14c. SYRUP MAKING TIME
Syrup making time was a time when some extra hands were needed to strip, cut and haul in cane for making syrup, while some were working with Daddy finding and hauling in "lightered" to fire the pan with, feeding the cane mill, skimming the syrup while it was cooking, etc. "
Lightered "is the heart part of pine stumps or trees that is rich in pine tar and burns very hot.
There were two mills set up for "grinding" the sugar cane. This was done by squeezing the stalks as they were fed in between the mill's two rollers that turned in opposite directions to get the juice out of the stalks. One mill was set up about 50 feet above the cooking vat, or pan, with a wooden barrel placed by the mill that had a "croaker sack" (burlap) stretched over the barrel to strain out the larger particles that would run out of the mill with the juice. There was a piece of tin ridge cap, about four feet long that funneled the juice from the mill to the barrel.
The mills were turned by placing a wooden pole about 15 to 18 feet long, preferably slightly curved, atop the mill where a mule or horse would pull one end round and round, in a circle. I have most if not all the parts of one of the old mills that are laying around the old base of the back steps that I intend to reassemble "one of these days" whether it will actually turn or not. I'd like to get it to where I could grind a little cane juice just for old times sake.
There was a pipe that ran from the juice barrel to the vat that had a valve on the vat end. When Daddy was ready to load a new batch of juice for cooking, he'd just open the valve to let in as much juice as he wanted for that batch.
The second mill was used at times when there was a very large amount of cane to be ground for cooking. The juice from that mill was dipped out of the barrel and taken to the other barrel for sending to the vat.
The vat was set up on limestone blocks to a level of about two to three feet high, under a tin shed to protect it from rain, and a chimney at one end. The end that the juice started in was to the West, by the chimney, and the end that the syrup was finished in, and where the lightered was fed into for the fire was to the East.
The vat, or pan, was made of copper, except for the sides that were made of wood. Every six inches along the pan bottom, there was a divider that was about 3 inches high to allow the juice to spread evenly the length of the pan. At about each 4th space for a divider, there would be a divider about 5 inches high that had a rod through it with threads on each end that extended through the wooden sides. These rods held the sides to the pan. There was an opening about 3 X 3 inches in one end of the high dividers that allowed the juice to flow through. When Daddy needed to separate different folks' juice, he had a big rag that he would put in that opening to keep them separate. There were about four sections to the vat.
The skimmers were made about 6 inches wide by 8 inches long, with turned up sides about 2 inches high. The bottom would have many nail holes in it to allow the juice, then syrup to seep out while the skimmings (impurities) to stay in the skimmer. The skimmers were emptied into an old barrel at each side of the chimney at the West end of the vat.
When the juice had been cooked at just the right temperature, for just the right time, and the juice became syrup at just the right dark amber color, Daddy would "let it off" into a big lard can (about 5 gallons) that had a double layer of flour sack stretched over the top for the final straining.
After letting in a new batch of juice, Daddy would dip up the syrup into either one-gallon or half-gallon buckets especially made for syrup. A gallon of syrup would not be as big as a gallon of water. Water is a liquid. Syrup is a fluid.
I never knew what happened to the old vat after Daddy quit making syrup. The sides had begun to rot and would not hold liquids, so whoever got the pan would have had to replace the sides.
Another thing that we had lots of fun at was tumbling off the large pile of "cane chews", the crushed cane stalks that had been taken by pitch forks away from the mills and piled up high out of the way of the mules turning the mill.
After the syrup making was finished, the hands would take the skimmings from the syrup making down in the woods and make "home brew" that would make them "Higher than Cooter Brown" when they drank it.
We would all like to go out in the cold mornings and drink a little cane juice before heading to school.
Also, all of us kids had fun tumbling off the big piles of “cane chews,” the squeezed out cane stalks that were toted away from the mill to make a big pile several feet high. We’d play what is now known as “king of the hill” to keep anyone else from climbing up the pile.