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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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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