Originally created 01/08/01

Syrup making provides hobby



WAYNESBORO, Ga. - George Palmer learned a long time ago that making cane syrup isn't difficult. It's just fun.

"It's a pretty simple process," he said with a laugh. "If it weren't, I couldn't do it."

Each winter, the Burke County man spends countless afternoons in a shed behind his house grinding sugar cane into sweet juice that is skimmed and cooked into golden-brown syrup.

"Not too many people do this anymore," he said, speaking above the throaty clatter of a Ford tractor whose engine turned a shaft attached to his cast-iron press. "It's a dying art."

Sugarcane, once a staple on farms, isn't as popular as it used to be. Sugar and syrup are too easy to find in grocery stores. But some people still make their own.

Mr. Palmer, a syrup maker for most of his 57 years, learned the art from his father at the family farm near Soperton.

"Dad learned it from his dad," he said. "It goes back a long ways."

The process begins in the spring, when "eyes" of cane from previous seasons are set out in broad rows separated by six feet of dark, plowed earth.

"As it gets older, it really spreads," Mr. Palmer said.

Later, the Palmer farm begins its ritual of cutting the cane.

"You always cut the cane in early November - before it freezes," Mr. Palmer said. "We pile it in the field and cover it up."

When it's time to make syrup, Mr. Palmer feeds raw cane into the press, which was manufactured in 1908 by Golden's Foundry in Columbus, Ga. Cane juice flows out one side; the pinched stalks emerge from the other.

The juice is strained through burlap and poured into an iron tub. A gas burner heats the mixture to a pleasant simmer as Mr. Palmer skims off foam and debris from the surface.

"In three more hours, you won't even recognize it," he said. "It'll be all cooked down - thick and pure golden."

His friend Tom Blalock of Harlem usually helps out on syrup-cooking days.

"I grew up with cane syrup," Mr. Blalock said. "A lot of people around Waynesboro come by - just to watch us work."

Nearby, Mr. Palmer's two squirrel dogs, Bo and Sammy, watch patiently - hoping for a handout. A pot of venison barbecue simmers on a nearby shelf - reserved for anyone who stops by.

The syrup-cooking process usually is complete after about four hours. A gallon of syrup requires eight or more gallons of cane juice.

"After a few hours, it just cooks down," he said. "It's really just cooking all the water out of it and straining the foam off the top."

Once completed, each batch of syrup is bottled and labeled. Mr. Palmer sells it to anyone who stops by. It never lasts long.

Most bottled syrup is bound for breakfast tables laden with hot biscuits, pancakes or oatmeal.

"You can add it to most anything," he said. "It's just good."

The syrup hobby is mainly just that: a hobby.

"You don't get rich, but you have a lot of company by the house," Mr. Palmer said. "And you have a good time doing it. That's the main thing."

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.