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