Passing by on south Waukesha Street last week I discovered Howard and Shirley Owens taking a break and making their abundant Satsuma crop available to people like me. Satsumas are my favorite citrus fruit. When I was growing up, we had several trees. Daddy always told us that we had to wait until they turned orange or they wouldn’t be ripe enough to eat. I don’t know if he really believed that, but we certainly did not. In fact, I never knew if they’d actually ever get orange for we started eating them while they were quite green. By the time they should have been ripe we and the neighbors children had pretty well harvested the crop. The freeze of 1950 killed all the trees on our place. Through the years, Daddy planted more, but they were never as abundant. I am glad that there has been a resurgence of the Satsuma production, especially in the Jackson County area. Mr. Stott, just north-east of town. was the only one around here who grew them to sell that I knew of in my early years.
When the Satsumas begin to be ripe, then it is also time for the sugar cane harvest and syrup making. The Owens also have cane which Howard makes into cane syrup. He is a skilled syrup-maker and it is a skill. One has to know just how hot to get the juice, when to increase the fire, when to let more juice into the pan to cool it down, when to guide the new juice into the last stage before opening the gate and letting it run into the collection barrel.
In our community only a few men qualified to make syrup. A few men I can recall: Mr. Tom Collins and his son Mr. Vivian Collins, Elbert Pipkin and his brother Lee Pipkin. My friend Louise Smothers Lane who grew up down the road a piece said that her dad was a syrup maker. The work crew at our farm consisted in addition to my dad and his dad Grandpa Wels, my brothers, my foster brother, Shelby Barber and his brother Leroy, Joe Bush, Homer Lee, Johnny Wells and L.C. Broxton, husband of Mat whose services were necessary in the kitchen as feeding the crew was part of the day. There were possibly others.
The Sugar Cane patch fell into two categories, stubble cane or planted cane. Stubble was the regrowth patch where cane had been grown the year before, and then there was the regular planted patch. The soil was prepared as for planting any other crop in the spring. The seed cane was chopped into lengths and laid end to end in the carefully laid-off rows. We girls weren’t required to do much work with the cane because it was very rough on the hands, but I know I have helped lay the cut links in the furrow which Daddy had plowed.
He would have removed the long stalks from the “bank”where the cane had been carefully laid in a dry place near the barn that had been spread with a thick layer of pine straw. More pine straw covered the stalks and the whole thing was covered with dirt. This was the same process used to bank sweet potatoes. He used a hatchet to chop the stalks into the desired lengths of 12 to eighteen inches.
Cane grinding and syrup making was usually done between Thanksgiving and Christmas or earlier before the first frost as that could cause the cane to sour and make the syrup unusable. It was almost a festive time. It required a large crew. People in the community stopped by with their jars to get a drink of the sweet foamy liquor and to get some to take home. Then a big meal was served to all the “hands” that helped plus anyone else who happened to be there at lunch time. Grandma’s help was invaluable. Sorting and washing the big pile of turnips in wash tubs on the back porch, killing house flies that were attracted to all the food preparation or swatting the hands of a hungry child unable to wait for the meal to be served were some of her jobs..
My older sister, Minnie Lee, younger brothers Clyde, Max and I had our share of things to do. Drawing water from the well, getting potatoes from the potato bank, washing them and putting them in the big black baker, running to the “”junk room” for canned peas, tomatoes or peaches were some of our jobs. I also remember washing glass jugs and jars for filling with the hot syrup. These we used for syrup for our own use or to give away. For selling, we filled gallon and one-half gallon tin buckets with the hot liquid. A trip to Pensacola to deliver a load of syrup might be our reward for our hard work.
Without the aid of TV weather forecasts, how did folks know when the cold was coming in time to make preparations for taking care of the cane before it was damaged with cold? They had The Farmers Almanac though I don’t recall seeing my folks consult it. I guess they worked as hard as they could to get everything done that had to be done, and then trusted the Lord for the weather conditions.
This article originally appeared on Washington County News: Happy Corner: Time to strip, top, cut and grind the cane