Vintage sorghum mill continues sweet syrup tradition by making molasses the old-fashioned way
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.
The cook called the shots: In exchange for his expertise, farmers who brought their cane to that mill gave up every fourth gallon. Along with the cane, they'd provide mules to power the mill and wood for the fire. The right wood was essential.
"You had to use dry willow or cottonwood," Howard said. "You need a real flash fire. You've got to cook this fast. Hickory, oak ... they won't work. The old cookers wouldn't even use a wood if it wasn't dry." The farmer's challenge, then, was to find the right cook and keep him happy.
"Farmers would get touchy about who cooked the molasses," Howard recalled. "They'd haul cane quite a way to get it to a certain cooker."
Howard's built a life around a variety of businesses: He's president of a phone company that's been in his family since 1928. About 12 years ago, he built the USA Stadium, which was for several years the training site of the U.S. Olympic baseball team. He also owns a restaurant, a rodeo arena and is deep into historical preservation.
The molasses business started innocently enough.
"I bought a mill from a retired farmer in Oakland, Miss.," he recalled. "I thought I'd show my kids how we used to make molasses."
Then he made a deal with a tenant farmer: plant sorghum in lieu of paying rent.
"I didn't ask how many acres he planted," Howard said. "I had this old equipment piling up, an old mill that was pulled by a mule ... I wasn't in any big hurry." As time went on, the farmer began to pester a bit. "That sorghum's starting to head," he'd say. "You'd better be getting that mill up and going." Howard began to sense some urgency. "I finally asked him: 'How much sorghum did you plant?'" The answer? Fifteen acres.
"Well, as a boy, I had helped my uncle strip cane and haul it in, and that was about as hot a work as you can find," Howard said. "It was sounding like I had more cane than I wanted to get out there and strip."
Howard consulted with the county agent and professors from the University of Tennessee. They were enthusiastic about a revival of the sorghum business. After testing his cane, they told Howard he could expect a harvest of 150 gallons an acre. He backed off.
"I really didn't want but 25 or 30 gallons," he said. "I really didn't want that big a job.' But when he heard that he could sell molasses at $10 a gallon, he eyed the project in a new light.
"Maybe I'd better rethink this deal," he said.
Hidden costs began to come out of the woodwork.
"I got my feet in the mud pretty quick," Howard said. To handle the anticipated volume, he had to get a custom-built stainless steel cooking pan that ended up costing more than $2,500. Then the health department got involved.
"All the mills I'd ever seen were out in the open," Howard said. "Nobody hollered about flies or bees. I didn't think a lot about it. But they said we had to have it screened in, have hot and cold running water, restrooms and couldn't use mules because they draw flies."
Add in refrigerated coolers and specially-designed cooling tanks, and daily labor costs of $400 for hand-cutting and stripping the cane, and you're starting to talk real money.
Howard, though, keeps the focus on quality.
"People who know molasses are tickled to death by ours, because we put out 'pure' molasses," he said. "In Tennessee, when you put 'pure' on the label, it'd better be pure. Most molasses is 70 percent corn syrup. Well, corn syrup revolutionized crooks. People don't know... for a couple of generations, they've never eaten pure molasses. But I'm not cutting my quality. I'm lucky when I break even."
Sometimes, it almost seems as if Howard looks for the hard way to go about the business of making molasses. "We hand-strip our cane," he said. "Most people have gotten away from that.
"What you do is, make a machete, 2 inches wide, out of white oak - or use a gloved hand - to knock the leaves off. Either way you do it, it's hard work."
Then there's the mill. Howard's operation uses a Golden made more than 80 years ago in Chattanooga. The mill is reworked every year to ensure maximum production. Replacement parts aren't exactly readily available, so he keeps another piece of ancient iron in the wings.
"These old mills are rare," he said. "They're hard to find, and more so every year. They're so heavy, the scrap metal people love 'em," Howard said. "A lot of them went during the scrap drives during the war years, and since then, the scrap iron dealers are always on the lookout for them."
Between the volume produced and the health department, Howard's made one concession to the old ways: his mill is powered by an old tractor, not by mules.
The old saying 'slow as molasses' surely refers to the syrup's consistency, not to the dizzying speed with which it must be produced.
"When you squeeze the juice, you have about three hours before it starts souring," Howard said. "Most of the time, we start cooking it the minute we can."
Molasses must be cooked - and cooled - fast.
"The longer you cook it, the darker it gets," Howard said. "The name of the game in making molasses is to get it as thick, as clear and with as little bite as you can."
After cooking, Lach-Host molasses is cooled in containers 6 feet deep.
"We let it cool for 12 hours, and all the starch and trash settles to the bottom," Howard said. "It settles out so clear that people think it's honey. It's actually too clear; people don't trust us that it's molasses. 'It didn't have that old burnt taste,' one guy told us."
Howard's operation is based on 25 acres of cane, which generates about 130 gallons per acre. In a good year, his crews cook molasses steadily for about three weeks. The finished product - shipped all over the world - can't be compared to mass-produced molasses, either in price or quality. But for those who want the real McCoy, Howard has it.
"When people want the best," he said with quiet confidence, "we send it to them." FC
For more information on Lach-Host Molasses (named for Howard's four children, using the first two letters of Laura, Charlotte, Holly and Stuart), write to Lach-Host Farm, 4880 Navy Road, Millington, TN 38053; phone (901) 872-3311.