Making Molasses From Sugar Cane on the Family Farm

A Missouri woman recalls making molasses from sugar cane as a cash crop for her family farm

A stack of cut sugar cane

Before grinding to remove the sweet juices, sugar cane is first cut in the field.

Photo by Fotolia/Kseniya Ragozina

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My dad realized early in his life that farming a few acres was not going to bring in enough cash to raise a big family. A child was born every two and a half to three years from 1907 to 1932, until there were nine of us on the family farm. One of his schemes to provide for us was making molasses every fall. This occupation requires a certain amount of skill as well as hard labor. The skill and equipment he obtained from my grandfather, but he experimented and failed many times before he became an expert at making the finest molasses in the county.

The first step was planting the sugar cane and tending it all summer, hoping for a good crop. How well I remember being taken to the sugar cane field to strip the cane. Slashing the green leaves away from the cane stalks was no fun, as the leaves were sharp and thick. After this was accomplished, the cane was cut low to the ground and hauled to the mill for grinding out the juice.

The mill was a series of cogs, where someone had to feed in the stalks a few at a time. A single horse was led round and round to make the cogs turn. This was often a child's job. As the juice was extracted, it was strained into a barrel.

The pan for boiling was set over a deep pit where a suitable fire was made and kept going as long as it took to boil off a batch of molasses. The juice was transferred to the pan and a careful watch began. Skimming off the foam and stoking the fire was a constant three- to four-hour vigil. When it was just right, and only Dad knew this, it was poured into one-half or one-gallon jars or buckets for sale or our own use. Those who brought their own cane also brought their own containers.

How pleasant it is to remember the pungent odor of that juice boiling on a clear frosty morning. Dad's goal was to boil off two batches a day, which meant the children had to do chores before going to school. Mama also had to help on top of all her numerous family duties.

One of the rewards of this process was the customers who came for miles around to get their molasses supply. My parents enjoyed these visits with friends whom they perhaps did not see but once a year.

I'm sure Dad was glad when the last batch was made, the pan cleaned and stored for another year, but I'm also sure he felt good knowing a job was well done and he was providing for his family.

Auda B. Bratcher
Raytown, Missouri

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.