Making Molasses – The Sweet Syrup

Vintage sorghum mill continues sweet syrup tradition by making molasses the old-fashioned way


| September 1998



The big end of the cane is fed into the mill first. It's harder that way, Howard said, but if the small end is fed in first, too much pressure is put on the mill and a breakdown in certain. The old mills are increasingly hard to find, Howard said.

The big end of the cane is fed into the mill first. It's harder that way, Howard said, but if the small end is fed in first, too much pressure is put on the mill and a breakdown in certain. The old mills are increasingly hard to find, Howard said.

Photo by Jerry Moore

At the close of the 20th century, mass production of molasses is as mechanized as any manufacturing operation. Highly sophisticated processes and equipment churn out sticky oceans of dark, sweet syrup. Workers punch time clocks; sensors regulate cooking temperatures. It's a far cry from the shade tree operations of years ago - and from a unique enterprise overseen by W.S. 'Babe' Howard in Millington, Tenn.

Howard presides over a molasses-making operation conducted as close to the old way as possible. Before being pressed in a nearly 100-year-old sorghum mill, sorghum cane is hand-stripped, an exercise unheard of in today's labor market. Tinder-dry wood fuels a devilishly hot fire. Electronic temperature gauges are used at a critical stage, but the gadgetry only confirms an experienced cook's assessment. It is, quite simply, a step back in time.

Howard has been producing molasses the old-fashioned way for 35 years. His experience with the process dates to his boyhood.

"I remember making molasses from when I was 4 or 5 years old," he said.

Decades ago, molasses making was a community effort, not unlike a barn raising.

"A county the size of ours, there were probably 10-12 people who cooked molasses," he recalled.