In the days of the self-sufficient farm, ‘sweetnin” usually didn’t come from store-bought sugar. You had to rely on honey, maple sugar or sorghum molasses. Honeybees and bee trees were only for the dedicated few willing to mess with the sharp-tailed little critters. Maple sugar came only from places with lots of maple trees. That left, for most of us, molasses.
‘Lasses. Zip. Long sweetnin’. In the Ozark mountains, molasses had many names and it always was referred to in the plural -as in ‘making ’em’ – despite the combined efforts of many a conscientious school teacher. I guess anything with that many sees in its name just had to be plural.
If you buy molasses at the supermarket, look for the word ‘sorghum’ on the label. Otherwise, you are getting ‘blackstrap’ molasses, also called New Orleans molasses, which is a by-product of refining cane sugar. Good for cooking but awful disappointing on a biscuit.
‘Pure sorghum molasses’ is expensive and if you ever make a batch, you’ll know why. Sometimes you find some that has been cut or ‘stretched’ with corn syrup, and that is less expensive.
Before World War II, almost every Ozark community had a few families who made molasses. I say families because it took a lot of people to make a batch, and it was an awful lot of hard work.
Today, Rusty Wheels of North Arkansas, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is ‘to preserve the sights, the sounds, the tools, the tractors, the machines, engines, cars, trains, crafts and antiques of yesteryear,’ occasionally still makes molasses the old-time way. It’s a team effort – a bunch of old boys going down a cane row, loading bundles or feeding cane stalks into the mill, cooking up the syrup and bottling it. More often, you’d find them overhauling an old engine or showing off their antique tools.
The history of sorghum traces to Africa, the plant’s native home. Over the years, different types and countless varieties developed. Grain sorghum, raised for the seed, is the most common form.
‘Sugar cane’ is the plant from which molasses is made, and the bottom line is that if you want to raise cane for syrup, shop around and get a good variety intended for that purpose. Seed is often hard to find and if you’re going to do all that work, you want a productive, user-friendly variety.
Next, you’ll need the tools, and you’d better start with a plow. That’s where the business begins in raising cane. Planting and taking care of the crop is very much like raising corn, and the same tools will work.
Old timers opened a furrow with a mule and a plow, dropped the seed by hand and covered it with their foot or a hoe. You can do that too, if you want, but it’s a lot more fun and productive to use a corn planter and a tractor. Then you cultivate, fertilize and maybe irrigate, just as you would for corn. Sorghum stands dry weather better than corn, but it appreciates a little water now and then, too.
Harvest time is where sorghum stops being like corn. The first problem is knowing when to begin. The best time is when the sugar content is at its highest and you’ve got all the growth you’re going to get.
Right here, you may begin to run into a problem that goes with the molasses business. Experts. They come up with all kinds of advice, from when to harvest to how to make the syrup, and every one of them has a different idea of what, when or how.
The molasses business does call for a lot of decisions and judgments, but experience is the best teacher and if you miss the harvest date a little, the finished product will probably be all right anyhow.
Four steps are involved in harvesting the cane: topping, stripping, cutting and hauling the stalks. You must cut off the seed heads first, called topping. If these go through the mill, the ground-up seeds stop the strainer and get into all kinds of places and cause trouble. Most growers cut these off right in the field – one grower we remember used a chain saw while riding a horse down the row – but you can do it at the mill if you like. Some save the heads for chicken or songbird feed.
Stripping means taking all the leaves off the stalks while they are still standing in the field. It’s the biggest item in the whole process. You must take a wooden slat or a very dull corn knife and knock off every leaf. It’s work. You’ll have scratchy leaves down your back and in your ears, and you’ll have sweat dripping off everything.
We have seen a machine or two that was supposed to strip cane, but we haven’t seen one that worked well.
Some experts will howl, but I don’t think you have to strip it, and Rusty Wheels has tried it both ways. Put it through the mill, leaves and all, and the molasses will be just as tasty and keep just as well. In fact, I can’t tell the difference and I bet you can’t either.
But you will lose some volume. Maybe quite a lot of volume. Each leaf will go out wet with juice that would be in the pan if you’d stripped.
Topped and stripped, the sorghum is ready to cut. The old-timey way was to cut it with a corn knife until you had an armload, take that to the wagon and then repeat the process. You also can cut it with a mowing machine, but there is an easier and neater way: use a corn binder.
