Makin’ Molasses

This article was published in 2002 in the Hendersonville Times-News. The link to newspaper article, that does not have the photographs, is

By Jennie Jones Giles
It’s a crisp, cool, autumn day, not too hot to stand over boiling liquid with steam rising and evaporating into the air and a roaring fire in an open-air stone fireplace.
Most of the field and garden vegetables are harvested and the cane in the field is ripe for cutting.
It’s molasses-making time in the Appalachian Mountains, but only a few folks still carry on the Southern tradition.
Hubert Barnwell, 55, of Crab Creek has made molasses for 32 years. Family and neighbors gather to help. Sitting in a chair supervising is Barnwell’s 91-year-old uncle, Lawrence.
“Lawrence had to come up and make sure I’m doing it right,” Barnwell said.
Daughter Martha brought along her fiancé, Landon Leonard, to begin learning the craft. And young cousins wait by the biscuits impatiently for the first taste of this year’s molasses.
Barnwell knows of only three others in Henderson County who still make molasses: the Bradleys in Mills River (Gordon’s son), a Cantrell on Big Willow (Laxton’s boy) and Bea Beddingfield on Green River.
Barnwell planted about an acre of cane this year, and the wind blew some of that down. The five-year drought caused more problems, but there was still enough cane to keep family, neighbors and friends supplied with molasses this winter.
“Cane grows the same way corn does, and it looks like a cornfield,” he said. “It just has a different head on it. You know it’s ready to cut when it gets yellow and red stripes on it.”

 The cane

Barnwell and friend Joe “Everette” McKinney spent two days cutting and stripping the cane stalks with machetes.
The stalks were stripped while still standing in the field and the heads were cut off. The fodder from the stripping was left in the field.
Barnwell said some people making molasses today don’t strip the cane. This can affect the quality of the molasses.
“If you don’t strip it down, it takes a lot more work and straining to get the pulp out,” he said.
Cutting and stripping the cane are the hardest parts of making molasses, Barnwell said.
“It takes a lot of work when you go and take every stalk and peel all the fodder off of it,” he said.
The heads of the stalks are collected and saved.
“The heads make chicken feed,” Barnwell said.
For those who don’t raise chickens and turkeys, they make good feed for wild birds, too.
But they also are used in the winter for a treat similar to popcorn.
“Dry them out real good,” he said. “Dry them ’til they harden and then they’ll pop.”
The kernels taste slightly sweeter than popcorn.

 Cane mill

The stalks are loaded onto a trailer and taken to the molasses-making site behind the barn and chicken coops and through the horse pasture.
Barnwell uses a sugarcane mill he bought.
“I’ve got the old horse mill up at the house,” he said.
The new mill is powered by a tractor.
“This way we don’t have to go around and around with a horse,” McKinney said.
One man feeds the long cane stalks into the mill, as another starts the tractor and watches the tension of a belt on a pulley at the back of the tractor that powers the mill.
As the wheel of the mill turns, the cane stalks are squeezed. The juice comes out the bottom of the mill and drains into a barrel covered with a strainer. The juice flows from the barrel through a garden hose into a second barrel.
“We strain it twice to strain out the pulp,” Barnwell said. “A lot of people don’t. They just pour it in.”
The more the juice is strained, the better the molasses, Barnwell insists.
The remnants of the stalks are then thrown into a huge pile.
“Cattle love ’em, but horses don’t care for ’em,” Barnwell said. “They’re sweet. Once I found the cows eating all the way to the back of the stack and all I could see was the cows’ rear ends.”

 Cooking molasses

The hose runs alongside a 10-foot-long pan. The pan is 6 inches wide and has 18 metal dividers running its entire length. One end of each metal divider is cut so the juice can flow.
Underneath the pan is a rock fireplace, where McKinney feeds oak wood to keep the fire flaming.
“We use mostly oak because it makes a good, hot heat,” McKinney said.
McKinney stands near the fire, feeding it wood for the five or six hours it takes to cook the molasses from about an acre of cane.
“He has to make sure the syrup keeps a rolling boil,” Barnwell said.
By the time the juice makes its fifth turn in the pan, it’s boiling. The first four turns strain more of the impurities out, Barnwell said.
“See that stuff rising to the top?” he said. “That’s what we’re straining out.”
After about an hour and a half of boiling and stirring, Barnwell begins guiding the syrup into the last divider and into a small opening. The first molasses starts dripping out of the bottom of the pan into a pot covered with cheesecloth.
Barnwell uses his experience and judgment to decide the syrup is the correct consistency.
“My mother’s family, the McCraws, made molasses for four generations,” he said. “I was out there with them as a child. When I got to making molasses, they were all gone.”
So Barnwell found a neighbor, Roy Talley, “an old-timer,” to teach him molasses-making.
“I couldn’t find any molasses I could eat,” Barnwell said.
The molasses is “stringin’ like hair off it.” The syrup is holding onto the large shovel-looking spoon.
“If it cooks too long, it starts to resemble taffy and starts scorching,” Barnwell said.
It also will form sugar crystals after it’s jarred up if cooked too long. The skimmings remaining in the pan are used to make liquor, Barnwell said.
Some of this year’s first molasses is taken out of the pot to allow it to cool, as the children stand holding open biscuits.
“We’ll take the pots up to the house and jar it up tonight,” Barnwell said.
Barnwell remembers when molasses was kept in 10- to 15-gallon wooden barrels. Now most people use canning jars.
The color of the molasses depends on the soil in which the cane is grown, he said.
“The darker the soil, the lighter the molasses,” he said. “The redder the soil, the darker the molasses.”
One year Barnwell planted his cane in a loamy, woodsy soil.
“The molasses was almost clear,” he said. “It was clear like sourwood honey.