This Sunday marks the autumnal equinox for Itawamba County. Autumn is a magical time of year in northeast Mississippi’s hill country. Autumn brings back all sorts of childhood memories for me, including the trees in the hills and hollows bursting into vivid yellows, oranges and reds. It was a time when the frost was on the punkin’ and the days were ushered in with a cool damp frosty sunrise. I remember autumnal scenes from childhood such as the local grammar school’s annual Halloween carnival where you could bob for apples or take a chance on the cake walk with the possibility of winning a beautiful and tasty 3-layer home-baked blue ribbon Lane cake.
It was a time when the farmers burned off their fields and white gold in the form of King Cotton was hauled from the bottomlands, with miles of roads in the countryside being littered with scraps of the white gold that had blown off the cotton wagons on the journey to the gin, like a surreal snow. Autumn was also a time when hill country fields of sorghum and ribbon cane produced the tasty syrupy molasses that was a staple in all the country households.
Cane molasses has been a staple in southern households for generations. Since the 1800’s, sorghum cane and ribbon cane were the two predominant canes used in production of southern molasses. The juice was extracted with horse or mule-powered crushers and the juice was boiled, like maple syrup in New England, in a flat pan, and then used as a sweetener for other foods.
During autumn in Itawamba County, sorghum molasses mills would spring up in various communities. During childhood I remember playing around the molasses mills. The horse would slowly make its trip around the mill enabling the crusher to crush the fresh cane. Workers would feed the cane into the crusher and the sweet juice would drain into a large rectangular pan that was heated by a wood fire. Several workers would slowly stir the liquid with big wooden paddles removing the foam. When the liquid got to the right consistency, the molasses would be drained and sealed into metal buckets.
My most vivid memories of the local seasonal sorghum cane mill was fighting the thousands of buzzing bees hovering near the cane pulp pile hoping to get a taste of the sweet sorghum, and chewing on the fresh sugar cane with the rest of the community children. The cane mill was a gathering place for the community and molasses making was truly a community affair.
Today when autumn arrives in the hills of Itawamba County, I always think of the old- time molasses mill and usually pick a crisp cool morning to bake a big batch of oversized Mississippi buttermilk biscuits from scratch. After slicing a few of the biscuits open, and adding a heaping portion of fresh butter on the open biscuits followed by a generous baptizing of sog’um molasses over the melting butter, I sit down, and savor the scents, tastes and memories of a time gone by.
Shady Valley Photograph by Bob Franks
Itawamba County Sugar Cane Mill Photograph by Wanda Booth Turner