A binder will tie up nice little bundles that are easy to load. Of course, you must cut the twines before feeding the cane into the mill, but it’s worth it.
Now, haul the bound stalks to the mill. We’re getting down to the interesting part, but the work’s far from done.
Basically, there are two kinds of mills: power and horsepower. The design is the same but there are many makes, sizes and models. All are big, heavy machines with two or three large cast-iron rollers that turn together to squeeze the juice from the cane.
Horse-powered mills had a long pole with a wagon tongue to which the horse was hitched to walk in a circle, turning the mill. Some folks have modernized these by using a garden tractor or an ATV in place of the horse.
There may be a lot more nostalgia in the horse, but the power mill is close enough for me and a lot faster and easier.
Someone has to feed it, a few stalks at a time – whatever that particular mill with handle. The juice comes out the bottom, goes through a strainer and is piped down to the pan to be cooked. Placing a holding tank between the mill and the pan ensures that the cook won’t run out of juice; Rusty Wheels uses an old bulk milk tank.
Molasses pans vary with who made them but a typical example might be 20-ft. long, 4-ft. wide and 4-inches deep. The best ones are made of sheet copper but sheet iron will do. Sides are sometimes metal and sometimes a wooden 2×4, susceptible to charring.
Baffles are positioned every foot or so inside the pan. Each is a piece of metal as deep as the sides and connected to one side and the bottom, but lacking a couple of inches of reaching the other side. Alternating baffles are connected to the opposite sides, so in a 20 X 4 pan with 10 baffles, the juice meanders along for 64 ft. as it becomes syrup.
The pan is set atop a furnace, and forms the top of it. The furnace is simply two walls made of rock laid up with clay, or brick or concrete. After rebuilding the rock-and-clay kind a few times, Rusty Wheels used cement blocks lined with an insulating material.
At the ‘going out’ end, a chimney is built tall enough to provide a good draught for the fire. The other end, called the inlet, is provided with doors, or at least a piece of tin, to control the fire and allow it to be fed.
The main thing to watch in building a molasses furnace is to get the top perfectly level, or maybe sloping just a bit toward the outlet end.
Now we get to the technical part. Good molasses cooks are hard to come by. You have to get the fire just right, keep the flow of juice regulated and decide when the syrup is done.
If the product is too heavy it will turn to sugar; if too light, it won’t keep.
The pan is filled with juice at the starting (fire door) end, the fire is built and the juice allowed to work its way down the pan, controlled by stopping up one or more of the baffles with a rag. Then the skimming starts.
Next to stripping, skimming is the most unpleasant part of molasses making. As the juice boils, a greenish froth or scum comes to the top that must be removed. Called skimmings, it is taken off by a tool called a skimmer. Usually homemade, skimmers are made of tin and shaped like an extra-deep dustpan with holes punched in the bottom. Equipped with a wooden handle, they just fit between two baffles.
Old timers put up their molasses in jugs and before World War II, most folks used gallon and half-gallon buckets, available at any general store. Those buckets were similar to the ones that paint comes in today. Rusty Wheels, like most modern molasses makers, uses quart fruit jars – and a quart is about all anybody can afford.
Clean up includes disposing of the remains of the canes, called pomace or ‘pummies.’ It makes a good mulch.
Molasses making divides neatly into a two-day project. The first day is for topping, stripping, cutting and hauling; the second for milling, cooking and canning. On day two, Rusty Wheels divides the work up this way: One man feeds the mill, two or three pass cane to him, one or more haul off pummies, one acts as a fireman, one hauls in wood, one cooks, two or three skim, one carries off skimmings, one fills jugs, one supplies biscuits so the crew can properly test the product and one runs errands and handles damage control.
That’s 14 or 15 able bodies and we seldom have that many. Go with what you’ve got; do the best you can. Swear you won’t ever get into this another year. And remember, we’re trying to preserve the ‘tools, the sights, the sounds, the smells.’
Bob Good is a long-time member of Rusty Wheels of Northern Arkansas, which has a showground six miles south of Harrison, Ark., on Hwy. 65. The group hosts various events, free of charge, including, occasionally, molasses making. For more information, call Charles House, (870) 743-1511, Mickey Jones, (870) 429-5523, or David Hensley, (870)741-1015.