Molasses-making time in the Dark Corner

Published 11:31 am Wednesday, October 4, 2023

If you venture down into the Dark Corner when the woods are scarlet and gold, and the cornfields are brown and sere, you may just be lucky enough to happen upon an annual autumn ritual that takes place this time every year over at Darrell and Tonya Farmer’s farm in the shadow of Glassy and Hogback. It’s molasses-making time and things are about to get a lot sweeter here in the hill country of Greenville County.

The Farmers have been making molasses on this very spot for at least fifty years. That’s when Darrell’s father Manning persuaded his brother Jimmy to join him in buying some old-time equipment and enlist the Dark Corner’s molasses expert Oscar Pace to teach them how it was done back in the day when nearly every farm had a mule-driven molasses mill. 

Pace agreed, and construction soon began. The Farmers first built a sheltered stone and brick oven to heat the raw sorghum liquid. Above the wood-fired oven is a platform with an intricate series of sheet metal canals and channels that, from one end to the other, literally and magically transform the thin, greenish liquid extracted from the tall sorghum stalks into the thick, dark honey-like syrup we know and love. 

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There’s evidence that sorghum was being cultivated as far back as ancient Egypt, which makes me reckon that even old Pharoah himself liked syrup on his hot biscuits. 

Molasses-making begins in the spring when Darrell sows the tiny sorghum seeds in his fallow fields. The “cane,” as some call it, is really a grass and grows like its tall second cousin, Johnson Grass, the bane of every farmer. Well into summer the sorghum stalks reach to the sky, and each develops a head of small, dark and grainy seeds. A couple of days before Darrell fires up his oven, he harvests the stalks and readies them for grinding. 

There’s no mule-driven mill here. His molasses mill is powered by an old John Deere tractor. Tonya carefully feeds the stalks into the mill. The engine runs with its distinctive “p-tut-p-tut” sound. Huge iron cogs make short work of the pithy stalks, and the liquid begins oozing from the sorghum and is channeled into a pipe which then carries it on down the line to be processed. 

The Farmers have family and friends they’ve enlisted to help them at this critical point. Each one has his or her own long handle skimmer, and as the river of sorghum juice flows through the metal channels they’re there to keep it running and to skim the thin film that starts developing on the liquid’s surface. It’s important now that the hot juice doesn’t scorch, so the team of stirrers and skimmers carefully do their job. It flows slowly as it gradually begins to thicken and take on a darker hue. By the time this river of sweetness ends its journey, it’s thick, dark brown and flavorsome! 

The molasses slowly pours into a bucket, and from there the tasty contents will be jarred and sold or given away. And then on a cold winter’s morning, the breakfast biscuits will be pulled piping hot from the oven, then liberally buttered. After that, a huge dollop of syrup will be spooned upon the broken, steaming biscuit. You might not be in Heaven, but you may very well be on the front porch!