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Molasses Makin' Time

It was molasses making time when the sugar cane planted in the early days of Spring was ready to harvest. September in the start of the Fall season was the time for making molasses. Not too many years ago in Scott County, Tennessee making molasses was very common. The owner of the sugar cane mill served the families that lived within twenty miles and charged fifty cents a day for the use of his mill. If you did not have the money you could usually pay in molasses. When it was molasses makin' time it was a community event. Many people would refer to it as the "Stir Off" and would often ask, "Are you a goin' to the stir off tomorrow?" Back when my grandparents were raising their children in the 1920's and 30's making molasses was a way of life. The molasses was stored and used through the winter months. Sometimes it was used to sweeten items instead of using refined sugar. During the Depression days most families including my grandparents raised what they ate on the farm. There was little money to buy things you could not raise or make. Money could be made by selling some of your molasses especially to the folks living in town. Our ancestor's lived in a time when there were no supermarkets to shop for items they needed or wanted. Everything they needed for their family was supplied on the farm through their hard work. Anyone that has eaten molasses poured over hot biscuits or cornbread knows just how good it is. The process of making molasses was simple but hard work was needed to accomplish this task. In some communities this task could last up to a week so everyone that had raised sugar cane could eventually take home their jars, tin and wooden containers filled with their hard earned molasses!
(Sugar Cane Field)
Raising sugar cane and all the other crops was a way of life and a way of feeding your family and surviving in Scott County and other areas of our great country. You prayed for the right amount of rain and sun and with the hoeing and weeding you would end up with a fine crop. Sugar cane would grow taller than a man and have a tassel of seeds at the top of the plant. Neighbors would often help each other harvest their sugar cane. "Strippers" as they were called would move through each row and strip the long leaves from the sugar cane stalks. You had to wear long sleeve shirts to protect your arms from getting cut by the sharp edges of the leaves. Many people would use gloves also. By the time they were finished they would have small cuts on their cheeks, neck, arms and hands. After the strippers would finish a row or two then the "cutters" as they were called would start their job. The cutters using long knives would slash the tassels from the top of the stalks. They would then cut the stalks close to the ground laying them in bundles along the rows. Between the strippers and the cutters the strippers had the hardest job. During the day people would rotate jobs because no one wanted to be a "stripper" all day long! The bundles of sugar cane would be loaded into wagons or sleds pulled by a horse or mule to the press.
Around daybreak the making of the first batch of molasses would begin. The press also called a grinder would be rollers that squeezed the juice from the sugar cane. The juice was also called the "squeezings". What would crush the cane would be revolving metal canisters. The mill was powered by a mule walking around in circles pulling a large pole attached to the mule's harness that was also connected to the grinder which made the metal canisters revolve. On one side a man would be feeding the stalks into the revolving metal canisters. On the other side of the mill a man would be taking the crushed stalks out. These jobs were called the "feeder" and the "taker away". This was an ongoing process and each man stayed very busy and alert. They had to constantly keep a watch on the long pole that went around and around over their heads. This whole process would crush and squeeze the cane juice out which flowed down into buckets below the mill. The old mule would keep a slow, constant pace at his job going around and around and with the feeder and the taker away the juice would flow.
(Sugar Cane Mill)
A great deal of wood was needed for the making of molasses and someone kept a large pile next to the fire pit. Huge stones were placed around the fire pit. The large vat sat on these rocks and were several inches above the fire. The vat was a large pan usually around eight feet long and four feet wide and ten to twelve inches deep. These pans were made from a piece of sheet metal and could be made into different sizes. The fire pit and vat would be located a little ways from the mill. The cane juice would be strained and poured into the large pan. It was very important for the fire to be the right temperature. It needed to be a slow burning fire and not too hot. There would be large wooden paddles to stir the green liquid as it was poured into the vat. The people that were allowed to do the stirring were the women and men who had the most experience with the slow making molasses and keeping the fire burning steadily. When the juice would begin to boil there would be a green scum that would come to the surface. This green scum had to be skimmed off. The long handled paddle was also called the skimmer. The molasses had to be constantly stirred and the green scum removed. The juice would become darker and thicker. As it slowly cooked the aroma of the sweet molasses would fill the holler. The seasoned men and women that did the stirring could tell by looking when the molasses was ready to pour into the containers. At this time the vat was removed and usually sat on sawhorses. A large table sat next to this and the women would be waiting with a dipper and funnel to fill their jars and containers of all sizes with the molasses. When the large vat was empty the children were allowed to take a piece of a cane stalk and rake the bottom of the pan. My mom would tell the story of her being a young child and how she and the other children would enjoy eating the gob of molasses stuck to the piece of cane stalk. She said to them it tasted like the best candy in the world! As she said they hardly ever got store bought candy when they were growing up in the Black Creek community of Scott County, Tennessee.
(Molasses Stir Off)
It was time to wash the large cooking pan. Water had to be carried from the spring or a nearby creek. The children helped and this chore did not take very long. The fire had died down and the vat was replaced on the stones. More wood was carried and placed next to the fire pit. Everything was ready for the next morning when another load of sugar cane would be brought to the mill and the whole process of molasses making would start all over again. Mom said there was always something special about the first "stir off" of molasses makin' in the Fall. You can bet they had their molasses with their supper that evening. If I listen close enough I can almost hear my Grandpa Willoughby saying, "I think this batch taste better than last years. Don't you?"

Dan Gibson, author
Copyright 2003

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