W. C. Patten and the Chattanooga Evaporator

Fall in South Georgia from October through the end of the year is still syrup making time -the time that sugar cane is cut and cane syrup produced. In the 1890s, one of the biggest producers of cane syrup and cane sugar in Berrien County was William C. Patten. His production was noted for the use of the Chattanooga Evaporator, which allowed for continuous processing of the juice into syrup, rather than the “batch processing” done in the broad iron kettle of the home farmer.

 

Almost hidden in the steam, the cooker stands over a Chattanooga evaporator and dips his ladle here and there to skim the scum. Occasionally he tests the boiling syrup as it drips from the skimmer and when it "acts right" he lets it out. He doesn't need a saccharometer, and instrument commonly used for the purpose, to know when the syrup is done. His eye is keen and his judgement ripe and he knows when the sweetsome flood is ready. This interesting process is taking place in South Georgia where the natives insist upon sugar-cane syrup and cannot see the taste of a Tennessean, for instance, who has to have his sorghum, which is thicker but not any sweeter. All the same, either goes with flapjacks and hot biscuits - and what would the kids do without old-fashioned molasses candy? There is a Chattanooga cane mill nearby that crushes the stalks as they come from the field and presses out the juice, which then is piped to the evaporator where the cooker keeps a wary eye on the sugar content while the fire is taking out the water.

Almost hidden in the steam, the cooker stands over a Chattanooga evaporator and dips his ladle here and there to skim the scum. Occasionally he tests the boiling syrup as it drips from the skimmer and when it “acts right” he lets it out. He doesn’t need a saccharometer, and instrument commonly used for the purpose, to know when the syrup is done. His eye is keen and his judgement ripe and he knows when the sweetsome flood is ready.

This interesting process is taking place in South Georgia where the natives insist upon sugar-cane syrup and cannot see the taste of a Tennessean, for instance, who has to have his sorghum, which is thicker but not any sweeter. All the same, either goes with flapjacks and hot biscuits – and what would the kids do without old-fashioned molasses candy?

There is a Chattanooga cane mill nearby that crushes the stalks as they come from the field and presses out the juice, which then is piped to the evaporator where the cooker keeps a wary eye on the sugar content while the fire is taking out the water.

 

The Harvester, May, 1921

It is said that  sugar cane cultivation was first introduced into south Georgia by John Moore  when he moved to Lowndes County around 1828. By 1876, Sugar cane became one of the staple crops of Wiregrass Georgia, Berrien County, and of Ray City.   Every farmer had a small cane mill on his farm for pressing the cane to extract the juice, which was cooked down in a cast iron kettle to make syrup. Hundreds of gallons of cane syrup could be produced from a single acre of sugar cane.

Local syrup producers over the years have included the likes of Jehu Patten (1838-1907), farmer of the Rays Mill (now Ray City) District, who in 1896 had “300 gallons of syrup jugged and sealed,” as well as his home produced cane sugar; Levi J. Clements (1851-1924, patriarch of the Clements family and founder of the Clements Lumber Company at Ray City; David C. Clements (1857-1902) who shipped his Georgia cane syrup from Ray City to markets as far as Texas; Moses C. Lee (1853-1926), exemplary farmer of Ray City, who in a year “jugged and barreled 750 gallons of syrup, of the finest that can be made”; Della Outlaw (1891-1932) made cane syrup on what is today the W. H. Outlaw Centennial Farm near Ray City, and bottled it for sale in Nashville, GA (Today, her grandson, Bill Outlaw, makes cane syrup in the family tradition);  David Jackson Skinner (1898-1962), a farmer of the Ray City, GA area and a Deacon of New Ramah Church put up his syrup in cans;  Wiley Chambless (1832-1888) was a Berrien county farmer who grew “red” and “red ribbon” cane; J. McMillan, J.J. McMillan and J.L. Harper, of Alapaha together produced 25 barrels of cane syrup for shipment in 1885; J.N. Bray,  of Berrien County, in 1908 produced 2000 gallons of cane syrup; George W. Leggett (1846-1922) shared the use of his syrup making equipment with family and friends.

The December 14, 1894 the Tifton Gazette reported about William C. Patten’s cane syrup processing:

Tifton Gazette, December 14, 1894. W.C. Patten was one of the largest sugar cane growers in Berrien County, GA

Tifton Gazette, December 14, 1894.W.C. Patten was one of the largest sugar cane growers in Berrien County, GA

 

Mr. W. C. Patten is perhaps the largest sugar cane producer in Berrien County. He uses a Chattanooga Evaporator and it takes about a month to convert his cane crop into sugar and syrup. He lives about five miles north of Milltown. He produces a plenty and to spare of “hog and hominy.”

