From the Museum
By Sheilla Lampkin
On a recent night of dull TV, I happened to tune into a nostalgic moment when a lady was recalling a Thanksgiving memory from holidays spent at her grandparents’ home. She was reminiscing about the joy of Grandma’s biscuits at breakfast and the memory of dragging one through a thick mixture of sorghum molasses and butter. She made my mouth water for a taste.
Then I remembered a story I’ve meant to write about the sorghum mill and cooking “pan” we have sitting on the north lawn at the museum. Both have been there longer than I have, so I knew nothing about their particular history until this summer.
One Friday afternoon a gentleman from San Diego came to the museum. His name was Joe Johnson and he was carrying some metal nameplates that he wanted to put on the sorghum mill and pan to acknowledge these gifts donated to the museum by his parents. We had a great visit as he told stories about his childhood in Drew County, his parents and the old sorghum-making materials.
The old sorghum mill and pans were donated to the museum by Mrs. Wade Johnson of Selma in memory of her husband, the late Wade Johnson. The Johnsons owned land and farmed in the Ables Creek Road area in the Selma Community and near Loggy Bayou. They had a large family and grew many of their foodstuffs as well as farmed the land.
Johnson owned a sorghum mill that was operated by mule power and had used it to squeeze his own and neighbors’ sorghum and cane for years. Usually in September, farmers cut their cane and carried it to the mill. He squeezed the juice and cooked the syrup in his pans on “shares.” (This meant that Johnson was paid with a certain pre-agreed portion of every amount of syrup cooked off, often in “thirds” - the miller/syrup maker got one gallon of every three gallons of syrup made.)
The mill consisted of two metal wheels mounted horizontally so that they would turn against each other and squeeze the juice from the canes as they passed between them. The wheels were turned by mule power. A mule was hitched to a pole that was attached to the mill. As the mule circled the mill, the cane was fed between the wheels and the juice pressed from them. Joe Johnson fondly recalls riding a mule as it circled the mill to “encourage” it to keep moving when he was too little to do anything else.
The squeezed juice flowed through a spout on the base of the mill and was strained into a tub, or other container, and taken to the cooking pan under which cooking fires had been built.
The cooking pan was made of galvanized metal (or, in some instances, copper) and measured about seven feet long and three feet wide. The pan was sectioned off in about eight-inch “baffled” segments that were narrow metal plates welded to the bottom of the pan. A narrow gap on alternating sides of each divider allowed the juice to flow freely between compartments so no one had to ladle the hot syrup. Thus one or two syrup-makers could easily handle the operation by just keeping the cooking syrup “moving” by stirring it with long wooden paddles.
The juice cooked approximately six hours and the greenish film on the top had to be frequently skimmed. It cooked until the syrup had thickened to a honeylike consistency with a rich, dark amber color. (Some say it had to cook until a drop of syrup on a board made a standing “bead.”) Then the cooked syrup was ladled into jars or other containers for storage.
By the early 1960s the Johnson children had mostly left home and the Johnsons gave up farming themselves and leased their land to other farmers. However, they continued to operate their mill and cook out sorghum and ribbon cane syrup for others on a shares basis. They also raised watermelons and such to sell locally.
Joe Johnson says when he left home in 1963 his father was making 300-400 gallons of syrup a year. (I have read it takes eight gallons of juice to make a gallon of syrup, so that’s a lot of juice!)
Joe Johnson left Arkansas and went to California where he worked and retired from the U. S. Postal Service. His father, Wade Johnson, died in 1971. After his death, Mrs. Johnson, known by her friends and family as “Mama Ida,” gave the mill and cooking pan to the Drew County Historical Museum in memory of her husband, Wade.
“Mama Ida” moved to California to live with/near her children in 1979 and died there in 1994 at the ripe old age of 96 years old.
The Johnsons still have family here and have kept the land although it is now leased to a farmer. The now-retired Joe Johnson often returns to Drew County for long periods of time. I believe he’d like to move back to stay. I took his picture by the mill and pan the day he visited the museum, but lost it when my computer “died”. Maybe he’ll visit again next summer.
I couldn’t finish this story without sharing a memory from my childhood that I often shared with my students when I taught school. It’s a song that goes like this:
“I like molasses, good old-fashioned sorghum;
I like them in the winter and the fall.
When they get so thick with flies
They resemble raisin pies,
That’s when I like them best of all!”
Happy memories! Happy Thanksgiving!