Syrup Making in the Florida Panhandle - Kettle kindly donated by the Tyner Family


syrup making Syrup making usually begins early in the day.  First, the sugar cane stalks are harvested from the field and piled near the grinding machine. There is more than one way to grind the long thin cane stalks.  

A six to eight foot pole is attached one end to a large grinder and pan.  On the other end it extends out to a harness which is on the back of a mule, or horse.  All the animal had to do was walk around in a circle.  This made the pole move like the hand on a clock.  This movement caused the grinding action at the center point of the circle.  Cane stalks were then fed into the grinder at the center of this circle and the juice was squeezed out into the pan.  This pan was usually connected to a long tube which allowed the cane juice to flow into the area where it was to be cooked into syrup.

Youngsters who were present for the grinding took every opportunity to scoop up some of the juice to drink.  It tastes great and is very sweet.  But they were given more than a few warnings about drinking too much because it is a powerful laxative!  And, it was also necessary to watch out for bee stings.  The sweet juice always attracts bees – in our area, that means yellow jackets.  These small yellow striped bees have a painful sting.

There were two forms of the cane: green cane and ribbon cane. The ribbon cane was more suitable to making syrup.  The green cane stalk was larger and was often chewed and sold as a refreshing juice here in our area.  There were other uses for the sugar cane but the industry never caught on as a major industry for export.

Part of the process of using the cane juice was to strain it.  Sometimes folks would use a burlap bag as the strainer.  Once the juice was squeezed and strained it was time to start cooking it.

Things didn’t happen quickly, either.  It took about seven gallons of juice to make just one gallon of syrup.  And the squeezing and straining took time.  The furnace had to be stoked with firewood and reach a temperature high enough to boil the cane juice.  “Lightered” wood was the best because of the high resin content within the wood made it burn hotter.

Usually the juice was cooked into syrup through a long process of many pans – or long heated tube-like pans – which the juice passed through over several hours.  If it were in one section too long the juice could burn – or if it passed too quickly through the tube it wouldn’t cook right.  It needed to be cooked in a regulated manner at the perfect temperature.  The cooking required skill, constant attention and patience. Impurities and cooking materials had to be skimmed off the top of the cooking mixture.  Long handled, wooden spoon-like instruments were used for that.

In area where there were several family and lots of sugar cane fields, making sugar would be a community event – everyone helping, everyone doing their part.  It was also an opportunity to visit with neighbors and catch up on the local news.  Kids could play and snatch sips of the cane juice and family would combine and share their lunch while waiting for the sugar cane to be ground and cooked.  

cane mill and syrup pot Sometime folks had to settle for sugar—if they let it cook too long and the result would be sugar.  Having the sugar was okay; but, it was the syrup they wanted most.

Once the syrup was ready it was packaged in tin buckets (like paint cans) or bottles or jars – depending upon what was available.  Folks then used it at home, or bartered it for other supplies.  Larger mills might send the buckets to town to sell in a larger market.

Staff writer Del Lessard wrote an article on the sugar cane industry in our area.  It appears on page 3B in the Bay Beacon of 7 August 1999.  In it he notes that the first quarter of the 20th century, developers around the Choctawhatchee Bay tried to promote the sale of home and vacation properties by sweetening the deal with sugar cane and orange groves.

John B. Perrine, the founder of the City of Valparaiso, offered ten acres of sugar cane land near Freeport with the purchase of a lot in Valparaiso for fifteen hundred dollars.  

Sylvester S. Spence raised sugar cane and okra on a swampy area at the head of Boggy Bayou in Niceville.  According to Niceville developer Walt Ruckel, part of Perrine’s promotion was that profits made on the sugar cane could be used to pay off the purchase price of the owner’s Vaparaiso home or lot.

Ruckel’s father-in-law, James Plew, a Chicago businessman who bought out Perrine’s development in the early 1920s, later sold the Freeport area sugar cane fields in the 1940s.

Sugar cane production  never really became an industry in this area. It was mostly limited to small  family plots of sugar cane used to make syrup and whiskey.

A website devoted to syrup making: http://www.syrupmakers.com/