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Sunday, November 25, 2018

Making Sugar on Johnson Creek in 1907

Kerr County Sorghum mill around 1915
A sorghum mill on Fall Branch, which I believe was similar to the mill
described by Herbert Oehler below.
Click on any image to enlarge.
As I finished up another slice of leftover Thanksgiving pie, I remembered a story about farmers making sugar from cane right here in Kerr County, taken from my files:
In years past, as the days grew shorter and the temperature began to cool, work on Kerr County farms didn’t slow down. Take for instance the Oehler family who had a small molasses mill on their farm between Ingram and Mountain Home in the “upper Johnson Creek valley” in 1907.
You and I don’t really think about sweeteners: if we want sugar we just hop over to H-E-B and buy a package. And while sugar was available at grocery stores in Kerrville in 1907, many families grew their own cane and had it processed by a neighbor.
Herb Oehler, in his book “Hill Country Boy” writes about his family’s molasses mill:
“We didn’t get into molasses making intentionally. It happened because there was a molasses mill and cooking vat on the place when we bought it… and Papa was not one to pass up an opportunity to cash in on the use of available equipment, even if it wasn’t familiar to him. I am sure that the Tom Parks family who lived on the place before we moved there were instrumental in teaching Papa and Mama how to operate it. While we always process the other neighbor’s cane crops for them, I remember that the Parks’ made arrangements each year to use the equipment to process their own crop.
“Papa preferred orange or redtop cane rather than the sugar cane because it had tendency to fall over when nearly mature, resulting in the stalks becoming twisted and crooked. This made them hard to handle and hard to feed into the mill.
Sorghum mill on Fall Creek, operated as a
community project by Clate Smith.
“When the cane was ripe it had to be stripped, that is, the leaves had to be knocked off. This was done with wooden paddles while it was still standing in the row. Tripping paddles were made of boards two or three feet long and three or four inches wide. With a drawing knife a handle was shaped on one end and the two sides were sharpened. Sugar barrel staves were ideal for this since they were made of light, tough wood and were the proper length and width.
“After stripping, the cane was cut by hand with sickles and stacked in small piles so the tops could be cut off. The tops from four piles were tossed together into one place and left to dry for several days before being gathered and threshed. Threshing was done by placing the tops on a wagon sheet, beating them with a flail, and then winnowing out the chaff. The grain was used as seed the next season or was sold.”
Even though it was a lot of work to get the cane ready to process, the real work began once the cane was taken to the mill.
“The molasses mill was a heavy piece of machinery set on stout cedar posts about three feet high. This height enabled the one who fed the cane stalks into the mill to sit in comfort while performing his task. The mill consisted of three iron rollers about eighteen inches tall. Each one had an iron cog on top. The rollers were set on end with heavy iron frames keeping them in place….”
The mill was powered by a horse, traveling round and round the mill, “turning the big roller whose cog turned the other rollers…the cane juice was squeezed out as the stalks were fed into the mill onto a sort of slide…when the slide was full, the horse was unhitched from the mill, hitched to the slide, and the crushed stalks hauled off to one side and dumped.”
The cane juice was cooked, and impurities skimmed off “with a sieve-like, long-handled” skimmer. This scum was fed to the hogs.
The finishing the molasses was tricky: “Mama presided over the vat. Knowing when it was done enough to be drained off into cans and buckets required knowledge gained from experience. If it cooked too long, the molasses was thick and stiff when cold and if it wasn’t cooked long enough, it might retain too much moisture which could make it ferment or sour.”
The price of molasses in those days was about 10 cents a pound. The Oehlers processed a lot of cane for their neighbors in the early part of the last century, during harvest time.
Making things sweeter took a lot of work!
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who is thankful for many blessings, most of them sweet. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times November 24, 2018.

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