In order to make molasses, you must have sugar cane or sorgo (sorghum cane). We grew both in our youth, but we only made the molasses ourselves from sugar cane. When in 1940 we grew sorgo, we got Mr. Billy
Walker to make it into sorghum molasses. I was the only one fond of sorghum molasses, so after I left home, there were no eaters. Our stored supply was finally sold to moonshiners who in wartime could get no granulated sugar.
So how did we grow sugar cane? Our favored place to grow sugar cane was in the Hollow, east of our house, where the drainage eastward flowed into Lack and Allen land. We started in the fall of the year by cutting
stalks of cane and placing them into a built-up bed of pine straw in the nearby woods, then covering them with pine straw and brush so that rain would drain away and leave the cane moist but not standing in water.
This was to be our stock for the next year’s crop.
Sugar cane is a tropical member of the grass family and propagated by rooting at the joints or by using seed (in its natural jungle habitat). It never made seed at our latitude so we propagated it by cutting the
stalks we had saved so that a joint with an eye would be on each piece. We placed this joint by hand with the eye upright in plowed soil, then covered it about an inch or two with loose dirt. The eye sprouted into the soil with a root and sent a shoot up through the soil as the new sugar cane plant. This we carefully cultivated and fertilized heavily. The cane grew slowly through the year until frost in November. Then the stalks were as large as they would get, about five feet long, and they ripened until we were ready to cut it. (When I saw sugar cane fully headed out with seed in Puerto Rico, the cutting operation would start; but this was not the way we had to do it.)
When we cut the sugar cane, we first had to first clear away the leaves and tops with cane knives or machetes. Then we cut and stacked the stalks until we could move them by wagon to the cane mill. There we stacked the cane in piles until we were ready to make molasses.
We did not have to plant sugar cane each year. One planting would nearly always last two years, and sometimes three, dependent on the severity of the winter. The joints at ground level which had not frozen would sprout for the second or third year.
Another ingredient for making molasses was the wood for heating the vat. It generally had to be cut two to four weeks in advance in order to be dry enough to burn well. We used pine, but sometimes added dry oak, or sometimes lighterwood, (Lyte’ard) if we were short of pine which burned well.
Our cane mill or molasses making operations were on the road, as my father had intended to make molasses for the public. He set it up as a permanent facility. The three essential parts were the well for water to
use in operations and for animals, the cane grinding mill, and the cooking vat. We only equipped the well with a windlass rope and bucket during cooking operations. We needed the water for startup and for shutdown of the cooking vat and for our animals. The grinding mill was operated by a long lever which forced a big roller and two smaller rollers to turn and crush the cane stalks, forcing out the cane juice into a barrel which flowed downhill to a tap on the evaporating pan or cooking vat. The long lever was pulled by a mule going round and round. After the cane stalks were crushed, we called them cane “mashes,” but the term used in Louisiana sugar-making operations was “bagasse.” These crushed stalks had to be carried away to a pile of “mashes.” We never found any good use for them.
(It may be useful to review the way we observed a molasses-making operation when we visited Donald in Florida. It is the same way molasses were made years ago all across the Caribbean, particularly in Jamaica. The juice flows into a huge kettle of known size all the way up to a marker ring. Then the juice is cooked down to another marker ring, at which time the product is sampled and should be molasses. During this cookdown, the juice is skimmed frequently to remove bits of stalk and other debris which do not cook. This is simplicity itself. You start with this level A, and you cook down to here at the final level B. Everything in this kettle will taste the same, either good or bad.)
Cooking on a continuous-flow, evaporative vat required a great deal more skill which one developed by practice and careful observation. What you aimed for is a steady hot fire under the vat which did not cause hot spots, then a carefully adjusted inflow of cane juice, then a slow flow of juice around the 40 feet or more of vat partitions (baffles), diligent use of skimmers made from screen so pick up debris, and then a thin stream of molasses flowing out of the hot end of the vat into the molasses collecting tub. If the juice came too slow, the molasses cooked too long. If the juice came too fast, the molasses were thin and the outflow had to be slowed or even stopped for some time. We obtained more uniformity by allowing the molasses collecting tub to fill about 2/3 of the way to the top. Then, someone filled the new molasses buckets, gallon and half-gallon, with molasses from the tap in the collecting tub. To stop operations for the night or for the season, you let the juice run out of the collecting barrel, then put in water. The water forced the cooking molasses out and operations stopped.
The last time I made molasses with Clifford, Donald, and Roland, and the only time I was in charge, was 1938. Dueward was marginally involved, having cut the firewood we used some time earlier. We were all in school, of course, and could only make preparations when we got home each day. We got the sugar cane moved to the cane mill, and it is possible that Dueward helped with that. We then got the well prepared, and moved the evaporative vat from its garage storage on the rafters and got it into place on the furnace. Each year we had to make clay mud plaster which we put on the furnace to assure a tight fit of the pan to the furnace. We also did repairs to the mud and straw chimney at the same time. With that done we put water in the pan, which we would cook off to clean the copper pan on the starting day of Saturday. Dueward did not think the wood was dry enough to burn and he took no part in the specific preparations. We did not think we had a choice. We resolved to cook molasses Saturday, come what may.
Of course, we got up early and got a fire going under the pan. Clifford started grinding cane and filling the collecting barrel. Roland fed the fire and had a long stick for pushing the wood up under the pan. Donald moved the cane up to the grinders, and moved the mashes away. Then he would help Roland with the fire.
I kept watch on the boiling water, and then started the flow of juice. As soon as the vat seemed clean, I ran the boiling water off and started cooking the juice. Soon, the bubbling molasses showed up at the hot end of the vat and I started filling the collecting tub with molasses. Donald would then run the hot molasses from the tub into the new molasses buckets. He had a board for pressing down on the hot lids to get the buckets completely closed. This went on all day. No time for lunch for us. Just the kind of snack we could eat on the job which our mother brought us, the same as she had always fixed for our father. We had to change mules so the mule (Old Pet) could get lunch, but we got along. I was 15 years old, Clifford was 13, Donald was 11, almost 12, and Roland was not yet 10. I was busy, but I do not recall seeing Dueward any time that day.
We completed all our cane and had, if I recall correctly, 71 and ½ gallons of molasses. We dismantled the operations, put all the equipment back in its storage places, and moved the cans of syrup to storage. I soldered some of the tops, built boxes, and shipped them to Uncle Tom in New Haven, CT, and some more to Aunt Terry in Memphis, TN. I think Dueward got some for his cutting the wood and doing other work. I guess we ate the rest, or provided it to tenants.
I thought this was the last time we ever made molasses, but Donald assured me that he, Clifford, and Roland had made molasses there once more when he was the cook. This must have been in 1941 when I was at Mississippi State. So I assumed Donald made the last molasses.
Then I talked to Larry Hough and he assured me that he and Dueward had made molasses together at some time later, probably in the 1950 decade. So Larry was the last person to see molasses being made. We do know that Larry was able to sell the copper evaporative pan for more actual dollars than we had paid for it. By then, it was a rarity.
Molasses, 24 Jul 2005.