The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Molasses Making Time

By Connie Worrell Jackson © 1985

Issue: October, 1985

Making  molasses (About 1918). L-R: Argal Worrell, Myrtle Jackson, Ninevah J. Willis, Viola Worrell, Wilbur Worrell, George Bolt.Making molasses (Circa 1918). L-R: Argal Worrell, Myrtle Jackson, Ninevah J. Willis, Viola Worrell, Wilbur Worrell, George Bolt.And then came autumn, with the trees all decked out in their new holiday attire. The tang of frost and the aroma of ripening apples filled the air. Then comes the old time "molassy making time."

Almost every family had a patch of cane, which had been stripped of its fodder, heads topped off, stalks cut to the ground, and laid out in neat piles to be hauled to the cane mill. The hauling was done mostly on a sled drawn by a yoke of oxen, or sometimes the neighbor's horse and wagon was borrowed for the occasion.

The cane mill was usually owned by one man in the vicinity, the use of which was paid for by a "toll" of one out of eight, or one out of ten measures of the molasses produced by each user. The mill was two steel rollers mounted on two large logs, so heavy that it took several men to lift it. Once it was set down, there it stayed until the whole neighborhood was through "makin' lasses." This "contraption" had a tongue like a wagon, to which the horse or mule was hitched. A lead pole extended in front of the animal's nose to guide it in a circle around the mill.

Around and around went the horse, and around and around went the rollers. One person sat in front of the mill to feed the cane stalks into the rollers. The cane stalks were forced between the huge rollers mashing out the juice which fell into a trough between the logs. The juice was guided through a spout which was covered with a white cotton flour bag that was used as a juice strainer. The strainer removed pieces of cane stalk or any other impurities that may have fallen into the cane juice. The juice ran from the strainer into a wash tub. We used all of our tubs and all we could borrow from the neighbors.

Reuben Worrell (Circa 1920).Reuben Worrell (Circa 1920).In the meantime, neighbors who had come in to help us, had been busy hauling in wood, and building a furnace for the boiler. The boiler was an oblong vat which held several gallons of juice. It was usually homemade with smooth wooden sides and ends. The side pieces extended at the top to form a handle for lifting the vat. The vat had a "sheet iron" bottom which came up on the outside to protect the vat from the fire. The furnace was built of flat rocks daubed with wet clay, and customized to fit the boiler. A rock chimney was built at the back end of this furnace to carry off the smoke. The front end was left open to receive the long poles of wood to keep the fire roaring hot.

What a long day in school for the children! They came rushing home from school the minute it was over (at four o'clock) to take over the job of carrying off the refuse stalks. The cane stalks, pressed dry of juice, piled up behind the mill rollers and had to be carried away by the arm loads. They were deposited in a heap, which became quite large.

By the time the children arrived home from school there was usually a huge mound of offal ready for toting. What fun to dart in between the guide pole and tongue, seize an armful of stalks, dart out again, run up on the mound, drop your armful, then on to the top of the heap, give a big jump, and come sliding down the far side in a wild (if short) ride - scattering stalks in every direction. This usually brought a good-natured rebuff from Dad. We knew it was in fun since everyone was too happy to begrudge the children a little fun. He always told us that we would wind up with a broken leg and couldn't stay "to the molassy biling" -but we never did.

Meanwhile the "biler" (boiler) had been put on the furnace and filled as full of juice as could be boiled safely. A fire was built under it, and the "'lassy biling" was on.

As soon as it was dusk, the crowd began to gather in. Sometimes in family groups, and sometimes in twos and in singles for the whole family came - usually the whole neighborhood. The women came to visit, to talk about the latest happenings, and to swap recipes and patterns. The children came to play. The young adults came for other reasons. As soon as the juice began to boil, the older persons (usually men) began skimming off the green scum that gathered on the top. They used a "skimmer" which was made of "sheet iron" shaped like a scoop. Holes were punched in the sheet iron, to let the juice run back into the boiler leaving the skimmings in the skimmer. A long handle was attached to the skimmer for the boiler, as the furnace was too hot to get near. Sometimes a bucket lid would be used for a skimmer. It, too, had holes and a long handle. The more you skimmed the boiling juice, the clearer and better tasting were the molasses. So everyone took turns with the skimming. The skimmings were put into a crock to be used later for a taffy pull. Those who weren't working sat around in the light of lanterns which were hung on posts. The posts were driven in the ground at intervals around the "bilin' off" area.

The men were whittling, telling tall tales, or swapping a lot of good-natured joshing. The children, off at one side are having a game of "Tag", "Chicken 'n the Hawk", "Frog in the Middle", "Whooping Hide", or some similar game. The young folks, just outside the crowd, were playing singing games. Usually they started with "Charlie", a favorite of all. The boys chose partners, two lines were formed with boys on one side and girls on the other, facing partners. When the young people began to sing, the couple at the head of the lines joined hands. They promenaded up and down between the lines, two or three times, keeping step to the rhythm of the singing. The couple separated. The girl went to swing the boy now at the head of the line, while the boy swings the girl at the foot, they met back at the center, swing each other a couple of times, then went on to the next in line until everyone had been swung. They join hands and all couples promenade in a ring until the second couple got back to the head. Couples separate, form lines and start all over again. The words as I remember them are:


Come all you nice boys and girls
Out in the morning early
Hand in hand and side by side
True I love you dearly.


Over the river to feed my sheep
Over the river to Charley
Over the river to feed my sheep
Rye, buchwheat, and barley.

Don't want none of your weevily wheat
Don't want none of your barley
All I want is some good old wheat
To bake a cake for Charley.

Charley's neat and Charley's sweet
Charley is a dandy
Charley is the very boy that
Treats the girls on candy.

Wish I had a little more brick
To build my chimney high-yer
Every time it snows or rains it
Puts out all my fire-yer.

Passed a law in this town
To neither kill nor slaughter
Every time you turn around
Turn to your farmer's daughter.

If a few more verses were needed there was always a budding poet or two in the crowd to supply them, and they were always sung with the same gusto as the original verses. There were other songs and games sung and played at every meet - but I must get back to the "molassy biling", as quite a bit of time has passed since we began our games.

There seemed to be an excitement in the air, which was understood by all, as the groups disbanded and gathered to watch the juice thicken and "change" into molasses.

When the juice begins to boil, roll up into bumps, burst and spread to meet another bump, all over the boiler, old timers said it was "cuttin' buttons."

Now the boiler is almost ready to "take off", and the "judge" is called. In our neighborhood this was "Uncle Reuben" Worrell who was called on to "judge the molasses." He did this by stirring all over the boiler with the skimmer. He got molasses in the skimmer, held it up almost as high as his head. He let the molasses flake off the side of the skimmer. When they flaked just right, he said, "Now." Four men who had hunted up a couple of poles, placed them under the handles on the boiler and stood waiting. At the signal "Now," they lifted the boiler off the furnace, away from the fire.

The molasses were strained through a thin cotton flour sack, measured, and the "toll" taken out. With watering mouths everyone stood by watching the molasses being dipped from the boiler - hoping the dipper would be generous and leave some. At the word, "Go," they all rushed to "sop the biler." This was done with the paddle whittled out of thin planks and saved for the purpose.

Now, comes the home-going by the happy groups. Everyone walked the roads that would keep them in a group. The group left one or two persons here and one or two there at their homes along the way with a happy, "Bye, see you tomorrow night," 'til the last one was safe at home.

What a happy time of year!