Sugarcane is grown throughout South Georgia both commercially and by families who are trying to maintain a long-standing tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. While some families still grow enough cane to sell or turn into syrup, most only have a small patch compared to what their parents and grandparents had.
Marge Morris said, “Even today most people still grow a small patch of cane in their yard, especially those who were raised with it.” Raising and grinding cane is a family tradition that has been present in the south for many generations. There are many, like Marge Morris and her husband, Hansel, who cherish the tradition. Randy Folsom and long-time friend, Jim Fielding, are keeping the tradition very much alive.
The Sweet Truth About Sugar Cane
The sweet truth about sugarcane is that at one time, sugarcane ranked right up there with cotton and tobacco as a main cash crop throughout the south. Florida produces almost 17 million tons of sugarcane a year. Georgia’s crop is considerably smaller but still valuable to the state’s economy. The fact is, family farms that still grow sugarcane can sell their crop to local companies who take the raw cane, process it and then sell it in one or more of its many forms. Granulated sugar isn’t the only way sugarcane is used. It can also be turned into blackstrap molasses, bagasse, sucrose, and ethanol.
A Time for Family and Fellowship
One of the most well-known and beloved traditions of those families who grew sugarcane is harvest time. After the sugarcane is harvested, the grinding begins. In the past, a team of mules was used to grind the cane and collect the raw sugar that would be boiled down into a thick, delicious syrup. Once the grinding was finished, the liquid was placed in a large kettle where it would slowly be brought to a boil. It takes several hours to get to the boiling process, as several hands take turn using sieves to remove any debris.
When the foam is gone and the last bit of debris has been skimmed off the top, the flame is stoked and the kettle is brought to a full boil. Randy Folsom explains, “We bring it up real slow so we can get all the trash and debris as it floats to the top. We don’t want it to boil until we get that off of it. Once it’s off we’ll put fire to it and it’ll start foaming.”
Once everything has been cleared away, the liquid is allowed to boil for a few more hours. As soon as the syrup has reached the desired consistency, it’s bottled and shared with friends and neighbors. What starts as about 60 gallons of liquid will eventually boil down to about 6 gallons of cane syrup.
Keeping the Traditions Alive
Every year families gather for an old-fashioned “cane grinding.” For those who like the taste, small cups are handed out so they can “sample” the cane liquid that’s collected straight from the grinder. It’s the pure taste of a crop lovingly grown, not for commercial profit, but as a way of bringing everyone together to remember a time long passed. Vicki Rountree says, “ This is our childhood. This is what we did. Local farmers grew the cane and the cane grindings were a big deal. Everybody would turn out.”
Randy Folsom’s family has grown cane for many years. While his dad had stopped growing it for a while, Randy started growing sugarcane a few years ago and has brought back the cane grinding tradition. He still uses the same kettle his grandfather used so many years ago. While some families have modernized their grinding equipment, Randy has stayed as true as possible to the old ways. His grandpa used a team of mules to grind the cane, but today a tractor is used to speed up the process. For some, gas is now used to heat the large kettles used to boil the liquid down to syrup. Randy, however, still uses wood to fuel his boiler. The smell of the wood burning and steam rising from the pot on a crisp fall morning are two of the most special things a person can experience.
Saving A Special Part of Georgia’s History
At an old-fashioned cane grinding, everyone comes together. While the boiler is first started in the wee hours of the morning, people start to gather mid-morning. Some bring food and others simply gather around for a strong cup of coffee and good conversation. It’s a time to catch up on how everyone has been doing through the year as well as share stories from past gatherings. Marge Morris remembers, “Everyone would come together. Grindings would last all day. Everyone would bring something to eat and we all would have a really good time.” Hansel and Marge Morris own a small farm near Nashville, Georgia where they grow cane every year. Just before harvest time, they create a “Cane Maze” and open it to the public.
The syrup made from the cane can be used on pancakes, biscuits, to make candy, and put in recipes. Randy and his friends don’t sell the syrup they make. They give it all away. He says with a smile, “People complain less about the syrup if it’s free!” It’s not about the money, it’s about the fun everyone has when they gather together. Participating in a good, old-fashioned cane grinding is fun. It’s more about sharing a bit of history and the old traditions that brought families together. It brings back fond memories of children sitting on hay bales and chewing pieces of cane while their parents gathered around the kettle to talk about their crops. For those that still hold the cane grindings like Randy Folsom, it’s all about keeping a special part of their family’s and Georgia’s history alive.