In the Florida Panhandle, making sugar syrup dates back to the early days in the Panhandle. The process begins early in the day with first harvesting the sugar cane stalks in a grinding machine.
A pole measuring between six and eight feet is attached to one end. On the other end, was a harness where either a mule or horse was attached. While the animal walked around in a circle, the pole moved like the hand on a clock causing the grinding action at the center point of the circle. As the cane stalks were fed into the grinder, the juice from the sugar cane was squeezed out into the pan. A long tube connected to the pan allowing for the juice to flow where it would be cooked into syrup.
Children from the area enjoyed hanging around during the grinding and took every opportunity to scoop up some of the juice. As they enjoyed the very sweet syrup, they were continually warned not to drink too much as it was a powerful laxative. Both the workers and children also had to be on the lookout for yellow jackets, they too enjoy the sweet syrup.
The cane came in two forms, green cane and ribbon cane. The syrup was made from the ribbon cane and green cane in stalks was sold as a refreshing juice when chewed on.
Making sugar syrup was not a quick process. It takes about seven gallons of juice to make just one gallon of syrup. Using “Lightered” wood with its high resin content to make the wood burn hotter. The furnace had to be continually stoked so the fire would reach a temperature high enough to boil the cane juice.
The juice was cooked into syrup through the long process with many pans which the juice passed through over several hours. If the juice was left in one pan too long it could burn or if the juice was passed through too fast, not cooking correctly. Making the sugar syrup took skill, constant attention and most important patience. A wooden spoon-like instrument was used to skim the impurities and cooking materials off the top of the cooking mixture.
If the juice was cooked too long, it ended up as sugar. Which was okay, but they wanted the syrup the most.
When the syrup was ready, it was packaged in tin buckets, usually, paint cans or bottles and jars. It all depended on what was available. The syrup was used at home or some bartered it for other supplies. The larger mills would send buckets into towns to be sold in a larger market.
Photograph credit: Southern Matters