William C. “Babe” Patten (1849-1944),  was a resident of the “Watson Grade” community, near Empire Church just  northeast of Ray’s Mill, GA .  Watson Grade was the location of the Watson family farm and the home of Sam I. Watson, among others

William C. Patten was a son of William Patten and Elizabeth “Betsey” Register.    He married Sarah Lee, who was the daughter of Moses Corby Lee and Jincy Register. A prominent farmer of Berrien County, GA, William C. Patten was a Notary Public and Ex Officio Justice of the Peace. When his wife’s niece, Jennie Lee, married Samuel I Watson in 1900, it was W. C.  Patten who performed the ceremony.  W.C. Patten, after the death of his first wife, married Sam Watson’s sister,  Laura Watson.

The Chattanooga Evaporator

The evaporator is generally placed down hill from the cane mill so that gravity can be used to get the juice from the mill to the evaporator. The evaporator is a shallow pan about three and one-half feet wide by from five to fifteen feet long. Chattanooga evaporators have partitions about nine inches apart, with a small opening or gate at alternate ends to make the juice flow back and forth across the evaporator.

The evaporator rests on a furnace made of steel or brick. Pine wood is considered the best fuel, as it makes a quick, flashing fire and gives more uniform heat the full length of the pan. The aim is to keep a constant flow of juice into, and from, the evaporator. About thirty minutes after the juice enters the evaporator it leaves it as a clear, delicious syrup.

The picture [above] shows a real South Georgia syrup maker. The quality of the syrup depends a great deal on the skill of the “cooker.” As the juice begins to boil a thick, slimy, green scum rises, bringing with it all the impurities. This is skimmed off and thrown into a barrel.

Just a word about that barrel. Sometimes it becomes the focal point of a great deal of attention, such as might arouse the curiosity of the uninitiated. After the skimmings have stood a while a certain amount of juice settles at the bottom, and that juice develops a kick that would bring happiness to prohibition sufferers could they get a chance at it.

On account of the rapid evaporation, the vapor or “steam” sometimes completely hides the outfit, but the cooker plies his ladle, skimming the juice, dipping and throwing back and occasionally raising the ladle and allowing the syrup from the finishing end of the evaporator to drip off. If the “cooker” is an old hand he knows from the way the syrup “acts” when it is done. The inexperienced cooker tests the syrup with a type of hydrometer known as a saccharometer. – The Harvester, May, 1921

1920 advertisement for Chattanooga cane mills, evaporators, furnaces and accessories.

1920 advertisement for Chattanooga cane mills, evaporators, furnaces and accessories.

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Cane Grinding Time Meant Syrup, Candy and Cane Beer

On October 31, 1882, the Quitman Free Press opined, “Syrup making will soon commence. Drinking cane juice is better than talking politics.”

In the fall, from October through the end of the year was “cane-grinding time” – the time that the cane was cut and cane syrup was produced. Every farmer had a small cane mill on his farm for pressing the cane to extract the juice, which was cooked down in kettles to make syrup.  Production of quality cane syrup could be quite profitable for local farmers. (See Cane Syrup Comes to Berrien County)

Cane grinding in Berrien County, GA circa 1913 on the farm of Simmie King.  Image courtesy of berriencountyga.com.

Cane grinding in Berrien County, GA circa 1913 on the farm of Simmie King. Image courtesy of berriencountyga.com.

Syrup, sugar, candy, and cane “beer” could all be produced right on the farm.  J. L. Herring’s Saturday night sketches: stories of old wiregrass Georgia, published in 1918, illustrates how central this harvest “chore” was to the farming community.

CANE GRINDING TIME

It is cane-grinding time in South Georgia, by some miscalled sugar-boiling time — although little sugar is made, and by others called syrup-boiling time, but it is not the syrup that draws the crowds. The cotton has been picked, the corn is in the crib, the potatoes have been banked and with the heavy work of the harvest over, the manufacture of the sugar cane into the year’s supply of syrup is made the occasion of a merry making among the young folks.

This is down where the wiregrass covers the sloping hillsides and the pines still murmur and sigh in the passing breeze. The first frost has touched the waving blades of the tall sugar cane and given warning to the watchful husbandman.

