Saturday, February 21, 2015

Singleton remembers the days of an old-fashioned syrup-making

George 'Buster' Singleton
(For decades, local historian and paranormal investigator George “Buster” Singleton published a weekly newspaper column called “Somewhere in Time.” The column below, which was titled “Days of syrup-making were always happy times,” was originally published in the Nov. 10, 1994 edition of The Monroe Journal in Monroeville, Ala.)

Perhaps my readers grow tired of hearing of the good times of yesteryear, but as the cool winds of autumn creep across the hill country, many boyhood memories come to mind.

As the fresh, crisp air descends over the area like a heavy blanket, a country boy like myself would know that syrup-making time was fast approaching.

I can see it now, heading for the cane fields with the sharp cane knives and cane strippers for the harvesting of the rich sugar cane.

Slowly the heavy wagons would make their way to the cane mill with their loads of sugar cane that would soon be made into the rich ribbon sugar cane. This sweet delicious liquid would be one of the staple foods for a country family at the breakfast table for the coming year.

This syrup, poured over those large, fluffy, buttered biscuits would almost cause a small country boy to sass his grandma; remember, I said “almost.”

Syrup pan

As the eastern skies slowly turned from darkness to the purple reddish color of the coming sunrise, the time was at hand to start the day. Uncle Tony, an old man my family took care of, had already started the fire under the syrup pan where the cane juice would be cooked into the rich, delicious syrup.

Uncle Tony was the absolute authority around the cooking pan during syrup-making time. Even my father ask his permission as to the proper time to stir the cooking syrup or when to add the fresh raw juice to the steaming syrup pan.

No one questioned his decision as to when the cooking liquid was ready to be drained from the pan. All knew that this old man had forgotten more about making syrup that most folks had ever known.

As the pre-dawn shadows gave way to the morning sunrise, a mule had already been hooked up to the cane mill and the grinding of the long stalks of sugar cane was under way.

High gear

When the fire was ready, Uncle Tony would remove the corncob stopper from the pipe that ran from the barrel of juice at the cane mill and fill the cooking pan. All activity moved into high gear around the area. The delicious odor of the cooking syrup filled the crisp morning air with a flavor few can describe. And, as the sweet odor of the cooking syrup settled around the syrup mill, a small country boy would slip a gourd dipper full of the sweet-tasting juice from the large barrel while his dear friend, Uncle Tony, looked the other way.

In the corner of the hot fire, a large coffee pot bubbled forth the hot, delicious odor of brewing coffee. Only the grownups were allowed to partake of the strong black liquid. Only rarely would the occasion arise when Uncle Tony would slip a small boy a taste of the hot liquid from a large tin cup.

As the morning shadows faded from the scene, all knew that the time was near for the highlight of the day. A darling mother had prepared a dishpan full of beautiful fluffy biscuits as down the hill came Aunt Lellia, pushing a wheel barrow with enough food in it to feed an army.

Aunt Lellia was an old lady who had no family either. She depended on my family solely for her survival; she wanted for nothing. Her love for my family and our love for this dear old lady was beautiful to behold. She claimed me as her baby; she had delivered me at birth. I could do no wrong in her sight.

Fresh butter

Along with the large dishpan of hot biscuits would be a large pan of fried lean meat. A sizeable mold of fresh butter also accompanied the large pan of hot biscuits. Several tin plates and forks for everyone had been brought along.

All waited anxiously for Uncle Tony to give the final word that the first cooking of the delicious syrup was now ready. When the word was given, all filed past the pan with a hot, buttered biscuit on a tin plate. This would be covered with the steaming-hot ribbon cane syrup, fresh from the cooking pan.

A bossy Aunt Lellia stood with her hands on her hips, reminding everyone that all the food had to be eaten. The missus would think that something was wrong if it wasn’t all eaten. Nobody, but nobody, was going to hurt her feelings. But never do I recall when food had to be carried back up the hill to the house.

As the meal was over, a very full small boy wished for a place to lay down for a quiet morning nap; it had already been a long morning. A full stomach of hot, delicious syrup and buttered biscuits, along with the fried strips of the lean meat, didn’t help matters any.

The syrup cooking for the whole farm community would last for about three weeks. Depending on whose syrup was being made at the time, that family was responsible for the morning breakfast. None ever quite equaled the hot biscuits and friend lean meat covered with the steaming hot syrup. My darling mother always saw to that.

Syrup cooking

I know that I have said it before, but our youth of today have missed a time of greatness by not being a part of an old-fashioned syrup cooking. The harmony and the togetherness of the community left no room for vandalism or the destruction that we read of in our newspapers or watch on our televisions. Our history has been written in such a way that the times that I speak of were time of poverty and hopelessness, but this is not true. A bond of friendship and respect sealed together those from all walks of life.

The elderly and the needy were cared for; nothing was expected in return. Love for your neighbors was the order of the day. This, too, has faded on the winds of oblivion.

In writing this article, I write of another time, a time of which few remember, a time that will never again be experienced. To witness during the chilly hours of an early autumn morning the odor of fresh syrup cooking at the cane mill down by the creek – these times have passed from us, and we are weaker for this. May these memories linger with me always.

(Singleton, the author of the 1991 book “Of Foxfire and Phantom Soldiers,” passed away at the age of 79 on July 19, 2007. A longtime resident of Monroeville, he was born on Dec. 14, 1927 in Marengo County and served as the administrator of the Monroeville National Guard unit from 1964 to 1987. He is buried in Pineville Cemetery in Monroeville. The column above and all of Singleton’s other columns are available to the public through the microfilm records at the Monroe County Public Library in Monroeville. Singleton’s columns are presented here each week for research and scholarship purposes and as part of an effort to keep his work and memory alive.)

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