Labor Day was established by Congress in 1894 as the United States’ official celebration of work. It is observed on the first Monday in September.
How strange. In the most bizarre of paradoxes, this tribute to toil brings the industrial output of an entire nation to a grinding halt.
Factories, stores, schools, and banks close. Offices darken. The mail doesn’t run. Even the stock market, its lifeblood drained by the sudden cessation of sweat from coast to coast, is idled.
Labor Day is a time for barbecues, political speeches, family reunions, outings to the lake, and particularly in the South, large-scale dove shoots over freshly harvested silage fields, followed by a sumptuous dinner on the grounds. As Scarlett O’Hara might have put it, “Fiddle-dee-dee! Why worry about work on Labor Day? I’ll worry about work tomorrow.”
Yet there is one major exception to this rule. For folks who make molasses, Labor Day means just what the name implies: a time for work. Hard, hot work.
Not that it’s been any picnic up to this point. Way back in April and May, the fields that grow sorghum cane had to be plowed, fertilized and seeded. As the young shoots emerged, the soil needed cultivating, perhaps as many as three times, to keep it loose and free of weeds.
Yet all of these tasks can be accomplished with machinery, at least in the world of 20th century agriculture. By Labor Day, it’s time for human hands to get good and dirty. Not to mention sticky.
“I think this is what they call one of them ‘labor-intensive’ operations,” says Olin Hughes.
Hughes should know. He’s been growing sorghum cane and making molasses for most of his 75 years.
Early on, this was merely another chore on the family farm. If you wanted thick, sweet molasses for your morning biscuits — biscuits, it should be pointed out, that were made from scratch, not “whoomped” out of a fancy package from the grocery store — you made them yourself.
(Another point of order. In the vernacular of southern Appalachia, the word “molasses” is not singular. It is plural. One does not make “it.” One makes “them.” Only a city slicker would sample a dab of the season’s first run and announce, “This is good molasses.” The correct pronunciation, as anyone who ever wore a sweat-stained
John Deere hat knows, is “These are good molasses.” Unless, of course, these molasses haven’t been cooked long enough and are runny, which the city slicker probably wouldn’t detect in the first place.)
In 1954, Hughes decided to broaden his horizons somewhat. He figured since there was such a big demand for molasses in and around his hometown of Young
Harris, Georgia, he’d boil off a little extra for public consumption. Say, about 12,000 gallons.
“Yeah, that’s how much of ‘em we used to make,” he says. “We shore did. Did that much for years. But ain’t as many people that even eats breakfast anymore! At least not at home. They drive to a fast-food place, and you can’t hardly find molasses at one of them. So our production has dropped off right smart in the last few years.”
To a mere 6,500 gallons, including what he makes for friends and neighbors who raise their own cane.
Anyway you slice it, though, this represents more than enough industry to keep everybody in the Hughes family from thinking thoughts of leisure around Labor Day. Or anytime thereafter until Thanksgiving.
Olin Hughes’s molasses mill is easy to find. It’s right off of Highway 76, about seven miles east of town, on Olin Hughes Road. In Towns County, Georgia — and much of rural southern Appalachia — death is not a prerequisite to having a road named after you. Instead, you just need to be living in the right place when the road comes through.
Families of Hughes descent populate this region. Olin and his wife, Lois, reside on 35 acres at the mill site, most of which is devoted to pasture for their cattle. He leases another 60 acres for hay.
Their children — sons Cecil and Terry and daughter Eloise Chastain, along with their respective spouses and children — have homes nearby. Farther east of Olin’s farm, in a valley below Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia, the family leases another 40 acres for growing sorghum cane.
“We raise several different varieties,” said Hughes. “There’s Late Orange, and Williams, and Honey Drip, plus a couple of newer ones called Topper 76 and M-81E.
They’re all good syrup canes.
“I don’t know what it is about the soil in this area, but it shore makes good syrup. This whole county’s good for it. Our soil makes a light, amber syrup. There are some areas where the soil’s got a lotta clay. It’ll give you a syrup that’s almost cherry red. But it’s all got a good taste.”
Here in early September, it’ll be awhile before anyone gets a taste. With the cane growing season drawing to a close, there’s much work to be done before thousands of glass jars are filled with delicious liquid.
First, the leaves must be stripped from their stalks, standing tall in the dense rows in the field. It calls for an army of arms that can reach and bend, plus hands that can swing knives accurately — which is why children and grandchildren were invented. Then the stalks are cut down and the seed head lopped off.
“I like to strip the leaves one day and then come back and start cuttin’ the next,” said Hughes. “You don’t want your cane standin’ bare too long, or else it’ll start losin’ its sweetness. We cut it and pile it up, about two armfuls to the pile, and load it on wagons to haul it to the mill.”
Cutting cane is not a one-time job. It goes on throughout September and October. Hughes plans it that way by staggering his planting schedule in the spring.
“You don’t want the whole crop comin’ in all at once,” he noted. “Why it’d work you to death! There’s no way you could handle the whole load at one time.”
Small cane mills, like the one Hughes used as he was growing up, typically are powered by one horsepower — as in ol’ Dobbin. Harnessed to a long wooden boom or
“sweep” that is attached to the drive shaft of the mill, the horse walks around and around and around, turning the rollers.
Hughes thought back to those years and laughed. “A feller shore can get tired of duckin’ that sweep ever’ time it comes around!”
These days, he does his squeezing with a three-roller Golden mill that is powered by a belt connected to the drive train on one of his tractors. Hughes isn’t sure how old this mill is. “I do know it was built by a foundry down in Thomasville,” he said, “and that outfit went out of business way back in the forties.”
Mountains of cane are unloaded at the mill. The stalks are run through the press, butt-first. They emerge at the other end very flat, very fibrous, and very light, for over half their original weight has been extracted as moisture. These spent stalks will wind up as livestock feed and mulch.
In most smaller molasses operations, the greenish cane juice is captured in a large pan or bucket as it flows from the mill. Not here. Several years ago, Hughes buried piping underground to carry the juice into four holding tanks, each with a 280-gallon capacity. It’ll be stored there until the actual cooking begins. Before it flows into
these tanks, however, the juice runs through the first of four straining processes, each progressively finer, to remove any foreign matter.
“You gotta squeeze nine gallons of juice to get one gallon of molasses,” he said. “That’s how much they boil down.”