as this area's climate and latitude was similar to France. It was also noted that the characteristics of sorghum were similar to corn, hence the decision for distribution in areas where corn grew well.

As the Civil War developed, Louisiana, the only sugar cane growing area at the time, slowed and stopped shipments of molasses and sugar to the Yankees. This led to a boom in the planting of sorghum in the states of Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and Indiana. Sorghum syrup production peaked around 30 million gallons per year in the late 1870s and 1880s. By that time sorghum was produced in all areas of the continental United States, but the center of the production had moved to the Appalachian Mountains and the central southern states. The production of sweet sorghum has declined since that time. Sorghum syrup production remains primarily an artisan activity today, with many small producers of a few hundred gallons per year, and a few large producers. In 1985, the sorghum farmers and hobbyists formed an organization to disseminate information about sorghum growing and syrup processing. The National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association may be reached at the following address: National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association, Rt. 1, Box 194, Clinton, Tennessee 37716.

They hold an annual meeting every March in Nashville, Tennessee.

Our family's interest in sorghum has been revived in recent years because we have found it difficult to acquire good tasting sorghum syrup. Many syrup products exist in the market place that are blends with other types of sugary syrup products such as corn syrup and sugar cane molasses. The NSSPPA producers only package a pure sorghum product no blends.

My family's sorghum mill was sold at my grandfather's farm sale, but has recently been tracked down and is in the family again. It was made by J.H. Lewis, and the patent date is 1881. Photographs are shown on these pages. The main roller is 18 inches in diameter and 24 inches in length. The mill weighs about 3300 lbs. It amazes me that this machine was hauled 60 miles from St. Louis to our farm, at a time when handling such weight would not have been easy. Heck, it's hard to move around today with cranes and fork lifts.

Does anyone have any information about the company who cast this mill? Was the company part of another later agricultural company? What would the original colors have been?

I have located and taken photographs of 12 other sorghum mills of the vertical or horizontal type. The vertical type was powered by oxen, mules or horses, and I surmise that the horizontal type became popular as steam traction engines became available on the farms in the 1870s and 1880s. Using that logic would make our mill one of the earliest horizontal mills manufactured. Does anyone know of any older mill that is still in operating condition? Our mill also would have been one of the larger models manufactured at the time.

My research has not located a directory of the manufacturers of sorghum mills. Does such a directory exist? I have listed the mills that I have photographs of in the side bar. If a directory of the old mills does not exist, I would be willing to put together a listing of manufacturer's information if others would send me information about their mills. Evidently, many local casting companies made a sorghum mill and I expect that scores of models were cast through the years.

There is nothing like the smell of sorghum being cooked and concentrated. The sugary smell of the cooking shed brings back many fond memories. Sorghum is a long maturing plant requiring 120 to 150 days. Several new varieties have been developed for disease resistance and increased production. Original production rates were in the range of 75 gallons of finished syrup per acre; some of the new varieties are reported to produce up to 300 gallons per acre with chemical fertilization.

Sorghum syrup is similar to wine; the same variety raised on different soils in different microclimates will have a different taste. Producers can also impart different flavors and color by the method used to evaporate and cook the syrup. Even the material the cooking pans are made from (black iron, copper, stainless steel, aluminum) will make a different product. These differences lend a uniqueness to each syrup. If a certain one doesn't tickle your sweet tooth look for another product or producer.