Sunday, October 29, 2017

How Sweet It Is—Molasses

            Before World War I, molasses, known as treacle in England, was the main sweetening agent throughout the United States. In the South, much of what was called molasses was really sorghum syrup, made from the juice of the sorghum plant. People bought it by the gallon and used it in many different ways.
            The production of sorghum syrup aka molasses was often a community affair. Usually, one or two people had a reputation of being good molasses cooks and they would be in charge of how everything was done. The residents of Goose Creek Island[1] in Pamlico County grew sorghum and produced their own sorghum molasses. The process is described in the book The Goose Creek Islander 1879-1974.
            In the fall, the sorghum stalks (similar in appearance to corn) were stripped of their leaves and “stalks were cut and piled heads and tails together. The heads were cut off and when dried, children parched them like corn and ate them.”
            The juice was removed from the canes by a press. It takes about 10 gallons of juice to produce 1 gallon of syrup. “The press which was used to squeeze the juice from the cane was turned by a horse or mule which was harnessed to a twelve or fourteen foot pole and operated clockwise. The horses had to be changed frequently because they became drunk from walking in circles. The prepared cane stalks were fed into the press, small end first, by men and as the juice was squeezed, it ran into a bucket, lard tub, or any available container.”

This is a picture of a sorghum press in the mountains of North Carolina.
Taken from Digital lHeritage Organization -

            The sorghum syrup was produced by boiling it several times. “A furnace, which was approximately six by four feet, was used to cook the molasses juice. The furnace, fired with wood, contained seven cooking vats. The raw juice was poured into the first vat and as it cooked, it was stirred with wooden paddles. After some of the water was cooked from the juice, the juice was let out of this vat through a trap door into the next vat. This process continued until the juice was syrup or molasses.”
            As the juice boiled down, a greenish foam formed on top. “Parents made wooden paddles for their children to use to dip the foam off the juice as it was cooking. That was a great treat for children, because they didn’t get the sweets our children get today.
            “The cooked molasses was stored in wooden barrels and used for sopping, baking cakes and cookies, making candy, and as a sweetener. If overcooked, the molasses turned to sugar, but was still used in baking and as a sweetener. If undercooked, the molasses tasted green."
            Each of Goose Creek Island’s communities had a molasses cooker.[2] “The earliest known resident of Lowland to operate a molasses cooker was Benajah Carawan (1825-1892). Benajah’s son, Jesse Carawan (1858-1935), operated the molasses cooker on a road that branched off the Middle Prong Road and led to the Jesse Carawan Landing. At Jesse Carawan’s death, his son, John Carawan, (1886 -1962) operated the molasses cooker. John Carawan moved the cooker to … the main road in Lowland."

Located long Lowland Road (SR 1230) just west of where this route and SR 1232 intersect, is this two-story frame house and barn where Jesse Monroe Carawan (1858-1935), son of Benajah Carawan once lived.  The old cistern, used for the family’s water supply, can be seen at the corner of the front porch.  
Pictures taken in January 2002. William Odell Spain Photographic Collection 
            “The first known molasses cooker on Hobucken was purchased new by the Farmer’s Alliance members in 1890. It was operated by Simeon Sadler (1854-1914) on the Steve Jones property across from the present Virgil Carawan home site. Louis Goodwin (?-1908) took over the operation of the molasses cooker from Simeon Sadler and moved the cooker to a site behind the Wade Barnett home. After the death of Louis Goodwin, the cooker was moved around the community so each cane farmer could use it.”

 [Taken from The Goose Creek Islander 1874-1974]


[1] Goose Creek Island is at the northeastern point of Pamlico County, cut off from the mainland by the intercoastal waterway. In 1874, the residents of Goose Creek Island’s two communities —Hobucken and Lowlands—voted to become part of Pamlico County, rather than Beaufort. The island is a magnet for fishermen and duck hunters and is home to a unit of the U.S. Coast Guard, which is located on the Intracoastal Waterway. The book, The Goose Creek Islander 1879-1974, was compiled to commemorate the centennial of Goose Island in Pamlico.
[2] The event of making sorghum syrup and sorghum molasses would typically see the ladies of the community as skimmers while their men brought the cane in from the fields and ran it through the rollers of the cane mill. However, only the "syrup master" could pronounce the end compartment ready to be "poured up." It was his practiced eye and keen sense of taste that told him when it was time. Fain’s Sorghum Molasses

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