First the cane mill, which has lain idle for a year is overhauled. It is a crude affair, two big iron rollers set vertically on a pine log frame.

The forest has been searched for a stooping sapling with just the right crook and this is cut and fitted in place for a lever, the lower end almost touching the ground, the upper swinging in the air as a balance. The iron kettle — like the mill rollers a product of a Georgia foundry — is set in a furnace of clay.

Another day is spent in preparation. With wooden paddles, sharpened on one edge, the leaves are stripped from the standing cane. A stroke with a butcher or drawing-knife takes off the top and with an adz or hoe the stalks are cut. Then they are loaded on the handy ox-cart and dumped at the mill.

The first shafts of coming dawn are aslant the horizon and the air is keen and cold when the faithful mule is led out and by means of the plow gear hitched to the lever’s end. Then for the animal begins the weary tread-mill round, which lasts far into the night. A lad of the family, too young for heavy work, Is selected to feed, and with home-made mits to temper the cold stalks, grasps a cane as the mule Is started. Between the slowly turning rollers he thrusts the smaller end; there are creaks and groans from the long unused mill, a snap of splitting stalk and the juice gushes forth. Along a small trough In the mill frame It runs Into a barrel, covered with layers of coarse sacking to catch the Impurities.

On the other side of the mill the cane pulp (pummy) falls and this is carried off by the feeder’s assistant, who also keeps the pile of cane replenished. When there is a kettle full of juice a fire of lightwood Is started in the furnace and soon the flames, like a beckoning banner, surmount the short chimney’s mouth. As the juice boils the foreign matter arises in scum, and this is carefully skimmed off. Untiring vigilance in the boiling is the price of good syrup. Gradually the color changes from a dirty green to a rich amber and then to a golden red. The aroma arising suggests the confectioner’s workshop and soon tiny, bursting bubbles attest that the work is done.

Then help is called and the fire drawn; hastily two men dip the boiling liquid into pails which are emptied into a trough (hewn from a cypress log) . As soon as the syrup is out, fresh juice which is ready at hand is poured into the kettle and the work goes on.

As the shades of night fall, the neighbors, young and old, gather, for no man grinds cane alone.

True, about as much is sometimes chewed, drunk in juice or eaten as syrup “foam” as the owner retains for his own use, but who would live for himself alone and what matter, so long as there is plenty for all?

The first visit of the young people is to the juice-barrel. There, with a clean fresh gourd, deep draughts are taken of the liquid, ambrosial in its peculiar delicious sweetness. Then to the syrup trough, with tiny paddles made from cane peels is scooped up the foam which has gathered in nooks in candied form.

Then, until the late hours of the night, the older folks sit around the front of the blazing furnace and swap yarns or crack jokes. By the light of a lightwood-knot fire near by the young ones play “Twistification,” “London Bridge” and many kindred games, while on the pile of soft “pummies” there is many a wrestle and feat of strength among the young athletes. The bearded men grouped around the furnace, the steaming kettle and its attendant, from whose beard and eyebrows the condensed moisture hangs; the shouts of laughter from the young merry-makers; the plodding mule making his weary rounds, the groaning mill and gushing juice form a scene not soon forgotten.

In a few days when the “skimmings” ferment — there is cane beer, delicious with its sweet-sour taste, and still later “buck” from the same stuff, now at a stage when only the initiated can appreciate it, ready for the hard drinker or the wild-cat still.

1908 Valdosta Times advertisement.

1908 Valdosta Times advertisement.

Although the prominence of the cane-grinding social event waned over time, on-the-farm production of cane syrup was a common practice well into the 1900s. One local Berrien producer was David Jackson Skinner (1898-1962).  Skinner was a resident of the Ray City, GA area for most of his adult life, a Deacon of New Ramah Church,  and spent his life farming in Berrien and Lanier counties.

David Jackson Skinner with his sugar cane mill and bucket of Georgia cane syrup produced for market. In the 1920s David Skinner lived in the household of his father, Payton Shelton Skinner, located on the Upper Ray City – Milltown Road.

For more about the southern tradition of cane syrup production, you really should see the entertaining and educational essays of Bill Outlaw at http://www.southernmatters.com/sugarcane/   Bill writes that his ” great grandfather W.H. Outlaw was a small farmer/landowner just on the outskirts of Ray City (Lot 419). He was born in Dale Co. Alabama and after his mother died, he was ‘given’ to his maternal grandparents, the Dawson Webbs (general area of Pleasant, where he is buried).”

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