Wiregrass Babes in Sugarland

To children of Wiregrass Georgia, sugar cane was the homegrown candy of choice.  The harvest of the cane crop, and cane grinding time was anticipated by children of all ages.

Children of the Cane. Children in Berrien County, as in other Wiregrass Georgia counties, looked forward to the sugar cane cutting with great anticipation. Pictured here are children of the Liles and Edson families together on the Leggett farm, Berrien County, GA. Image courtesy of http://berriencountyga.com/

Children of the Cane. Children in Berrien County, as in other Wiregrass Georgia counties, looked forward to the sugar cane cutting with great anticipation. Pictured here are children of the Liles and Edson families together on the Leggett farm, Berrien County, GA. Image courtesy of http://berriencountyga.com/

Sugar cane has been an integral part of Wiregrass culture since it was introduced into South Georgia in around 1828.  John Moore began the cultivation of cane when he settled near the Grand Bay swamp in Lowndes County.  By 1876 sugar cane was one of the staple field crops of South Georgia, and an important staple in the farming and agriculture of Ray’s Mill (now Ray City), and the section. “Sugar, Syrup, and Molasses are made on a considerable scale in the southern part of this State from tropical Cane.” Hundreds of gallons of cane syrup could be produced from a single acre of sugar cane. In 1879 the Columbus Daily Enquirer reported, “The Berrien County News contends that cane planting can be made as profitable in Southern Georgia as in Mississippi, Louisiana or elsewhere, and that Southern Georgia syrup cannot be excelled by that made anywhere.”

In 1885, Montgomery Folsom, poet/historian of Wiregrass Georgia, wrote about the sweet childhood experience of sugar cane:

The Atlanta Constitution
June 24, 1885 pg 2

Down the River.

Now we have reached the point where the [Little] river widens out, and winds along through interminable swamps.  Here in the autumn the mellow haws hang red on the trees, and in the sweet Indian summer great festoons of wild grapes and “bullaces” hanging in mellow lusciousness from the vines which have twined their tendrils around the topmost boughs of the tall trees.  Fields of yellow corn cover the fertile hillside, the withered stalks rustling and creaking in the whispering breeze.  These farmers have inherited a goodly legacy in these broad acres. The cotton fields are white as snow, and the merry jests and hearty laugh attest the contentment of the laborers. In striking contrast with the brilliant colors of the autumnal foliage is the deep blue green of the sugar cane.  Through long years of cultivation in alien soil it has preserved its identity as a child of the tropics, and holds its green until the great leveler, Jack Frost, chills its sugary sap. Other plants have learned to adapt themselves to the new order of things, and shorten the season of their growth accordingly, but the sugar cane never ripens.  If I have dwelled long on the peculiarities of this plant it is because I have experienced so many perils and pleasures in connection with it.  Is there a south Georgia boy, to-day, who never slipped in at the back of the cane patch, starting nervously as he chanced to snap a blade, picking his way carefully until a selection was made, then cutting down the cane by easy stages, so that it would not crack loudly when it fell; carefully stripping of the blades one, by one, then stealing noiselessly out, ensconcing himself in a fence jamb and then – oh! the delicious taste of the juice! “Trebly sweet when obtained through so much peril. Hark! Ahem!” The boy springs to his feet and trembling in every limb beholds the “old man” leaning his elbow on the fence and watching him intently. “Ahem!” “Is it gittin’ sweet yet sonny?” But the boy is too dumbfounded to answer. ” “Well, I guess I’d better give ye a row, and you musn’t cut any out’n the rest of the patch.” Oh! Joy! In less than ten minutes every child on the place is informed that “pa has give us a row of cane to chaw.” And the old man stalks about in the potato patch in search of a late watermelon, an odd smile on his lips.  He passed the same experience some twenty or thirty years ago.

If you want to learn more about the traditions, practice and science of Georgia cane syrup making, be sure to see Bill Outlaw’s essays at Southern Matters http://www.southernmatters.com/  where he shares family history and research on sugar cane and syrup production, along with other connections to the past.

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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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