This week I visited with Missy Jones about making homemade syrup. This practice is still demonstrated at various fairs and festivals around the country, but seldom is syrup make for personal use anymore….just one more lost art. Be sure to read to the bottom for Geneva Mercer’s Syrup Pie recipe.
My parents were William “Will” Cornelius Cox and Minnie Steward Cox. We lived on my grandfather, Cornelius Nicholas “Nick” Cox’s, place between Comanche and Gustine, Texas. Uncle Hill Cox, daddy’s brother, and his family lived in the big family house, and we lived north of that house in the smaller house.
My grandfather had a syrup mill, and it was used many, many times by Grandpa Cox before we moved there in about 1937. My mother’s brother, Rob Steward, told Daddy that he would raise the sorghum cane and furnish it if we would make syrup at the syrup mill. Daddy went to town and bought one-gallon syrup cans with a bail on the top and a flat lid. Lots of people put their syrup in crock jars, but Daddy used cans.
I can’t remember a lot about the early work on this, but I do remember coming home from school on the bus and hurrying to change my “good clothes” to old clothes. Then, I ran up the hill to watch the cooking of the syrup.
The syrup mill was set up south of our house and north of Uncle Hill’s house in some post oak trees. Uncle Rob brought wagon loads of the cane stalk, and he had already taken the long leaves from the can so they were easy to put through the mill.
The mill was turned and the gears moved by a horse hitched to a long pole. The horse walked round and round, and that movement turned the gears on the mill. Sometimes Daddy would let me ride the horse as it walked, turning the gears on the syrup mill.
The mill part of the operation wasn’t a mill at all, in that it did not grind anything. It was cast iron, sitting upon legs and it had large gears standing up in which you would poke the long pieces of sugar cane, and as you did, the gears would squeeze the juice out of the cane.
I remember my mother took a large piece of ducking and tied it over a tub. The syrup was squeezed through the gears and the juice then drained out into the tub that had the cloth on it. That ducking cloth strained fibers or anything else that might be in the juice.
Then the juice was poured into the big pan. The fire had to be just right, not too hot or the copper pan would melt, and with a big hole in it, the pan would be ruined. My daddy took a vegetable can, flattened it out, punched holes in it, and then attached it to the end of a brook stick. This was used to skim the foam off of the syrup as it was cooking. The foam itself was good to eat, but nobody wanted it in the syrup buckets.
The cooking of the cane juice was done in a long copper pan about 10 or 12 feet long. The pan had divisions in it, little walls dividing the big pan. Each little wall had a gate that could be raised to allow the syrup to move from one section to another.
The pan itself set upon a rock pit-like three-sided surface with the fourth side open so that wood could be added to the fire while the syrup cooked. The pan sat off-centered enough so that the syrup could flow downwards.
The syrup had to be cooked for a certain amount of time. As it cooked, it gradually made its way from the juice end of the pan to the finished syrup end. Of course everyone had a job to do in the making of the syrup. Daddy, Uncle Rob, my brother, Wilburn, and my brother-in-law, Alton Mercer, kept the fire fed as needed. My mother, my sister, Geneva, and my sister-in-law, Effie Mae, stirred the mixture with long broom handles that had a little block of wood on the end of them.
The syrup boiled and boiled, rolling in the copper pan. When it was considered done, Daddy used a long handled dipper to carefully spoon the hot syrup into the cans. You have to remember that this was during the depression, and this syrup was very needed since there wasn’t a lot of money to buy sugar and other such things.
The women would use this sugar to cook down their pear preserves. They said the preserves made with this syrup were some of the best they ever made! They also learned to use the syrup to make delicious syrup pies. Most people don’t know what a syrup pie is, but a syrup pie is simply a pecan pie without the pecans. There is no telling how many syrup pies my family has made over the years. Every child loves them and begs for them.
There is just nothing as good as homemade syrup with lots of cow butter and hot biscuits. You can really “sop” this up!
And if you’d like to see exactly what a syrup mill looks like, come on out and visit us at the Comanche County Historical Museum. If you are lucky, Missy will be there to tell you all about it!
Geneva’s Syrup Pie
1 Cup White Karo Syrup
1/2 Stick Butter
1/2 Cup Sugar
3 Eggs, beaten
1. Cook in sauce pan until mixture is about the consistency of Karo Syrup.
2. Pour a very small stream of syrup mixture into eggs while the mixer is running. If you add too quickly, your eggs will scramble!
3. Once all is combined well, pour into your unbaked pie crust.
4. Bake for 10 minutes at 425 degrees.
5. Lower oven temp to 350 degrees and continue cooking.
6. Bake until pie is done but is still a little “shaky” in the center.