Recently, in a post made to two lists I manage, SOUTH-CENTRAL-KENTUCKY and KYBARREN, I quoted from an old newspaper article and murder case that involved a man destroying the sorghum works of his neighbors. This prompted me to study a little more about what was involved in sorghum making.
In earlier days, sorghum was as valuable at sugar is to us today. Made from the juice of crushed sorghum cane, it was highly prized as a sugar substitute. Sugar was very expensive, money was lean and sorghum filled the gap for the sweet-tooth. In many areas of the country, sorghum is still being produced – also known as molasses to many. Our local stores carry it and many of us love it!
Sorghum was produced using a mill. The rollers of the mill which crushed the cane were pulled by the family horse or mule. The animal, hitched to the end of a long rein pole (called a “sweep”) . There was a rod mounted horizontally in and at right angles to, the butt end of the sweep which was tied to a line that went to the horse’s halter. When the horse pulled the lead end of the sweep forward as he walked; the line connected to the butt end would keep him pulling himself in a tiring never-ending circle. The sweep turned a crushing roller in the mill which then engaged a second and possibly a third roller, forcing it to turn also. People fed the cane in between the rollers and it was crushed dry of its juice.
When did the activities begin?
Beginning in early April, ground is plowed and made ready for the sorghum cane patch. Some old-timers believed that it was very important how the cane was planted. If the soil in the patch was gray, it would produce a thin syrup; if the ground was of red clay, the result would be a thick, clear syrup. Taking seeds from the previous year’s crop, planting began near the middle of May through the first of July (some planting by the signs of the moon). This allowed harvesting to begin in mid September which placed the harvesting after the corn was done and hopefully before the first frost of the season. The seeds wee planted about one foot apart in hills, putting from 7-12 seeds in a hill. As soon as the stalks are up, the farmer cultivates the rows and thins the hills down to 5 (this prevents the stalks getting too tale and then, not getting enough sun, etc).
The cane continues to grow through the hot summer days; harvesting begins when the seeds turn red and hard. If there has been too much rain or if it turned cold too fast, many times the farmer just gave up the crop for the year and plowed it under; the plant would be tough and the leaves harder to strip off.
The next phase demanded as much help as could be mustered; it’s time to harvest the cane. The farmer or his family or his neighbors, strip the cane stalks off at the base by using a sharp hoe or mowing blade. The stalks are stacked in piles to be picked up immediately and tossed into a wagon pulled by a horse – or now, a tractor. The stalks had to be handled rather rapidly to keep them from drying out. Also, the end of the stalks would start to rot which would sour the juice. Thus, they were taken to the sorghum mill as soon as possible.
Now, the grinding begins, starting early in the morning, often before daybreak. The cane stalked had been stripped with the tops removed and was ready to go into the mill and be ground. The tops of the cane were saved and stripped of seeds for next year’s crop. The mill was ready; it had been cleaned and oiled. Wood had been gathered for the fire. Wooden barrels were nearby to hold the syrup. They had been previously filled with water so that the staves of the cane would swell; this made the barrel water tight. The wood gathered for the fire was usually poplar or oak; these would go under the boiler.
The horse starts turning the mill and the sorghum is feed into one side. Bright green juice drops into a trough and down to a burlap-covered barrel. This juice is taken to the boiler where it is poured through several layers of cloth (normally cheesecloth). The boiler is filled up to within 2 inches of the top. The intensity of the fire is watched; by the time the juice is placed in the boiler, the fire has burned down to a bed of coals. More wood added increases the temperature of the boiler; if too hot, water is thrown on the wood pile; the boiling was controlled.
When the juice begins to boil there is a dark foam at the top. A skimmer is used, perforated so that the juice will run out and leave the foam on the skimmer. These skimmings are tossed out and are covered with dirt later. Some people used these skimmings as a sweetener for their moonshine!
Boiling continues for three to four hours; a rolling boil. The boiler box holds about 80 gallons from which comes about 8-10 gallons of syrup. From green to a rich caramel color, the juice changes color and the juice thickens. When cooked sufficiently, the boiler is lifted from the firebox and sat upon two logs so that one end of the boiler can be tilted up and the syrup scraped to the other end with a long wooden paddle. This paddle is about two feet long and flattened on one end. The syrup is dipped out of the trough with a small pan and poured through several layers of cheesecloth into 5-gallon lard cans. When it is cooled, it is stored in smaller containers such as quart jars or gallon cans.
It is now time to finish up. After all the sorghum cooking and storage is done, the boiler box has to be washed down thoroughly and it was smeared with mutton tallow to keep it from rusting until next year. When the tallow hardens, the boiler is stored upside down and stored in a barn or other storage building. All the barrels are washed, dried and stored away until next year. The boom poles, lead poles and other pieces are taken apart and stored; the mill is then covered. Children loved to play on the mill it is said.
There were variations of course to the equipment used and procedures followed and today, it is much more mechanized.
If anyone has seen sorghum made or been involved themselves, I welcome your comments to me! Some information was taken from Foxfire 3, edited by Eliot Wigginton, Anchor Books, 1975.
© Copyright 3 June 2010, Sandra K. Gorin