Sorghum: The Way it Was

June 7, 2013 |

“Skimming sorghum molasses.” Racine, West Virginia, 1938. From the Library of Congress, by Marion P. Wolcott.

“In West Virginia, as in other parts of the United States, many rural families relied on sorghum molasses as a sweetener during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The flavor lies between black strap molasses and light caramel syrup and is far less sweet than honey.” Mark F. Sohn, -WV-encyclopedia

Aja Saldana presents this week’s article on making Sorghum. Aja is in the 6th grade at the Greenbrier Episcopal School.

“Life was rougher back then, tougher, than it is now, but it was a lot easier too.”

-Roger Dolan

Sixth grader, Aja Saldana.

And that is true, particularly with making sorghum. Now we use electronic presses and can boil the sorghum in our own kitchen. Back then, it was much different.

First, you had to remove all the leaves and seed heads with your bare hands. Then you must cut the cane about one inch from the ground, to maximize the juice you can get out of it, and lay it in piles. Early on the day of cooking the squeezing begins. The mill is run using a horse trotting around it, pushing a wheel- like thing, which turns some cogs and presses the juice out of the cane. As the juice is pouring out of the mouth of the mill it goes through a strainer lined with cheesecloth sitting on top of a 10-gallon milk can, or other container. The thin juice is a greenish color and tastes green and sweet.

Then, they have to dig a fire pit in which to boil the sorghum in. After that they build a fire in the pit, and place the sorghum juice (once they have at least 20 gallons of it) in a pan in the pit. When you’ve done that,- you let it simmer for the rest of the day and periodically remove the green muck from the top with a skimmer. All of it must be removed to make sure your sorghum looks and tastes great. The syrup must be stirred for several hours to maintain even heating, and the fire must always be very hot. Eventually, the scum will lessen and brown bubbles will start appearing. Once that happens, it’s close to finishing.

When it’s done, about four people are needed to lift the pan off the fire and onto a couple of iron pipes on the ground. The syrup is then ladled into sterilized jars, and is ready for use!

The veteran of sorghum making that I interviewed was Roger Dolan. When he was younger, he made sorghum with the rest of his family. To them sorghum was a staple food, which replaced sugar. So every year, they would harvest their sorghum. Then they would load it all into the work horses, and ride them all the way from Teaberry Road, through Lewisburg, and up to Vago Road, where they milled and boiled their sorghum into the delicious golden substance that is sorghum molasses. They did so, from before his birth, to when he was about twelve, and the younger generation lost interest in the wonderful tradition.

To me sorghum is a craft, passed down from generation to generation, out of necessity and tradition, the craft is passed down the family until one day somebody loses interest and the craft is forgotten. And this one, like all recipes, changes with each generation. Hopefully though, this craft won’t change too much, or be forgotten.



Dolan, Roger. Personal interview. 14 Mar. 2013.


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