I recently posted the story of the death of a favorite uncle. He was killed in a freak accident involving his ten-year-old son, a farm tractor and a grist mill. Click here to read the full story.
In listing the various businesses and occupations of my Uncle Esker, I overlooked his syrup mill where he made some gloriously sweet ribbon cane syrup with the help of a mule. The mule was tethered to a boom that caused him to walk in an endless circle in order to turn the gears that ground the juice out of the fresh stalks of cane. The stalks were stripped of leaves and dirt and hand-fed into a set of grinding gears, and the cane juice traveled down a wooden trough to the boiling pot. The hand-feeding part of the operation was very dangerous—if one encountered a one-armed person in rural areas of Alabama in those days, the odds were that the person had been careless in pushing the cane stalks into the gears and included his hand and part of his arm into the mechanism. Accidents such as that were rarely fatal, but almost every incident required amputation of the mangled hand and arm.
No person or animal, not even a mule, could be expected to walk in a circle hour after hour and be satisfied with its work and its surroundings. However, this mule was equipped with blinders, a harness with leather side pieces that fit on his head and blocked his vision on both sides. While wearing this apparatus he could only see straight ahead, and those in the know said that it fooled him into believing he was going somewhere other than in a continuous circle. Apparently it fooled him, but I don’t believe that it would fool me—of course I am a bit smarter than the mule—at least I would like to think so.
We kids spent a lot of time hanging around the syrup mill for several reasons, not the least of which was that Uncle Esker would use his pocket knife to cut off joints of the ribbon cane, then peel the outer layer from the joint and cut the cane into bite-size pieces, and from that point it was pure pleasure for us. We chewed the pieces until we had coaxed out and swallowed all the juice, then spit out the chewed part and selected another bite. Few, perhaps none, of today’s children will ever experience the simple pleasure of chewing ribbon cane for its juice, and that’s a shame, albeit a rather messy process.
Another of the syrup mills’ pleasures was riding the mule. Sometimes as many as four of us were placed astraddle of the mule’s back and were carried around and around at a leisurely pace—about the pace of a mule walking, so to speak—playing cowboy and Indians, cocking our fingers and pointing at imaginary figures in the surrounding area and making the gunshot sound with our voices—you, the reader, know what I’m talking about. We even simulated the sound of our bullets ricocheting off rocks when we missed our elusive targets—of course, I rarely missed.
I can’t recall ever being told anything about the process of converting cane juice into table syrup. I know only that the juice was filtered and boiled and ultimately ended up in a bottle or a bucket. The syrup of choice then, and perhaps now, in Alabama was named The Pride of Dixie. Folks in that area used those initials , POD, to describe anything that they found satisfactory or attractive, whether in taste or appearance and if satisfied with something they would say, Well, that’s really POD! In other words, it was at least as good as the Pride of Dixie syrup—okay, I guess you had to be there.
Now you know as much about a primitive one mule, one man syrup mill as I do. Some may still exist in some undeveloped countries but they are ancient history in the United States.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!