By Bob Heafner © 1983-2012
Issue: November, 1983
B.L. (Bunny) and Tella Mae Cockram are each 73 years old. They’ve been married for 50 years and since 1935, home for them has been their 60 acre farm in the Mountain View section of Meadows of Dan, Virginia.
Tella Mae has a hundred laying hens and she sells eggs to a lot of the folks here-a-bouts. In addition to the 100 laying hens, she and Bunny have 50 head of cattle and 25 head of sheep.
You would think that managing a 60 acre farm and all that livestock would be about all they could handle but it’s not. In addition to their regular farm duties, they have taken on an additional chore this fall. They’re making molasses. Now they’ve always made molasses but not like this year. This year with nine acres of sugar cane planted, their days are long and hard. They expect around 30 “boilings,” with each “boiling” producing around 10 gallons of molasses.
For those of you who have never made molasses or seen it made, let me explain the procedure and work involved. First the leaves must be “stripped” from the cane stalk while it is still standing in the field. Then it must be cut and hauled to the “boiling” site. There the tops (seed pods) must be cut off and the stalks are then run through a cane mill. This squeezes the juice from the stalk. Before the juice can be placed in the large “boiler pans” it must be strained through clean white cloths. The juice must be “wrung-out” of the cloths and this alone is quite a job. Each broiler pan is approximately 7 feet long, 3 feet wide and 12 inches deep and holds between 90 and 100 gallons of cane juice.
Once the juice is strained, it’s placed in the “boiler pans” and a fire is built beneath it. The juice must be brought to a boil and maintained at boiling temperature for six to seven hours. This requires plenty of firewood and manpower; since the wood lengths must be 5 to 6 feet long to assure even heat beneath the boiler pans. Once the juice begins to boil, it must be constantly skimmed to remove the cane residue that rises to the top. This skimming must be continuously repeated for the entire six to seven hours until the molasses are “ready.”
Bunny and Tella Mae are set up to accommodate up to three “boilings” at a time but they have only been doing two at once.
Up at day break, in the crisp mountain air, their working days sometimes last till way past midnight. At 73 years old, Bunny and Tella Mae are putting in days that most young folks wouldn’t dream of tackling. Neither of them ever complain but both are quick to show their excitement when an especially pretty batch of molasses is ready to “come off.”
Every evening neighbors gather at Bunny and Tella Mae’s house to assist and socialize over the day’s batch of fresh homemade molasses. Neighborhood youngsters, like our ten year old Billy, are drawn daily to the molasses boiling. Tella Mae always takes time to explain each step of the molasses making process to them. I can’t help but wonder, was this not the way Tella Mae and Bunny learned to make molasses when they were young and is this not the way mountain traditions are handed down from generation to generation?
We often talk of traditions in The Mountain Laurel but here is the epitome of mountain traditions. Bunny and Tella Mae Cockram are an example of the type of people who created the mountain traditions of hard work and pride in what they do.
If you like good homemade molasses drop by Bunny and Tella Mae’s. They live on State Road 612 in Meadows of Dan. Their molasses is priced right and you might want to get a dozen or so fresh country eggs while you’re there. Bunny and Tella Mae take Saturday as their day of rest but you can pick up a quart of their molasses at The Poor Farmer’s Market, located beside the Meadows of Dan Food Market in Meadows of Dan on Saturdays.
At any rate, I’ll bet you’ll enjoy getting to know these wonderful folks. It’s folks like them that make “the Heart of the Blue Ridge” so special.