Old Time Molasses Making

Sorghum serves as an excellent substitute for sugar. Learn more on how it used to be made.
July/August 1976
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Shown is an old-fashioned sorghum mill fueled by mule power.  Read on to learn how it works.

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In the wake of the Great American Sugar Rip-off (or shortage, if you will), I vowed — as many folks probably did — that I'd never again support the purveyors of granulated sucrose, but would instead try to use natural sugar substitutes. Thus it was with a great deal of interest that I read Mary Norwood's "Sweet Sorghum!" in the September/October 1975 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, telling how to put up homemade sorghum molasses.

By a happy coincidence, it was not long after I'd discovered Mary's story in MOTHER that the National Park Service — which manages the Natchez Trace Parkway in this area — sponsored a demonstration of old-time molasses-making at the Parkway headquarters here in Tupelo, Mississippi.

For the demonstration, they used an authentic old sorghum mill — the genuine article, complete with a pair of mules for power.

These ancient mills have become pretty scarce nowadays (around here, anyway). I believe, however, that many of MOTHER's readers could build a mill such as the one demonstrated by the Park Service — or at least a reasonable facsimile — if they set their minds to it. The device seemed straightforward to me and I'm not even mechanically inclined!

Although a housing blocked my view somewhat, the machine's innards appeared to consist — basically — of two metal wheels mounted horizontally in such a fashion that they'd turn against each other and crush the cane as it passed between them. One wheel was about eight inches in diameter and the other approximately half that, though I don't see how their relative sizes would make much difference. (Any similar arrangement, I would think, ought to work reasonably well.)

The evaporator pan the men were using was — like Mary Norwood's made of galvanized metal, but it was of the multi-section variety (about seven feet long overall). The section dividers consisted of narrow metal plates — each a couple of inches wide — which had been welded to the bottom of the pan. A two-inch gap separated one end of each metal "fence" from the side of the pan, and the dividers were staggered (so that the two-inch gaps occurred at first one side, then the other, of the tray), the net result being that the bubbling juice could flow between compartments without any need for ladling. Thus, two men were able to handle the entire operation with relative ease and talk to onlookers at the same time.

I was told that the yield was about one gallon of sorghum molasses per each ten to fifteen gallons of juice — in contrast to the 1:8 figure mentioned by Ms. Norwood — but then, the Park Service people were making a lot thicker product than Mary did. (The test for "doneness" that the men used was to let a drop of syrup fall on a board, and declare the batch ready only if the drop formed a standing bead.)

One thing more: If you're planning to market your molasses, you might run into a sticky situation where local health authorities are concerned. Some inspectors are really nit-picky  particularly with regard to outdoor food-making operations. (That's one of the reasons for the recent decline in popularity of molasses-making in the South.) Do your homework before you put your sweet sorghum product on the market, and you'll avoid needless disappointment.

Happy molasses-making!

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