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Cane Syrup

Back to field trips

Narrated by David G. Hodges

Cousin Andrew gave me a bottle of cane syrup for Christmas one year. I noticed a South Carolina address on the label so I called the number and a few weeks later, Andrew and I took a field trip to Coward, South Carolina to buy a few cases of cane syrup.

With some difficulty, we found the quiet state road near Lynches River that dead-ended into Highway 52 between Effingham and Lake City. We drove down the road and saw houses on five-acre lots, all poorly maintained, and we saw a few cars fighting death by grass. We were unsure how the address on the bottle possibly could be the abandoned-looking house in front of us. There was a dirt road around the house that led to the back. We turned in and slowly drove through the high grass. There was a small concrete building on the edge of a plowed field that looked as though it indeed could be a cane syrup processing plant. To the side, there was a waist-high pedestal with a large gear attached to the top with a series of smaller gears linked to each other, perfect for a horse. The area around the building appeared to be a busy place after the busy is over.

A woman came out of the house and unlocked the building to sell us five cases of cane syrup. Despite the outside appearance, inside were large stainless steel mixing barrels and elaborate cooking equipment. Someone had spent some money.

This year, Sue and I talked about small Christmas gifts and we thought of giving bottles of cane syrup. I called the same number on the bottle to find out if they still were in business. The same woman answered the phone and she told me they had syrup available and that they would be grinding cane on Saturday. I asked her if we could watch and she said "come on" except it sounded like, well, "c’mon".

I cast about the family to see who wanted to go on a field trip. Sue was sick and could not go but daughter Susan said she was in, daughter Anne and granddaughter Allison planned to go as well as son-in-law Jason and his brother James.

One never knows what will happen on a field trip. Too well planned and it is no fun; leave too much unplanned and nothing happens. The ideal field trip puts us in a place we did not know about, talking about things we did not understand, to people we did not know. A lot can go wrong. Maybe the cane grinding does not happen, maybe the owner is not friendly, and maybe we should have stayed home. I have noticed over the years that regardless of what most people say about wanting to go here or there on a field trip, when it comes down to it, they would rather stay in the office.

I vaguely remembered where to turn off Highway 52 onto the state road that Andrew and I had found three years ago. I watched for it carefully as I drove. My guests would have a sense of unease as I turned onto a dark country road. I would not ruin their fun by explaining too much.

We rode up the highway and there was a billboard at the road that said, "Plantation Syrup, Turn Here". There went the sense of surprise and of exclusivity. My heart sank for I knew what I would find down the road. Sure enough, the same sign was in front of the abandoned-looking building. I could see it a mile away.

There was activity when we arrived. There was no horse but a belt on a grinder attached to a tractor. The tractor idled loudly as the belt spun the wheel of the grinder and a flatbed truck backed its load of cut cane to the front of the grinder. Men were moving around.

There is etiquette in these situations. The visitor walks up and stands to the side and observes. Who is in charge, where are the walkways for the workers, and is all well? Visitors have to earn the right to be acknowledged by being patient and by observing.

After a time, I walked in the building and there was a long shallow tub, ten feet long and four feet wide with cane syrup bubbling away. A man was skimming the top. He looked relaxed and pleasant enough so I made a comment and he answered and we talked awhile. I looked into the back room of the three-room building and saw family members working; a young daughter was putting labels on bottles, a woman was sitting in front of a 30-gallon stainless steel barrel filling bottles with a spigot and putting on caps, and a young man was taping boxes. I walked outside and watched the cane grinding.

A man in a blue shirt appeared at my side and I asked him a question about the grinding. He answered and we talked. He offered to show us the bottling process in the back room. He never said who he was but I determined he was the owner. He told us to stick our fingers in the top of the barrel to taste the foam. It was delicious. He went the refrigerator and gave each of us a piece of crystallized cane sugar. I asked permission to take some pictures and he said sure, take all the pictures you want. He told me people from New Jersey had been down to take pictures. I thought to myself, now that was some serious culture shock.

I bought five cases of syrup and Jason and James put them in the Suburban. The owner invited us to stay and eat with them but I decided five adults and a child would be too much so he gave us directions to a BBQ place.

I wanted a picture of the two of us beside an old grinder. While daughter Susan was taking our picture, he told me a story about making syrup and he mentioned sugar a few times so I asked him if he ever had to worry about state regulators checking on his use of sugar. Sugar is used in the production of moonshine whiskey and one way to track moonshiners is to monitor the bulk purchase of sugar. He said those people need to mind their own business. He told me he never makes liquor but that his daddy and granddaddy used to make liquor. I asked him another question about moonshine and he asked me if I ever bought moonshine and I said no. "Have you ever tasted it?" "No." "Come with me."

We walked into the building and into a back office and he opened the drawer of an old Steelcase desk and came out with a paper bag with a mason jar inside. He said he bought it in Tennessee. I thought he was going to open it and take a swig and hand it to me but he handed the bag to me and said, "Here, take it home. It’s for you."