Syrup making – The Sweestest Time of Year

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 28, 2009

The sweet, sticky vapors obscured the men at work in the small, three-sided wood crib. Every now and then, one of the men would become plainly visible and then disappear again as the November breeze shifted the vapors.

Perrie McCartha emerged from the crib, smiled and howdied the neighbor who had just arrived.

“I’ve not been up here before,” A.J. Viviano said. “Kind of new to the area.”

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McCartha explained that he and his crew were running syrup and that was the cause of the sweetness in the air.

“We used to run syrup down the road but it got where it was so hard for folks to get down that little pig trail that we moved up here,” he said. “Took me a long time to get everything ready but it was worth it. Didn’t have but three parking spots at the other place. Got plenty of room up here though.”

McCartha was obviously proud of his new syrup running establishment and the piles of milled cane stalks were testimony to the amount of “running” that had already been done.

“I’ve got 27 varieties of cane here on the farm,” he said. “Every one of them makes good syrup. Can’t really tell all that much difference in the syrup but I like to try different varieties to see what comes of it. Some’s a little darker and some’s a little thicker. That’s about the only difference. Suit yourself on that.”

McCartha’s crew is made up of family and close friends, and they had been up since daybreak to get a day’s work in before mid-afternoon.

“My wife gets up early on the days that we’re running syrup and makes biscuits and fries fresh sausage and we eat it with some of our own syrup and there’s ain’t no better eating than that,” McCartha said.

The first fun of the day comes at the cane mill where the mill is turned with a trusty Deere.

“Oh, no,” McCartha said, laughing. “We don’t pull our mill with a mule. Only Grover Poole does that now. We’ve gone mechanical.”

McCartha said it takes 10 gallons of cane juice to make one gallon of syrup.

“So far this year, we’ve made 100 gallons of syrup,” he said. “We’ve got enough cane for about 200 gallons more so we’ll be busy for a while.”

McCartha’s syrup “kettle” is different from the old fashioned round kettle with a fire up under it – the kind he learned the art on.

“My daddy taught me to make syrup,” he said. “Back in 1945 I reckon it was. He made syrup for the community. He was a good syrup maker. Everybody knew that. But we don’t do that any more. Takes way to long. You could just make one pot at a time and it took up to five hours for one making of syrup. That was the old timey way and that was some of the best syrup you’ll ever get. But it just takes too long. Once we get going, a making cooks off in about an hour and a half.”

In the modern world of everything at the snap of fingers, even McCartha’s way of making syrup seems like a page ripped from yesteryear.

“We call this an evaporator pan,” he said as he disappeared into the sweet, sticky vapor. “We grind the cane and pump it into the evaporator through a pipe,” he said.

“Then it runs up in a vat at the top where it’s warmed and then comes on down to where it’s heated up to from 222 to 230 degrees depending on the type cane.”

McCartha explained that as the juice is heated it cycles from one section of the pan to the other.

“We keep it skimmed until the syrup makes. Then it comes out the spicket and it’s ready to be put in jars and sealed.”

Tom Duke, McCartha’s son-in-law, was busy skimming the foam and depositing it in a barrel.

“That’s for the hogs,” he said, laughing.

The other men joined in the fun. McCartha shook his head.

“Nah, we don’t make moonshine from the skimmings like everybody says syrup makers do,” McCartha said, laughing. “It makes a good beer though, and it’s guaranteed to make humans and hogs drunk.”

All the syrup makers laughed, probably remembering stories they had heard about the skimmings being left to ferment and all the hogs on the farm getting into them and winding up “as drunk as a skunk.”

All of the men at work are seasoned syrup makers. Jason and David Kellum learned the art from their dad, the late William Kellum and McCartha.

“Our daddy was always out here. He loved to make syrup,” Jason said and paused as he remembered. “We sure do miss him.”

Perrie McCartha and Williams Kellum partnered in the annual syrup-making for many years.

“It’s just not the same without him,” McCartha said.

However the art of syrup making has been passed down through the families and there are others who help out and have an interest in the sticky business.

“We like for folks to come out and watch us making syrup.” McCartha invites everybody that has an interest to come on out. We’ll be making syrup the Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving. We’ll start early and end up about 2 o’clock. And, we’re not hard to find now that we’ve moved up here on the road.”

McCartha’s syrup shack is located near Ariton just off Highway 123.

“From Highway 231 go on through Ariton until you go past Center Ridge Church,” McCartha said. “Then, you take a left at the first paved road and we’re right down there on the left.”

McCartha said he’ll have plenty of syrup for sampling but he doesn’t promise any cathead biscuits. Folks have to work the “kettle” to get those.”

Contact McCartha at 774-4593 for directions and “firm” syrup-making times.