Saturday, September 24, 2016

Singleton remembers the old-timey syrup-making days of his childhood

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 “Memories of making syrup” was originally published in the Sept. 25, 2003 edition of The Monroe Journal in Monroeville, Ala.)

Even to this day, I feel sorry for those of my readers who have never lived in the country or experienced a day of syrup making during the closing days of the Great Depression.

In looking back, very few events, even though it was hard work, offered as much pleasure and satisfaction as a day during syrup making time.

The day would always start well before dawn as the sugar cane began to be ground into the juice that would eventually be cooked into that golden-colored sugar cane syrup. The mule had been harnessed up to the cane mill before dawn crept across the eastern skies.

The cooking of syrup could not begin until a barrel of juice had been ground so that the cooking pan could be filled for the day’s first cooking. As the corncob stopper was removed from the rustic pipe that carried the cane juice from up the hill where the cane mill was located, down to the cooking pan, activity around the syrup pan began to gain momentum.

A hot fire had already been started there under the cooking pan, and it wasn’t long before the wonderful smell of the cooking syrup floated on the early morning air. In the corner of the fire there under the cooking pan, a large, beat up old coffee pot had already been placed on a red hot bed of coals.

This old pot would be used many times before the syrup making season came to a close. And, the old, much-used and beat-up tin cups would rattle many times while hanging there in a small bush nearby. Very few would come this way that didn’t stop for a moment for a hot cup of coffee and catch up on the latest news around the farm community.

Somewhere around 7:30 or 8 a.m., the first cooking was getting ready to be tasted. Uncle Tony, an old black man who my family took care of, was the absolute authority around the syrup mill. No one dared to question Uncle Tony about the cooking of sugar can syrup. He was the so-called commander in chief around the cooking pan.

He was the one who decided when the hot golden liquid was ready to be drained from the huge pan and placed in the syrup cans. So, everyone waited until Uncle Tony appeared at the corner of the cooking pan with a large, much-used wooden spoon. The official tasting was about to begin. And, standing close by, a small boy of four knew that good times were about to get underway.

A few minutes earlier, an older brother came down the hill from the house with a dish pan full of fresh-cooked biscuits. With him, he also brought another pan full of fried strips of lean meat. A large chunk of fresh butter was handed this four-year-old. He was always instructed by his dear friend, Uncle Tony, to be first in line. As he filed by the cooking pan, this dear old man would fill his plate with golden-colored, steaming hot cane syrup.

Also, this four-year-old was allowed to have a large tin cup of the strong black coffee that was boiling there on the hot bed of coals. Making his way over to a small embankment right next to the cooking pan, this small boy knew that no better times ever existed than this wonderful breakfast about to be eaten there at the syrup mill.

As he sat down on the embankment, the fresh butter had melted there in the hot cane syrup. The fresh biscuit has absorbed a considerable amount of the golden syrup and the brown strips of lean meat beckoned to be eaten. To this day, I know of nothing that would compare to this country breakfast, down at the syrup mill, that I have just mentioned.

After two or three trips through the line for fresh syrup and biscuits, a small boy would ease over to the side of the cooking pan for a few moments of rest and to let his breakfast settle. After a while there with his dear friend Uncle Tony, this country boy began to seek out something else around the syrup mill that he could participate in. First, he would go up and be allowed by an older brother to feed the cane mill for a few moments.

This turned out to be work, so this boy of four didn’t linger long there at the cane grinder. This same brother would stop the mule that was pulling the mill and construct a crude type of swing, made from a piece of rope and a corn sack. He would then fasten this to the opposite end of the long pole that the mule was hitched to and the fun would begin.

Around and around the mule would go, grinding the sugar cane for the next cooking, while a small boy swung to and fro at the opposite end of the cane mill pole. This would go on for quite some time until the older brother would notice that his riding passenger had gotten quiet and had fallen asleep there in the sack swing. Being afraid that the sleeping rider might fall out of the crude swing, he would stop the mule and lift a sleeping four-year-old out of the swing and place him on the ground. A gourd dipper full of fresh cane juice would be in order as the cane mill area was looked over for something else to become involved in.

Finally, with the autumn sun slowly sinking on the western horizon, a day at the cane mill was coming to a close. A very tired small boy would slowly make his way up the hill to the house for the evening meal and preparation for bed.

A darling mother would awaken her tired and worn-out son two or three times during the evening meal, encouraging him to finish his supper so that he could get ready for bed.

No one had to rock this young boy to sleep that night. The soft feathered bed beckoned as the sandman sprinkled his sand across the covers. A tired and worn out boy would hardly know when a loving and darling mother tucked the covers around her baby son, who was already entering the land of sleep.

The years have passed since I bid farewell,
To woods and fields and play.
And good times loved and memories known,
Those memories of yesterday.

(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, graduated from Sweet Water High School, served in the Korean War, lived for a time among Apache Indians, moved to Monroe County in June 1964 (some sources say 1961) and served as the administrator of the Monroeville National Guard unit from 1964 to 1987. For years, Singleton’s column “Somewhere in Time” appeared in The Monroe Journal, and he wrote a lengthy series of articles about Monroe County that appeared in Alabama Life magazine. Some of his earlier columns also appeared under the heading of “Monroe County History: Did You Know?” 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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