This collection began with the Kentucky Oral History Commission’s effort to establish oral history programs in each of the state’s 120 counties. County libraries worked with local volunteers to collect interviews. Since 1987, county oral histories have been generated primarily by recipients of technical assistance grants from the commission that provide training and equipment to volunteer interviewers. Interviews donated by independent researchers are also included. Original collection held at Kentucky Oral History Commission/Kentucky Historical Society. Access copies available at Lincoln County Public Library. Authorization must by granted by KHS to use or publish by any means the archival material to which the Society holds copyright.
LINCOLN COUNTY INTERVIEWS
TED GILBERT RECORDED BY JENNY DENHAM
DECEMBER 17, 1978
Mr. Gilbert: I’m going to talk about how to make molasses. All right, when you are thinking about making molasses or raising sugar cane or sorghum cane for making molasses, there are several things that you’ve got to prepare for. You must plan for planting and preparing the ground first. You need…in order to do this, you need to have a soil sample and you need to choose the proper seed. Let’s see, you should have a soil sample from the soil that you are going to raise the molasses…the cane on and it should be sent to the University for analysis and a type of fertilizer recommended. The type of ground that you should use, choose, to raise the sorghum cane, most usually is a sandy type soil, a white looking soil, usually it’s probably some of the worst ground you think you have on your farm. This type of ground, is best suited for raising sorghum cane. You definitely don’t want to put any type of nitrogen on sorghum. You want to follow your soil test recommendation to a T. You’ll want to choose a seed…you can go to your local seed or feed store and they will recommend a suitable seed for you to use. The University has developed…are working now on a type of seed called Dale, D-a-l-e. This makes a very light colored molasses, which seems to be the most desirable. The lighter the color, it seems to be the most desirable. You can get this…to find out about this seed, by contacting Dr. Morris Bitzer (sic) at the University of Kentucky. He’ll be glad to talk to you about it and make it available to you. You, of course, then, must plow your ground, and have your fertilizer and everything ready. You need to work it up real good. As in tobacco, the better you work your ground up, the better weed control you are going to have. Uh, you need to do this around the middle of May, or even toward the first of May, would be even better. This allows you to harvest the molasses early in the…or late in the summer, early in the fall. You may put your fertilize on before planting, by broadcasting, or you may put it on later, after the cane gets knee high or so, you may want to side dress it. I’m sure everybody is familiar with that, as we do in tobacco. Your seed should be planted…can be planted with a conventional corn planter. You must…it is much better to use a sorghum cane plate (sic) in your corn planter to do this with. The reason for using the sorghum plate is because if you use a regular corn plate, it will make your cane too thick and you’ll either have to thin it later in order to get the proper situation, or, if you don’t thin it, it will make long thin stalks, and they tend to blow over, and they just don’t have as much juice in them as the thicker stalks that you would get if you have the proper population of the seeds for sorghum cane. So, it is necessary to have this cane spaced properly in order to get enough light in it to make it grow, because the bigger the stalks, the more juice you’re going to get. After planting, of course, it’s like any other crop, you must control the weeds until the plant gets enough start to survive. Now, you can control these weeds by a couple of methods. You either use a hoe, or you can cultivate two or three times until your plant has a good start, or you may need to do both, if you have some weed problems that you can’t get with the cultivator, you may need to use a hoe. But it is absolutely necessary, to get the proper results, to keep the weeds out of them. After you’ve got your crop planted and you’ve got your fertilize on, then you have from May until about August…the last of August, first of September, that you have to have the time in there that you can get ready to make your molasses. Now, you can either make it yourself, or you may find someone who is making molasses and process your cane, and you may haul it there and have them process it for a share or for so much a gallon.
