Susan Abernethy shares this story of helping her husband turn a long-standing tradition of family sorghum harvesting into a small business. Since their marriage in 2004, Susan has enjoyed unraveling the stories of her husband’s sorghum legacy and has inherited a powerful adoration for the hard work it takes to yield the sweet crop.
I am Susan Abernethy, and we live in a rural community outside the small town of Maiden, N.C. Sorghum has been a part of my husband’s heritage for many years. His father, Harry Abernethy and grandfather, Olen Abernethy, did not own a mill, but had a neighbor with whom they made on “share.”
In the early 1960s my husband’s uncle, Daniel Abernethy, had a friend who helped him build a cook furnace and set up a mill. The mill that they used was a Chattanooga 13. We still cook on the original furnace.
In the early 1970s, Daniel’s friend decided he wanted his mill, so he and my husband located a mill from the local blacksmith, one of the original neighbors with whom their family made sorghum for “share.” They dug this mill out of a patch of honeysuckle. It was in disrepair. After a trip to the machine shop, the Chattanooga 12 was ready to use. Mid-1970s was the first time to press sorghum on this mill. Around 1980, Uncle Daniel began showing signs of Alzheimer’s, so my husband asked a friend to help harvest and press sorghum.
I married into the sorghum operation in 2004. We decided to make sorghum more than a hobby and began forming a small business. We knew we needed to enlarge our operation, so we purchased a Golden #36 mill, which cut our squeezing time from four hours to one and a half hours. Our cook shed has been updated since 1980 to a more workable area. A stainless pan was added in 1986.
We have been fortunate to make sorghum every year since 1980, except for two years — one Hurricane Hugo and other circumstances the other year. My husband has owned different mills throughout the years and has acquired them from fellow makers all over the South. Each mill has a special meaning and signifies the love of the people who owned them before. He has shared these treasures with other eager sorghum makers just starting their operations.
Sorghum requires a lot of effort, and hard work. We plant our sorghum around the first of May. It is a battle to keep it clean, and when it is time to harvest in September, it takes much effort to strip and cut the cane and bring it to the mill. We squeeze our sorghum cane at night and let it settle in holding barrels, and then start our furnace early the next morning to cook. It usually takes about four to five hours to cook, constantly watching and skimming. We rely on thermometers and refractometers to help us gauge when the syrup is ready. Old-timers relied on personal experience, and watched for the syrup to make “frog eyes,” or “cat tracking.”
We are members of the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association (NSSPPA), where we have met many kindred spirits who help each other make the best possible product we can. There is a lot of manual labor involved for the small business. It is a labor of love that either gets in your blood or is born there! When the season begins you know what is in store for you, but oddly enough, at the end of the season, you are sad it is finished.
I have really enjoyed learning to use sorghum in my cooking and learning about my family’s heritage. I have learned a lot since I have become a “sorghum-maker/farmer’s wife,” and have met some dear friends along the way. I have also learned that hard work doesn’t kill you, but it sure makes you sore! I am proud to be a part of something so unique and special, and may God bless us with many years to make a sweet product!
Photos BySusan Abernethy
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