Skip to main content
ARS Home » Northeast Area » Docs » Historical Perspectives » Molasses Making Time

Molasses Making Time
headline bar

Loretta Shuck

As a little girl, I remember going along with my grandmother to Aunt Arthena's house at molasses making time. I remember it as a magical time when we children run and played far into the night while the adults tended to the chores of molasses making. Lots of family would gather in to visit and bring a plentiful supply of food. The neighbors were always stopping by to join in the festivities and place an order for their own jar of molasses.

Grandma, Aunt Arthena, and Uncle James have been gone for some time now. Thankfully, their children are striving to maintain the knowledge and art of molasses making and this past September I went back to Aunt Arthena's house at molasses making time. My cousin, Phyllis Wickline Cales and her husband, Clifford with help from her sister, Edna Wickline Matics and her husband, Gary, Phyllis' children, Jimmy and Joe, and Edna's children, Matt and Becky, are making Molasses again.

There was much to be done in getting ready for making molasses. The seed for cane is not readily available, perhaps because there is so little demand for it. Clifford was able to secure seed for the original type of cane that their parents had used from some helpful folks in the neighboring town of Hinton. He and his son, Jimmy, have completely refurbished the cane mill and the pan and furnace have been constructed with some minor improvements.

People stripping leaves from cane

Joe, Jimmy, Gary, and Becky's husband are stripping the blades from Clifford's small cane patch near the house

Cane is planted, grows, and is cared for in much the same way as corn. Clifford's cane fields are meticulous. At harvest time the seed plumes are cut from the stalks. Some are saved for planting the following year while the rest are discarded. The blades are stripped from the stalks then the stalks are cut cleanly very close to the ground and stacked until time to go to the mill. Phyllis and Clifford try not to keep it more than overnight or a day.

Feediong cane through the mill for molasses

A neighbor feeds cane stalks through the mill
and the juice is strained into a tub

The stalks are fed three or four at a time through the mill. The mill when I was young was turned by a mule walking in circles. Clifford has his mill powered by his tractor. The juice is squeezed out of the stalks and runs down a chute, strained through a screen into a tub. It is a slow process. The crushed stalks have to be cleaned away from the mill so someone is always busy with a pitch fork stacking them up. In years past, the cane stack became a play ground for us kids. The stack of used cane will go to compost for use on the fields in a couple of years.

The extracted juice is strained again into barrels until enough is collected to fill the cooking pan. The pan is constructed of a metal bottom with wooden sides. There are metal loops on both ends through which a bar can be placed for lifting. It takes two men on each side for this job. The pan will hold a little over 110 gallons of juice and when it is cooked down Phyllis expects to have about 15 gallons of molasses to put into jars.

Pile of discarded cane stalks

Discarded cane stalks. It gets high.

Man cooking cane juice to produce molasses
Clifford Cales is getting started with a full pan of juice for
cooking into molasses. Note the mud seal between the firebox
and the molasses pan.

To begin the cooking process, the edge of the furnace is lined with a layer of mud then the pan is set on. The mud seals the space between the furnace and the pan so heat is not lost and the bottom of the pan heats evenly. Long, thin strips of wood are fed continuously into the open end of the furnace to keep the juice boiling. As the juice boils green foam comes to the surface. This foam has to be skimmed away. If left on or stirred into the molasses it gives a bitter taste. A large tin lid that has been punched full of holes and mounted on a stick serves well for skimming. Large wooden paddles are also used. They are slid across the surface of the boiling juice the lifted quickly and raked off. Everyone gets a turn at this chore since cooking time is in the nine to ten hour range and skimming is done constantly.

Skimming the cooking liquids
Clifford and Phyllis Cales have their turn at skimming as the
steam rolls from the boiling juice.

As the cooking time gets near to the end, the foam starts to take on a brown color. This is when the children, old and young, start looking for saucers. The 'skimmins' are put onto the saucers to cool and sample. When the desired thickness and color are obtained, the men lift the pan from the firebox and pour the molasses into large crockery to allow the foam to settle and the molasses to cool.

The next job is to pour the syrup into clean canning jars, seal and label them. The molasses are now ready to store away for later use or to sell to anxious friends. That ginger bread and those Christmas cookies would not be the same without them. Oh, and the final job of the evening is to eat hot, buttered biscuits covered with sticky, sweet molasses.

A table of molasses in jars

Jimmy Cales and father, Clifford show off their finished product.

Thanks so much Phyllis and Clifford, Edna and Gary for caring enough to save and share this family tradition here in our little town of Meadow Bridge, WV.

Historical Perspectives

Picture index