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Growing Up Country

Sorghum molasses was always a staple of most people of this era. Sugar was out of reach for most folks during the depression. A few years later, sugar was rationed during World War II. Sor-ghum molasses was used  as a substitute for sugar a big part of this time.

One late summer, an entrepreneur of sorts, set up a sorghum mill on the Green place, just over our south line. If you were to come across the culvert that the Corps  of Engineers built over Camp Ground Creek, which is directly across from the Springdale Refuge sign, you would continue about 100 feet, and you would be in the very spot. I don’t know how the word traveled as well as it did, but wagon loads of sorghum cane were stacked up, waiting for this man to run their cane through the mill and cook their juice in this big pan.

This operation was accomplished by a team of mules going around in circles turning rollers inside the mill thereby mashing the cane flat and rendering the juice from these stalks into a little pipe that went under the ground to where the team went round and round and drained into the cooking pan. This allowed the cooking operation to be completely separate from the mill and the rounding team. The man who fed the sorghum stalks into the mill was a busy guy. Not only did he have to keep the juice coming, but he also had to be conscious of that pole coming around so as not to get knocked in the head. 

The cook then, by keeping the fire under the pan fired up from the pile of seasoned split Red Oak, could cook this syrup until he decided it was cooked to perfection. When this was done, a spout was then opened on the pan allowing the hot syrup to fill the waiting one gallon tin buckets, which were furnished by the owner of the mill, Payments were then made for these services, either by money, or a percentage of the syrup.
This man, had a couple of guys helping him, which  made this a well-oiled operation. They were  awfully hard working men. This mill probably weighed two thousand pounds and nothing about it looked very portable. They would hang around until business got slow, and on about a half a day’s notice, they would have that monster loaded on a wagon. With the same team of mules that had been going around in circles for days pulling the wagon, they headed to another spot to set up and do what they did best—make sorghum molasses.

Daddy had a big load of sorghum cane on the wagon and we were sort of  late morning heading to the cane mill. Of course we had a bunch of folks ahead of us, but Daddy didn’t mind because this would give him time to catch up on community affairs. These kinds of goof-off days that I had with my daddy drew lasting criticism from my siblings, who at most times had other duties. I was more like a grandchild who got to hang onto Daddy, getting to go to town and get whey (from the cheese plant) and shorts (from the feed store) for the hogs, or maybe, we’d take Daddy’s fiest dog, “Trotter,” and kill a mess of squirrels. I was pretty good at shaking a bush and turning the squirrels for Daddy. In the early spring, we might be down at the river checking the fish nets. We would catch lots of catfish, and a real prize might be a big soft shell turtle. This was the kind of stuff I was good at, and besides, Daddy needed my help.

Getting back to the sorghum operation, though, I don’t know if you have ever smelled sorghum molasses cooking, but it has the most wonderful aroma. I was naturally drawn to the cooking part where all of this good stuff was coming from. The cooker took some time with me in between his duties of skimming the foam, stirring, adding wood, and periodically testing the thickness, which determined when the syrup was ready to be poured up. 

This man cut off a green twig, about 18 inches long, from one of the nearby trees. He took this twig and twisted it in the foam and handed it to me to taste. I thought this was the most wonderful thing I had eve put into my mouth. For the rest of the day I would have to be moved out of the way every time this gentleman needed to come around the pan to tend his duties. 

I had become very good at twisting the foam. Before we had gotten our sorghum processed, however, I had resigned my post, and taken a seat under the big shade trees with the men. Soon I was laying down under the big shade tree, periodically getting up and running to the bushes to relieve my very upset stomach. I reminded myself, except for the volume, of the cows that had gotten into the corn patch last spring. 

You could trail them by the long green streak they left behind. I was by now a very sick boy and I though I would surely die and certainly though that forevermore I’d never want any more sorghum.

The only sympathy, as I recall, that I got  was from Mama when I got home. I remember her asking Daddy, “Lem, don’t you think we ought to take that boy to the doctor?” “Naa, he’ll be alright,  just got a little case of squirts from eating all that foam.” Mama probably gave me Groves chill tonic. There was turnip greens to loosen you up, baking soda and water for indigestion, Sassafras tea in the spring to thin your blood and prepare you for the hot summer, and coal oil (kerosene) to pour on a cut. For everything else, there was Groves chill tonic.

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