Sometime in the later half of the fifties, when I was in the later half of my teens, I was parked at an intersection out in the country, in Calhoun County, Illinois, down towards St Louis. I had a stack of shiny tin buckets sporting a label that proclaimed; “Nothing is better for breakfast than hot cakes and sorghum.” I was on the business end – the final step of an outrageous enterprise. Business was slow; the afternoon was hot and boring when an enormously long, gaudy green, stretch limousine pulled up to the stop sign, the windows rolled down revealing the biggest bunch of tall, laughing black guys I had ever seen in one place.

“Sorghum – Get your sorghum here,” I called.

“Look at that kid. He’s selling sorghum for a living,” they hooted. “Yah, we dribble for a living.”

As the limo turned the corner, I memorized the words painted in big yellow letters down the side of it; “The Harlem Globetrotters.” At that time, and for several years afterwards, I had no idea what the Globetrotters actually did, or what “dribbling” was all about. Today, I find myself the head of a clan that is almost equally ignorant about the art of growing, cooking, and enjoying Pure Cane Sorghum Molasses.

My family plunged headfirst into the molasses business just as the business itself was in its final death throes. Today, almost all of the sorghum that is cooked is, more or less, a nostalgic hobby rather than a business. When our country was young, sorghum provided a ready source of sweetener. Throughout the Midwest, almost every community once had a sorghum mill and almost everyone had a patch of cane which was cut and taken to the mill to be turned into this sweet nectar. As we were getting ‘into molasses,’ molasses was increasingly being replaced by Karo Syrup and refined sugars. Today our craving for sweeteners is further fulfilled by little packets that have no sugar in them at all and by corn sweeteners, rolling, in long tank car trains, from large processing plants scattered across our land. Totally heedless of this trend, we never the less persisted through three seasons raising, cooking and marketing molasses.

As time goes by, I find that each fall I more wistfully desire to do it again. Maybe it is my own nostalgia; plain and simple. Maybe it is because I remember a dad and his son working together, pushing against our physical limitations and in three short years stretching the technological envelope of our enterprise; ‘Boldly, going where no one had gone before.’ Sometimes I rue that we only had three years at it and long to go back and finish the job we started.

The actual process of ‘cooking’ molasses requires a lot of energy to remove the moisture and reduce the juice into syrup. We had a saw mill and a cheap energy source in the form of slab wood. This idea only persisted the first year. Trying to get a consistent even heat under a large evaporator pan with wood that is sometimes Oak, sometimes Elm, and sometimes Hickory; wood that is sometimes wet and sometimes dry, was an art that we never completely mastered. The second season we switched to fuel oil. We installed a collection of burners salvaged from heating furnaces. This was much better but still the only way we had to regulate heat was adding and removing bricks from under each burner to move them closer or farther from the pan.

The third year we hit Bonanza! We learned that we could salvage light insulated fire brick from the scrap pile at a local refractory plant. From those brick we built a new fire pit. We got a big LP gas tank and installed gas burners. Now turning the heat up or down was as simple as turning a valve and opening or closing the air inlet at the burners. Back in those days there was an expression that was frequently heard: When something worked exceptionally well, someone would say, “Now you’re cookin with gas.” Who knows; we might have invented that little ditty.

The labor component was something that always seemed to get short shrift when Dad put together a business plan. It is one thing to see us get filthy rich off of the east three acres in the middle field. It is something else entirely to turn the plan into reality. Dad never took inventory and determined that there were some practical limits to how much free labor he could get out of his household. You always ran right up against the limits and at that point tried to invent a way around them. We might also have initiated the saying that ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’ During those three years we were certainly not bashful about invention.

First off, the cane had to be planted. We didn’t have a cane seed planter so; we’ll use the soybean plates instead. Never mind that that still put way too many seed in the ground. “As soon as the plants come up we will go through the field with hoes and thin out the weaker plants.” (When Dad used ‘we’ in that sense he was never referring to himself and the mouse he had in his pocket.) For one of the first inventions Dad took a set of planter plates to his favorite welding shop, had the holes welded shut and a new set of smaller, more properly spaced, holes machined in them. Sometimes my dad learned very fast.

There is a relatively narrow window in the fall when cane has to be harvested. If you start the process before the cane is ripe you lose a lot of sweetness. At the other end of the window, the juice in the cane will sour soon after the first hard frost. Harvesting cane in the conventional way was an intensely laborious process; and remember, we’re not talking about the common several rows at the edge of a truck patch; we’re talking about acres of the stuff.

Conventional sorghum cane harvesting required that you first remove the leaves. This was done with sharpened wooden paddles as you walked down the rows. Next you bent the stalks down and removed the grain heads with a machete. After that you chopped off the stalks and laid them orderly across a flat bed wagon for transport to the mill where the stalks were run between rollers and the juice was squeezed out of them.

