Arlington Cane Grinding and Syrup Making

By Cleve Powell
Originally published in the History Corner section of the  May 2009 OAI Newsletter

Making cane syrup is a South Georgia and North Florida tradition. Often in the old days and still today, family and friends would join together to help with the hard work but also to celebrate fall. With the pungent scent of syrup cooking and often a pig roasting nearby it was a grand occasion. Here are my memories of cane grinding, which were prompted by finding two old negatives among my family’s photos.

I found the negatives while searching for old photographs of the Johnson’s farm for the history of what is now “Tree Hill” and recognized them instantly as the origin of pictures labeled “Farm Cane grinding and boiling place” in the 1924 Arlington booklet. I looked at these long and hard as I had before, because the scene was almost the same as what I remember of the cane mill near our house in the early forties. The background was different. Pine trees instead of the large oak trees on tree hill and a barn I didn’t remember.

By accident I found the origin of the pictures as well as the location they were taken and then later why I remembered a similar scene at our farm from entries in my grandmother Johnson’s 1923 diary as follows (notes added in italics):

Jan. 3, Wed. – Heavy Rain, drizzle, clear awhile then more rain cool; Traded horses with Wells, Bess and Maud for Dan. Men hauled cane to Browns; (feed bill $54.35)
Cleveland (Johnson) left for Tampa.
Jan. 5 – Cold, heavy frost, clear, growing warmer. Calm in A.M.
Fresh breeze in P.M. Bruce drove Dan to Browns (cane mill)(per 1920 census David Brown W. 52, with lg. Family, next to Johnsons name indicates they may be neighbors). They put him to mill. Ponies pulling cane.
Jan. 6 – Cool. Heavily overcast. Some misty sunshine. Warm. Bruce and men drove Dan to Browns leading Bobbie. I drove Dick down with milk. Gathered up bottles and jugs for syrup. Got Babe (Mary Johnson Powell) and came home. She got old Rob. Sister (Claris Johnson Jaques) plus camera got into buggy with me and we all went to Browns. “Took pictures of mill in operation and of Charley cooling syrup.”

Now I knew where the pictures were taken, and although I don’t remember Charley, who worked for my family before I was born, I recognize Bobbie who was our all-purpose horse when I was young although much older, she lived to be 29. But I was still puzzled until I found these entries later in 1923 (notes added in italics):

Oct l7-Right nice day. Hitched up fairly early intend to go to town. Note from Mrs. Fagg, She wants milk Friday. Charlie went to Brown’s for cane mill.
Oct l8-Warm. Mostly overcast with some rain. Heavy rain soon after dark lasting way into the night. Let Sister have little buggy. Dick and I with spring wagon went over on l2:45 carrying wheels and axle to Rivers. Took some time for them to straighten box and spindle. Came home on 3:30 without doing any shopping. Charlie working on preparations for setting up mill.
Dec 3-Started grinding cane.
Dec 8-Nice day. Busy. Men worked all day finished up the last boiling of syrup.
Dec l3-Nice warm day-occasional clouds. Charlie took l86 lb. sweets (potatoes) to Frieske’s (store by Ferry Landing) and got 7 sacks feed-4 for us and 3 for himself. Went to Mrs. Colcords’s to gloat over the new books – 64 of em. (For womans club library) Carried 4 to Mother. (Clara Bruce) On way home met Mr. Blackford who wanted syrup. Sold him a whole barrel (55 gals) – $25.00 (In 1924 sold syrup 50C a gallon).

My first memories associated with growing cane is helping to fill in a section of the Red Bay Branch swamp in 1941 from the sandy hillside to enlarge the cane patch from about two acres to about three. All of this was done with shovels and wheelbarrows (Ga. Bulldozer) and the reason I remember this so well is we found an Indian spearhead about four feet down and about 200′ from the creek. Grandmother Johnson sent it to the University of Florida. They found it to be very old probably originating in Tennessee.

I remember cutting cane using a very sharp old butcher knife bending it over a little and cutting it off about 4″ from the ground. We stripped off the old leaves, which had usually turned brown from cold weather, and loaded the stalks in a wagon. If you’ve never cut cane it’s a prickly job and the edges of the leaves are sharp! No one else seemed to mind so I learned to ignore it. The “bottom” as my family called this plot had wonderful rich soil and springs encased by wooden barrels. We dipped water out in buckets to water the plants. If the springs dried up they stuck a long pole in them (normally used to pull gophers) and worked it until the hardened sand ran over the edge.

