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Making molasses is a time-honored tradition

As I look back on the spring of my life, I often remember some of the activities that were special to me and in my mind’s eye relive those good times all over again. As I was growing up on a small Johnson County farm there was plenty of things to do and some of it was laborious and repetitive as anyone who farms can attest.
But there were a few chores that even though they were pretty hard work, were enjoyable and there was a kind of reward when the work was over. Since fall is in full swing, I reminisced about one job that I always looked forward to during my life on the farm — molasses making.
Morning came early when it came time to make molasses. Cane was raised in the literal sense on many farms large and small in Johnson County. Preparing the cane for grinding was a hot job. Often the cane was wet due to dew early in the morning. So all of that plus the increased intensity of the sun’s rays later in the day made for a pretty trying day for those who prepared the cane for grinding and boiling.
The first job in preparing the cane for grinding was stripping the leaves from the stalk. That was usually done in the field and stalks were cut down after that and piled up near the grinding operation. There were people in the area that had acquired the reputation of being expert molasses makers. Some that I remember were George Pierce, Joe Shoun, and Don Johnson. I’m sure there were others. The actual making of the molasses took place at the boiling vat. A very hot wood fire was maintained under the vat. As the cane juice was being ground it ran through a pipe to the vat. The grinding mill included two large cylinders that were meshed close together and by gearing they turned in opposite directions. As the cane stalks were fed into the mill, the stalks were squeezed by the turning cylinders and the juice ran into a container at the mill, then to the vat for boiling.
I think some of the molasses makers ran their mills with a gasoline engine but the one George Pierce operated was by horse or mule. A long boom stuck out from the gearing mechanism of the mill. It was hitched to a horse or mule and the animal circled round and round turning the cylinders of the molasses mill.
The three men mentioned were noted for knowing when the juice had cooked long enough and was ready to be removed from the vat. There was a certain time to do that in order to make the best molasses. Knowing when the juice had boiled long enough to be the right consistency was important. Some of the molasses was to be sold while some went home with owner of the cane for their own use. The mill owner took a certain amount of the molasses as compensation for using his facilities and his expertise.
My wife Mary and I have grown cane. We have nurtured it to harvest by hoeing it, fertilizing it, and cultivating it. We have stripped the leaves, hauled it to the mill, worked all day in the hot sun feeding the mill and took our amber colored molasses home at the end of the day.
But as a child, my favorite memory is of carving a wooden paddle and using it to sample the delicious hot molasses just out of the vat. It was a special time and I can almost taste those molasses to this day.