Molasses stirs are one of many mountain arts losing their identity today. Fading into memories only the older generations can remember. The process of making this thick, sugary treat dates back to 500 b.c. in India. Christopher Columbus brought cane to the West Indies and then it ventured into the Americas.
Being considerably cheaper than sugar, molasses became an important product in colonial trade and was the primary sweetener in the U.S. until after WW1. Our ancestors used them to make everything from corn bread to toffee, later known as taffy in the colonies.
The process of raising cane starts with a tiny, and I mean tiny, seed that is usually planted in May with harvest in September. Stirs typically go on until the first frost in October depending on how large the crop is. When the cane stalks come to maturity they have tassels that unfold covered with tiny seeds. The average cane stalk in a good harvest can be 10’ to 12’ tall.
Harvesting consists of stripping the leaves from the stalks and cutting the stalk off at the ground. Once cut, the stalks are run thorough a press either turned by tractor, horse or mule. The juice is strained as it runs into large tubs used to catch the green (looks like green swamp water) juice. We use burlap to strain ours. Once the stalks are pressed the juice is transferred into a large vat and heated by fire. It is important to keep the fire hot so the molasses boil consistently. The fire used isn’t an open fire. Typically the vats are either set in the ground or set into another opening over the fire and the sides are sealed off to prevent the heat from escaping.
During the heating process, the cane is stirred until its starts to boil. Once boiling the cane produces a froth that has to be skimmed away. This goes on for several hours with the juice turning from a pea green liquid to a golden syrup. I am not sure about other people and how they make theirs but we use baking soda in ours. It is usually tossed in a handful at a time while the boiling juice is still green.
Once finished the vat is lifted off the fire and set on the ground. We use pots to dip the thick liquid out, pouring it into old time milk jugs with cheese cloth over the tops to strain the syrup. Once cooled the molasses are put into pint or quart jars ready for sale.
Though the process is very time consuming and tedious the finished product is literally worth the blood, sweat and tears it takes to make it. I hope this small essay has helped you to understand the process this ages old tradition.
Have a great week!
Rebecca from Edwards Art & Photography.
Rebecca is with the Edwards Art and Photography page on Facebook. You can see more of her photography, and her husband’s woodworking, on their page.
While searching for photos to add to Victor Ellison’s mule photos, NC Culture also came across this cartoon, which gives a little history some might not know about..We thought you might enjoy it, and another photo that Rebecca provided..