One of the first rebellions against conventionalism was with the beheading process. The grain heads were animal feed. Why should they be scattered across the field and then later retrieved and fed to the cattle? We left them on. We laid the cane carefully across the wagon with the heads hanging over the edge. When we got to the mill, Dad took the chainsaw and neatly zipped off the heads in one fell swoop.

We next asked why the leaves needed to be removed. Convention said that something bitter would be squeezed out of them when they were pressed. Dad didn’t believe it. He grabbed several hands full of leaves and ran them through the mill. When there was no juice forthcoming he considered that conventional wisdom relegated to the myth bin. When we started pressing cane with the leaves on, we however soon learned that there was a downside to doing so. Instead of pressing something from the leaves the leaves actually soaked up a lot of the juice and reduced our yield. The next morning we brought in a load of cane while the dew was still on the leaves. The dew prevented the leaves from soaking up the juice and I never stripped the leaves from another stalk of cane. That’s what I call Win-Win.

We soon realized that our pioneering had removed the major obstacles to the biggest labor reduction invention of them all.

For many centuries farmers had typically brought their crops in from the field and then threshed or otherwise processed them. With the advent of our industrial era that started to change: More frequently now, farmers were taking their threshing equipment out into the field. Why couldn’t we do the same? It was an idea rife with audacity but that had never stopped us before. By our second season we were dragging the largest sorghum press that we could find right down the cane row and bringing only the juice to the plant to be processed. How we accomplished that resulted in the most ‘Rube Goldberg’ parade of farm machinery that you ever saw in your life.

To lead this parade we needed a tractor that would go extremely slow, so we built one. We started with the chassis and drive train of a thirties vintage Dodge truck. We next added another transmission in tandem with the one that was there. With both transmissions in a low gear we satisfied our ‘need for (no) speed.’

To cut the cane stalks and orient them for feeding through the press, we started out with a forage harvester. Farmers use forage harvesters for chopping row crops and blowing them into a wagon for silage. For our application we removed the blower/chopper wheel and pretty much left the rest of the machine intact. We installed an engine as a power source and added another set of wheels and an axle in back to support the tremendous weight of the mill. Next, the mill was mounted with its throat right where the chopper wheel had previously been. Shafts, bearings, chain drives and gears were supplied to tie it all together and make all of it turn the right way and at approximately the right speed.

A small pump in the catch basin under the mill gathered the precious juice and routed it to a tank trailer bringing up the rear.

When we bolted all this together and drug it to the field it even worked. (Sort of) Actually, it worked pretty well. We had some fine tuning to do with drive ratios etc. but it all wound up, in the end, being quite minor stuff. We were however not completely out of the woods. When we built our tractor it had too long a wheelbase to do a good job maneuvering in the field. It was also too light and often the weight of the mill picked up the tractor and set it down where it decided instead of the other way around.

The other downside was that we could no longer use the chainsaw for zipping off the heads. We were back to using the machete, a row at a time ahead of the mill. Dad made a substantial investment to correct those two problems prior to season three.

As far as I can remember, Dad, in his lifetime, only bought one piece of brand new drive equipment. It was a shiny red Massey Ferguson 35 tractor. We bought it special, with extra small wheels so it would go slower. It replaced the Dodge tractor. To remove the heads we were back to inventing. We mounted a conventional manure loader on the tractor. Above, and off to the side of the bucket, and in line with the cane row, we installed a short piece of sickle mower and powered it with a hydraulic motor. Now as we drove down the cane rows, we raised and lowered the loader to compensate for shorter or taller cane. The sickle cut off the heads and a chute directed them into the bucket. When the bucket was full of heads, the cavalcade would stop briefly, and the bucket would be rotated to dump the seeds in a pile in the field where they would later be collected.

By the third season our harvesting routine was pretty well established. With the dew on the leaves, Dad and I would hit the sorghum cane field around 4:00 A.M… By daylight we would have pressed a days worth of juice and have it deposited in a settling tank. In the meantime, the rest of the family would have done the chores and we would now sit down together for breakfast. After breakfast the pans were fired up and the cooking started. Around noon someone would bring out lunch and we ate on the fly. The cooking continued till dark when we retired to supper and a few hours of sleep before the routine started all over again.

That’s an awful lot of shiny buckets of sorghum. But no problem! After all, “Nothing is better for breakfast than hot cakes and sorghum.” Years later, after we ate or otherwise got rid of the last sorghum, I’m not sure that we thought so any more. But just maybe – for breakfast tomorrow morning – one more time for old times sake.

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