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Joseph Larue Sunday’s Cane Mill

Harvesting Sugar Cane along the Apalachicola Northern RR

Joseph Larue Sunday’s Cane Mill

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory/138345

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory/30395

Cane Syrup

Every kitchen table in Gadsden County prior to 1950 had a syrup pitcher proudly sitting next to the salt and pepper shakers.  Used on everything from biscuits to country ham, this rich amber tangy-sweet product of sugar cane was a staple of all farm families.  Sugar Cane was grown throughout Gadsden County, and most farms had a mule-powered cane grinding mill and a syrup kettle to cook down the cane juice.  Much of the product was sold and shipped in barrels via the Apalachicola Northern Railroad.

These articles are provided courtesy of The Gadsden County Times newspaper, Quincy

July 28, 1927 Syrup cane is grown here under good conditions, and the syrup shipped from this section is of excellent quality. Mr. Green estimates the syrup crop this year, unless adverse conditions set in, at $50,000.

September 8, 1927
The production of sugar cane is one of the leading and profitable industries of the western section of Gadsden County; thousands of acres have been planted this year and the prospects are flattering for an immense yield.  Soon the grinding and juice boiling season will be here and everything living on the farm will begin to show signs of gaining flesh; even the dwarfed pig of the barn yard develops into a marketable porker after "chawing' several stalks of the cane and drinking liberally for a few days of the "skimmings."  Puny and sickly children become red-cheeked during the "sugar cane grinding" season, and the old men and women brighten up and forget their ages.  This is the kind of life that the western section of Gadsden County is offering the man who is content to live a life of happiness and ease without too much labor to come while coming is good, and buy land while land is cheap.  It is a motto and established principal of the business men and citizens of the twin cities to extend every courtesy to those visiting the town, whether on business or pleasure, and it will pay those seeking homes or investment to visit River Junction and make investigations before going any farther.

May 31, 1934 L. J. Clark, a Gadsden county director of the Cane Grower's Cooperative Association, will return from Washington, D. C., the latter part of this week. He was accompanied to Washington by J. H. Millward, of Albany, Ga. They attended a meeting called by the Secretary of Agriculture relative to a processing tax on cane products and the possibility of reimbursements to producers.

The following is from the Memories of R. Byron Clark. Byron was born and raised in the Hardaway Community.

Old Time Syrup Makin’ By Reuben Byron Clark Tallahassee, Leon County, Florida November 2005
Now my Daddy used his Daddy’s, which was Granddaddy Clark, syrup works which I don’t remember Granddaddy Clark having any cane.  I guess he quit that before I got old enough to remember.  But anyway, this cane would be piled at the mill, no huge pile either, something oh maybe about 4 or 5 feet high and 8 or 10 feet wide and the mill would crush the juice out of these cane stalks.  The power to operate these big rollers that crushed the juice out of the cane stalks – you’d have a mule attached to a long pole going from the mill downward at about a 45 degree angle way out and the mule would be hitched to the end of this pole and the mule would just continually walk around and around, all day long and there’d be a guy standing there feeding the cane into the mill, through the rollers and you didn’t put too many stalks in at the time, usually I think about 4 or 5 something like that.  If you put too many in it would put too much pressure and you would bust the rollers. You were out of crushing the juice out of the cane then and, of course, that was a catastrophe and hard work, expense, and all changing it out. This juice would pour out into a barrel which then would feed by about a 1 inch pipe down just a little bit of a slop to where the cooking of the cane juice was done.

When the cooking of the cane juice was done, what I’m remembering is the way I saw it, in an 80 gallon cast iron kettle they called it which was mounted on a brick wall of clay; mud was used as mortar, not concrete but mud and bricks or either had big ole stones or something you could use.  Then there was sorta a throat like that run out from that and that’s where it was more or less called the firebox.  The firebox was sorta of an oval shaped top of this same time of material I was speaking about, but in front of the firebox was big ole cast iron grates we called ‘um.  They were mounted over what we called a pit or like a ditch and the ditch thing would be a couple of feet deep.  The ashes from the fire that would be in here on top of these grates would fall through and then they came on out to where that eventually from time to time you could pull the ashes to the front end, dip’um out, and throw’um out in the field or something like that.

