Years ago, almost every rural family had a sugar-cane mill and a boiler shelter.
To make your syrup, cane had to be grown, gathered, the juice squeezed out and boiled. This was usually done during Thanksgiving vacation; by then, the weather was cool. No matter when it is done, there is a lot of hard work involved in the process. It starts before daylight and sometimes goes on into the night.
The whole community used to be involved when syrup cooking was going on. It was a great time for socializing and standing around smelling the fragrant smell of syrup cooking. And, of course, everyone stopped by to get just a sip of fresh-squeezed cane juice. Some even brought a gallon jug to be filled! Many stood around and watched until it was poured into the glass bottles and then asked for a free bottle. Not just anyone can be trusted with cooking syrup. Very few people even know how at this time. It is an ancient art that is fading away fast.
I want to introduce you to a young man who does not want this tradition to ever be forgotten. Steven Gordon, 38, is a native of rural Long County. He graduated from Bradwell Institute in 1996. In 2007, he married Trayce Corley from Glennville. He has two stepdaughters — Aryzonia, 24, is married and lives on Wilmington Island and Mayzie, 14, is still in school. Steven works with Fish and Wildlife on Fort Stewart, and his wife also works on post. Steven is the son of Charles and Linda Davis Gordon of Long County. Charles works with the Fort Stewart Forestry, and Linda has served 40 years with the Postal Service. She is the postmaster in Allenhurst for now, but will retire at the end of this month.
Steven spent much of his youth at the farm of his grandparents, James and Martha Altman Davis. The Long County Wildlife Festival began there. James liked history and tried to preserve the old country ways. Steven probably decided that he had better learn to like it, too, as his grandpa was going to force it into him one way or the other!
James had many little buildings on his property, such as the old school and little country church. He had a sawmill, which was more than 100 years old, that he used frequently. Steven said that when he was a teenager, he helped saw lumber every evening after school. As a matter of fact, he helped his grandpa build a 10-stall horse stable in the Gum Branch area. They sawed the lumber from trees on the property. My daughter and her husband own it now.
On Thanksgiving Day, there was hardly any room to park close to the James Davis house, as that was cane-grinding day, and everyone knew about it. Steven worked with his grandpa in making the syrup and asking questions. Grandpa taught Steven well, but he did not like to share his syrup-making secrets with the public!
James’ sawmill caught fire one day. The fire got down in the old mound of sawdust and kept burning. The roof over the sawmill fell in, and everything burned to pieces. Steven thinks his grandpa was so upset over losing his favorite piece of property that he died two days later on March 10, 2010, at the age of 84. Steven vowed to try to keep Grandpa’s history and love of preservation going on.
His mother has the same love in her soul. Steven enjoys collecting old tractors and has several. He inherited his grandpa’s farm after his death and takes care of the place. He still makes syrup each year. The farm is not far from the historic Walthourville Presbyterian Church, which Steven also takes care of. He is the one responsible for ringing the old church bell to call everyone to worship. The church does not have services there anymore except for homecoming, which was Oct. 11. Steven believes in giving thanks to the Lord for all his bountiful blessings and doing hard work.
The Statesboro Kiwanis Club, organized in 1960, consists of 150 men and women who live and work in Statesboro and neighboring communities. The desire to serve their community is the common interest that brings them together. Membership is open, by invitation, to adults interested in committing substantial time and energy to the club and community service. They meet for lunch once a week at the Kiwanis Fairground on Fair Road. Since 1962, they have been presenting two major fundraisers a year — the Agricultural Fair and Carnival in October and the Rodeo in March or April. All money raised is given back to the communities of seven participating counties. (Long County is not one.) They give back more than $200,000 per year. They believe in supporting the youth and making a difference in the community.
The time for this year’s fair is Monday through Saturday. The 2015 theme is, “Family Farmers Taking Pride in Our Heritage.” Admission is usually $5 per adult. Senior and Military Day is Tuesday, and admission is free. There is something for everyone to see and do. Many rides are provided with purchased tickets.
This is where Steven Gordon comes into the picture. Several years ago, Steven was at the fair and saw an elderly man cooking syrup under a shelter. He went over and began talking to the man and watching him. This went on for a long time. The man had been making the syrup for at least 30 years. Each year, Steven visited with the man. After his health began failing, the man asked Steven if he would be interested in taking over the operation each year for the Kiwanis Club. Steven was overwhelmed that the man would trust such a young person to do this job, which requires so much knowledge and work! Steven joyfully accepted.
This will be the fourth year he has this great opportunity to show so many young people this old tradition. He tries to spark an interest in some of them so the old time tradition will not die. He is quick to share his knowledge with others if they are interested.
They get started early Monday morning. Steven has some help from his family. All of them use their annual leave days to work for the
Kiwanis Club. His mother and father are his two right hands. His wife is in charge of the sales once the syrup is made and bottled. A small bottle sells for $5, and the fifth sells for $10. A John Deere-tractor power mill is used to grind the cane (A mule would be too much liability with so many kids around).
Steven uses fat lighter wood to fuel the syrup boiler. On Monday, he cooks two rounds in order to have enough on hand to sell. The following days through Saturday night, one round is cooked and bottled. The boiler pot holds 60 gallons and takes about 4½ hours to make 6 to 8 gallons. His granddaddy’s boiler pot holds 80 gallons; one cooking produces 10 gallons. It takes 1,000 stalks of sugar cane to produce juice enough for the 80-gallon pot.
Steven does not put Karo corn syrup in his cane syrup. He likes the old-fashioned way of doing it. He would rather have his own grown cane, but he has turned all the fields into pasture land and has cows in it. Therefore, he has to buy the sugar cane he uses.
Since this cane grinding at the fair will be done in October, I was curious and wanted to know where they were getting the cane. There is a man, Lannie Lee, 94 years young, who grows 4 or 5 acres of sugar cane of many varieties and is located near the fair grounds. He also grows peanuts, corn and soybeans. Mr. Lannie is the president of the Bulloch County Farmers Bureau. He gets up before daylight and works until after sundown. He just enjoys being outside and always finds something to do. He gets on his tractor and plows, sprays, mows or levels bad spots in the land. He is a member of the VFW and the Kiwanis, but still gives most of his time and heart to the land. He has spent the past 22 years becoming an expert in the art of making cane syrup.
Sugar cane is a perennial, but the cane starts to lose its sweetness in about the third year, so one has to buy new seed and lay it down. Each section of a cane stalk has a little eye in it. Seed cane is simply fresh cut cane stalks laid end to end and buried. Each eye sends up a fresh stalk. Overlap them a little at the ends. Some people use nitrogen, but Mr. Lannie likes to use cottonseed meal to top-dress his cane.
Cane has to be cut before the first frost. Mr. Lannie usually does his syrup-making around Thanksgiving and makes 60 to 70 rounds a season. He puts corn syrup in his cane syrup. Some say this helps to preserve it better. Mr. Lannie’s cane stalks are usually around 12 feet tall. He probably has the largest cane patch in the state.
If you get a chance to go to the Kiwanis Agricultural Fair this year, look for the boiler shelter with Steven Gordon and his family standing over the hot boiler filled with bubbling and foaming cane juice stirring and skimming constantly to make sure they produce many delicious bottles of old-fashioned, pure sugar-cane syrup made to perfection! All you will need to add is a pan of golden-baked, piping-hot cathead biscuits!
Thank you, Steven, for taking a great interest in preserving our heritage and trying to pass it along to other young people so the syrup-making art will not fade away!