Old Time Molasses Making

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Two men work on an evaporator pan to make molasses.
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Shown is an old-fashioned sorghum mill fueled by mule power.  Read on to learn how it works.

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!