Anyway, thinking back of a morning, there would be cane juice from the night before already over in the kettle.  Get it fired up, that means building what we called a great big roaring fire under it, soon get it to cooking.  In the cooking process, there were certain amounts of sediments or trash or so forth that would come to the top and that was skimmed off with something like a wash pan with a bunch of holes punched in it with nails on a long wooden pole.  As it was cooking, you’d run this what we called the skimmer around and get all this sediment stuff and dump it over into a barrel.  Well, after it cooked for awhile, then there was a big ring lowered down that was set right on the edge of the kettle and of course the syrup had to come up and boil over that.  Between the rim and the edge it had a little flange to it and then there was some more of this sediment stuff and we’d have little dippers to keep dipping it out.  Anyway I don’t remember just how long it would take to cook a kettle of juice into syrup and I’m thinking about 4 or 5 hours, something like that.  Of course, in the cooking process there was a lot of steam from this juice because you see this juice had a lot of water content in it, but it was sweet.  That’s the reason they made syrup.  Cook it so long and get it cooked down to where it would get rather thick.  Daddy, and the other farmers who cooked syrup, had what they called a hydrometer, something like a thermometer but it was in a little wooden tube.  They’d dip this tube down into the syrup when thought it was about ready for dipping up.  Dip this little thing down in the syrup, put this hydrometer down in the tube and it would register the thickness, the density of the syrup.  If you didn’t let it get dense enough, you had syrup that was almost as thin as water.  If you let it cook too long, you had thick thick stuff that would almost turn into syrup candy.  The farmers knew from experience just how much density they needed.  So when it reached that immediate density, there was a pole that had a metal hook on the end of it and the cooker would reach in and start pulling any and all of that fire off those grates, get it away from the kettle and let it start cooling down.  Then at the same time there was a wooden barrel right beside the kettle that had a split croaker sack draped over the top of it and then there was a wooden bucket on the end of a handle.  The wooden bucket I guess would hold the equivalent of 2 or 3 or 4 gallons.  As soon as this fire was pulled out, the farmer would start using that wooden bucket dipping this syrup out of the kettle and puttin’ it over in this half barrel and if there was any sediments or trash left it would catch in this croaker sack and it would go into this half barrel.  Just as he dipped the last part of it, he would dash around or usually the guy who had been feeding the cane into the mill would be on the other side where there was 2 barrels of fresh juice and he’d start pouring it in before the kettle could get hot so that it wouldn’t crack.  This would be the beginning of what they called the 2nd boiling.

Underneath this half barrel that would have syrup in it and I don’t remember just how many gallons of actual syrup there would be – oh I’d say 10 or 15 or 20 gallons at the most of pure syrup.  Then the syrup would be put into wooden barrels that were made to hold maybe 35 to 50 gallons.  They had an opening on the side and had a wooden stopper that was called the bung.  Take the bung out and have the barrel positioned just right under a faucet, have a funnel and then drain the syrup from out of this half-barrel into this empty barrel.  Of course you wouldn’t get the barrel full with just one cooking.  Eventually when you got the barrel full, you’d take the bung and drive it back into the hole and roll it out and put it more or less into storage out there on the yard and after so long a time, you’d start delivering.

Daddy was a member of a syrup co-op down in Greensboro.  Cousin Lonnie Clark was the head of that syrup co-op down there and he was the inspector of the syrup.  As these barrels of syrup were delivered and eventually when I got big enough, maybe 14 or something like that to drive, I’d take the ole Model A truck and it’d hold about 2 barrels – here I’d go to Greensboro.  Big deal!  Unload it into the warehouse down there and Cousin Lonnie would take a hammer and a long nail and drive it into the wooden barrel and little bit of the syrup would start oozing out.  He’d take his finger and get a smear of it and taste it.  He judged it by the color, taste, and density and it was put over to the side and after so long a time the freight train would leave off a boxcar and the barrels of syrup would be loaded into the boxcar and shipped to I don’t know where.  Then it would go into making candy and things like that and I don’t know going into syrup. Sometimes and even in this day and time you don’t find real pure cane syrup.  So many times the cane syrup has been diluted with other substances.  I don’t just what all; you can read the labels in the stores and see that.  But anyway that ruins the taste of real syrup when you start dilutin’ it with other items.

That was a cash crop that Daddy and, of course, other farmers had.  Daddy, of course, naturally that being a cash crop, would help pay for, naturally you had to pay for the expenses of raising the cane and producing the syrup, but it would help to pay property taxes and different things like that and bills.  Farmers could get things charged at these stores a lot of times from one crop to the other and when the crop was sold they’d go pay up their indebtness.  This was a hard hard life and had to do all this before it got to be cold cold weather because the cane would get what they called frost bit.  It would begin to turn sour and then it was no good for making syrup.  If before you got through making syrup you had a hard hard freeze come along, you had to go to the field and where it was in little piles in the field you had to start gathering up all those cane blades and start covering those piles so that it wouldn’t freeze.  Like I said, if it did freeze, then you were just out.

Another method that was used some for making syrup was that farmers would buy a gasoline engine and get it hooked up to their mill.  The mill would be a larger mill for grinding the cane from what I was describing earlier that was powered by the mule going round and round and round in a circle.  Eventually as tractors became available some folks got to using their tractors instead of just the ole regular gasoline engines.  So there were all kinds of different methods of it.  Every farmer thought he had the best grade of syrup. 

On the Farm