(tape recorder goes off, then comes back on)
Mr. Gilbert: In our particular case, we have a mill set up on our farm; a mill and a furnace. This mill squeezes the juice out of the stalks of cane. We squeeze the juice from the stalks of cane and empty those into wooden barrels much like the barrels used in distilleries. From the barrels it is emptied into a large vat or a tray, a metal tray that is used to boil the molasses…boil the juice until it’s turned into molasses. Our mill is powered by power take-off (sic) from a small tractor, and it was made out of a truck transmission. It has three or four rollers that squeeze the juice out of the stalks. The tray or the vat is a metal vat. It is set over a concrete block form, much like an old barbecue grill, only larger. This concrete structure is used to hold the heat in. Now, the heat is provided by either wood, which is what we use; it’s the old method, but we use wood. There are some problems with the wood. It’s easy to get, however it’s hard to keep even heat, and you do need to get as even heat as you can under this juice, because it will scorch, and you don’t want that, because it makes a bad taste in your molasses. It ruins it. The other way is, you may use gas, and this way you can control the heat better and it may be a little more expensive, but you can control and keep a good even heat. So, these are the things that you need to get ready, if you are going to provide your own mill, you need to get these things ready before harvest time. Now, when harvest time comes, it will be…you can cut a piece of the stalk and you can taste the juice and it will be real sweet. Your seed on top tends to turn a dark brown, and you will have a maturity date on your seed and…which will give you a little better idea from planting time to harvest time. You may be able to get some help from that maturity date that will tell you how long it takes for that plant to reach maturity. The cane can be cut in two different ways that I know of. One is by using a cornbine. This is the easiest way to do it. We have a one row cornbine that we just go down and it cuts the cane and puts it into bundles and…or ties it into bundles and then it’s easy to handle, it’s easy to load and take to the mill for squeezing out or whatever. After it’s cut and put into bundles, the cane must be topped. We top it after it’s on the ground; and take a knife and cut the tops off. Of course, the tops have all the seeds on them. These seeds need to be taken out of there, because it does…the juice from the seeds or the squeezing from the seeds would affect the quality of the molasses. And, also, they would cause a problem when…straining the juice; they’d get the strainer clogged up and it just causes a lot of trouble. And, it’s easier to go ahead and top it after it’s laying down, just cut the tops off. So, this should be done definitely. Then, the bundles are loaded on a wagon and taken to the mill area where the juice is squeezed from the stalks. It is fed by one or two men. And, you squeeze out all six…in our particular operation, we squeeze about six barrels of juice to get started, to fill our vat, to get started on. This will run…boiling time and the time the molasses is finished and out, this will run about six hours. Now, if you get an early start in the morning, you may squeeze some more juice in order to fill it, as you empty out, you may run anywhere from ten to twelve barrels of juice a day. That’s a long day, though. That’s from before daylight to dark. It’s possible with our setup, to run eighty to a hundred gallons on a long, long day. This…you should have… when you get ready to make this molasses, at harvest time, you should have a lot of help. There will need to be three or four people at the vat to skim the dark green skim that comes to the top of the juice when it’s boiling. This needs to be skimmed off with a skimmer. It’s emptied into a barrel and disposed of later on. This is a hot job, and it’s…well, it’s just hard work. But, you do need to have ample help on hand, preferably four or five people around the vat. The molasses, as it boils, it moves towards…you move toward one end of the emptying end of the vat and you add new juice as it boils away. The molasses is boiled until it reaches a point of thickness where it will fall off a spoon or a dipper much in the manner of…as jelly…it’s as thick as jelly and strings in that manner. It is emptied, at that time, into buckets. They must be clean containers, whether it be buckets, milk cans or anything to store it until you…you may want to store it into something bigger and then put it into smaller containers for resale…for sale. And, of course, at that time, you can sample it, and bring some hot biscuits and butter down and try it out and brag on it then and see the results of hard work. This…it’s very hard work, but it’s very satisfying to have a good sorghum crop. Your neighbors tend to like you a whole lot around sorghum making time, and you can make pretty good money out of it, too. It sells in this area for about $10.00 a gallon. And, in some areas it’s higher and some areas it is a little bit less. It is very important that you try to get this crop in the ground early, and get it harvested around the last of August. That…during the month of September we usually have the storms that tend to blow…the plants over, then you can’t get through with the bine (sic) or cut them with the bine, so you would have to cut it by hand or let it waste. It has to be harvested or at least cut down before a frost. If a live cane plant is frosted on, it causes a bitter taste in the cane and it will be no good for making molasses. That is absolutely necessary. It’s all right if you have it cut down and it frosts on it, it won’t hurt it, you can still squeeze it. But, if it is still standing, growing in the ground and the frost hits it, it will ruin the juice so you can’t use it for making molasses. You can, however, salvage it by harvesting the standing cane and putting it in a silo and feeding cattle or something of that nature. But, it is no longer good for making molasses, if the frost hits it while it’s still growing. So, to beat the wind problems and weather problems, it’s best to get the crop in the ground early and get it harvested early. And, it makes some awful good eating when it gets cold weather. And, that’s about it. My name is Ted Gilbert and we live at Route One, Stanford, Kentucky, in the Maywood section, and if anybody would like to sample some good molasses, just come out and see us. We’ve got plenty of it. Be glad to have you.
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