Moccasins loved the cane patch by the creek and normally retreated as you approached them cutting the cane. I remember one cottonmouth that wasn’t going to leave and my mother swung at him with a hoe and slipped in the wet soil nearly landing on top of him. She fortunately was not bitten and in all my family’s years of farming the only fatalities from snakebites were a few dogs. This is the same place that Ross Allen caught the “Arlington Boa” in an Armadillo hole in 1950; they pulled ticks off the Boa and rinsed him off in the spring barrel before taking it up to the house to take pictures.

Back to cane, they let me drive the horse and wagon hauling the cane to the mill by the house until one day when I was going a little too fast coming back down the hill and sideswiped a magnolia. My family had several Arlington black families that helped with the cane cutting and grinding; Mary Maxwell and Pete Anderson were two I remember. Pete, as did Charley in the 20’s, handled the grinding and boiling as it’s an art knowing how long to boil the cane juice. Cane cutting grinding and syrup making took a few days and to describe the process I found this on the Internet under Stephen Foster State Park. From this site I learned that it takes 8 stalks of cane to make a gallon of juice and you can grind 10 stalks in each full rotation of the mill! Here is an abbreviation of their description:

Grinding is the process of pressing the juice out of sugar cane. As stalks are fed into a mill they are crushed, forcing the juice into a barrel. A “sweep” or long pole is attached to the mill and oxen, mules or horses are used to turn it. Today farmers use gas engines or even four wheelers to power their mill.
Once pressed and strained, the juice is cooked in a large 60-gallon kettle. As the juice simmers impurities are skimmed off the top. After cooking for three hours, most of the water has evaporated and the syrup begins to do the “hominy hop” this is when the hot syrup begins to dance in the kettle, which means it’s almost finished and ready, to bottle.
One of the treats of making syrup is getting to eat “Pole cat” the thick sugary residue on the kettle. Children often use a piece of stalk to scrape and eat the candy-like remains.
Sometimes the last batch of syrup is cooked into syrup candy for a candy pulling. Folks choose a partner, grease their hands with butter and pull until it becomes a golden colored candy.

World War II pretty much ended our cane grinding as the Johnson’s went to Lake Charles, Louisiana to work in a defense plant and my dad Ted Powell went to work for the shipyard. Also old Bobbie finally “gave up the ghost!” We buried her where she fell in the pasture.

The mill was located at what would be now the area where the little pavilion is behind Tree Hill’s west parking lot. I don’t remember who we sold it to. I know Mr. Hickman had a cane grinding facility on Lovegrove Road (now University Boulevard) just north of Beach Boulevard, and Mr. Carter had a cane mill on Hood Road in Mandarin.

My mother continued to have a cane patch near her house until about 1985 when she broke her hip and couldn’t work it anymore. She was proud to have kept the same strain alive for many years carefully “banking” a few stalks in the ground so they wouldn’t freeze to use to replant in the spring. We all grew up chewing cane as a pastime and I know it’s good for your gums. I have a neat picture of my great-grandfather, F. W. Bruce, taken in The Mayport area office for the jetty construction labeled “pleasure” 1900 that shows he and a co-worker peeling cane; it also shows a pre-electric lamp. I sent a copy of it to Hartley Steeves our oldest member to verify the lamp shown in the picture ands for comments on cane grinding this is his response by e-mail:

“Cleve: yes that’s a coal oil (kerosene) lamp I think the trade name was Rayo and very popular. I did my homework using a Rayo lamp until electricity came to Arlington. I know little about the cane grinding that went on in Arlington, but I remember attending one of the grindings at your Grandmothers and was served biscuits and syrup. There was a lot of activity. Eating sugar cane was very popular in those days. Stores would keep stalks sticking out of a barrel and sell the stalks for a nickel each. It wasn’t uncommon to see someone walking along with a stick of cane and a knife. They would peel back a section, cut off about a quarter inch piece and chew the sweet sap out of the cane and spit out the pulp. Of course we have a lot of sweets now in our stores and I doubt anyone would know how to attack a stalk of sugar cane. Hartley 3/3/2009”

Per Carl Mobley from Baker County who read this, “they fed the froth off the boiling cane juice to the hogs and they got knee walking drunk! Goes with making rum I guess.”

Charley Milford, (M & W Amoco) who grew up in Arlington, now lives in the Gainesville area and has a traditional cane grinding every December. It is attended by many of the Smith’s, Milfords, Webbs and Highsmiths. Glad it’s being kept alive.