In the eastern part of central Illinois, a family struggles to maintain a tradition that dates back several generations. The growing, cutting, and processing of sweet sorghum cane into sorghum syrup, which is sometimes extended into the thicker product called molasses, has been a tradition in the family since 1860. The present mill went into operation with the current family in 1943 and closed in 1960 with the death of the father. When it closed, the farms in the area quit growing cane; the process of turning it into syrup too labor intensive to make it worthwhile. In 2007, the family decided to open the mill again to process cane grown on their land and for a rare friend or two.
Scattered amongst the fields of corn and soybeans grown by farmers in an area once known as The Pinch, small plots of sweet sorghum cane are planted late every spring. A hardy crop, it needs little tending but thrives in warmer temperatures. The soil in which it is grown contributing greatly to its color and flavor. In the fall, the tall cane is cut, stripped, and loaded on wagons, some to be delivered to the Pinch Mill for processing. Neighbors and family join in the process, share the work, and are rewarded with jars of the final product.
The light from the rising sun has barely broken the horizon when the people start to arrive to begin the day’s work. The cane sits piled on a flatbed wagon next to the press, which is powered by a conveyor belt attached to a tractor. When the first mills opened, the cane press was powered by a horse. With the invention of tractors and engines, that process changed. A man stands astride the wagon and hands bundles of the cane down to another man who hand feeds them into the press. Another man stands ready with a pitchfork and tosses the crushed cane onto another flatbed wagon. When full, it will be given to a local farmer who will use it for cattle feed. The resulting green juice from the press feeds into a basin where it is kept until the evaporation pans are ready.
While the cane is being squeezed for its juice, others are starting the fire in the furnace under the evaporation pans. The heat at the beginning of the pans is maintained at a higher level than the final stages. As the juice thickens, the sugar concentration gets higher and the boiling point lowers. Once the heat in the pans is at an appropriate level, they turn the spigot and fill the first stage of the process with the freshly pressed juice. Here the juice is also strained to remove impurities. The juice is continually stirred to prevent burning and once it reaches the appropriate color and thickness it is moved through the other stages and finally discharged into a vat from which bottles are filled and sealed. In the end, the sun has long set when the cleanup from the day’s work begins. Pans need scrubbing, ashes from the furnace cleaned out, and assorted other cleaning projects need completed before the day can be called.
Although a short process to describe, using these older more manual methods of processing, it can take an entire day to produce a mere twenty gallons of syrup. That doesn’t include the time spent cleaning the mill, the pans, and an assortment of other chores that need completed in the days preceding the processing. It is hot, back pain inducing work to stand over those evaporating pans all day moving the sorghum juice through all the evaporation stages. That work is nothing compared to the manual labor involved in cutting the cane with a machete, stripping it with gloved hands, and loading it onto the wagon for transport to the mill.
Each year I return to the US to visit my Sister and her family and watch them go through this process with neighbors and friends. The sense of community I witness is a rare thing in the United States these days. Here, on the prairies of Illinois, it springs forward each time a member of this close knit community needs help. It gives a person a warm feeling and a hope for mankind’s future to experience the uniting of people for the better good of the community.