A couple of years ago, I learned a fun name for folks like me—people whose parents grew up in the hills and hollers of North Georgia, East Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and points north along the Appalachians. We're cosmic possums! A poet coined the term, but I learned it in the writings of Sharon McCrumb.
A cosmic possum grew up in some form of American suburbia or urban life, but went 'back home' with his or her parents, and so had at least a little experience of the old way of life in these hills. Hartwell, Hiawassee, and Epworth, Georgia may not qualify as 'suburbia' in many folks' minds, but living in a brick veneer house in the 1950's and 60's did, if you also had a television and grew up on the Mickey Mouse Club and Popeye cartoons. (Remember WSB's Officer Don and 'ooey-gooey'? Or maybe you got the Chattanooga station and watched cowboy Bob Brandy.)
I remember a lot about going to my Granddad Dyer's farm. Widowed when my Mom was a young teenager, he'd remarried about the time my parents were married, so I had uncles and aunts who were my age and younger. Unfortunately my step-grandmother also died while her children were young, so my Mom tried to visit often to help Granddad with raising six children.
Granddad was a good cook. He had an unusual woodstove that also had two electric eyes. The children cooked on the electric part, but Granddad always fired up the woodstove. He was a master syrup maker, so every meal finished up with a gob of homemade butter in the middle of your tin plate. Over this, you poured sorghum, then beat the mixture together and sopped it with a hot biscuit. To wash it down, icy cold milk from Granddad's Jersey. Even after skimming off the cream to make butter, that milk was still richer than anything you buy in a store today!
Of course, to heat the stove (and the house, for that matter) you had to have wood. Granddad's farm had both fields and woods. He'd always cut some oaks and hickories and drag them with his tractor to the woodlot. When we were teenagers, my uncle Troy and I used to have the job of helping cut wood. Granddad had a huge electric motor that we could hook up with a belt to a circular saw. The saw had a tilting cradle that would push the logs against the saw. OSHA inspectors would faint today if they saw this contraption, but somehow Troy and I still have all our fingers.
Some of the wood was split into quarters for the fireplace and large wood heaters. The kitchen needed smaller kindling and some pine 'fat lighter.' And we also cut some of the limbs from the trees into long pieces that were used to fire up Granddad's syrup cooking pan.
Many people have seen pictures of a cane mill powered by a mule ambling around in a circle. By the time I was helping with syrup-making (or getting in the way!) Granddad used a different method. He jacked up one rear wheel of his old Chevy pickup, somehow attached the same wide belt that was used with the big circular saw, and ran that belt to the wheel at the top of the crusher mill. The idling truck turned the raised wheel at just the right speed to run the mill.
From the crusher mill, the juice ran first into a concrete settling box. I think this was a re-purposed septic tank or concrete grave vault, but it was where a lot of the pulp from the sorghum cane settled out of the juice. Then the juice ran to the pan and began its transformation into the best syrup known to man—sweet sorghum.
Granddad not only made his own sorghum, he also cooked up a lot of other folks' crops, too. The juice entered the pan at the lower end, over the firebox door. Underneath the pan was a long firebox heated with all those long limbs we'd cut a few weeks before. On one side, there was a step so that workers could keep an eye on the syrup and skim off the scum (skimmings) that developed as the syrup cooked. A roof kept off the rain, but also kept the billows of steam confined near the workers. Often it would 'rain' under the roof as steam condensed and dripped back down. A large chimney at the upper end gave a good 'draft' for the fire and kept it roaring.
The syrup wound its way back and forth through a series of baffles, gradually boiling uphill until it was cooked completely. At the right moment, Granddad or my uncle Bluford would remove the stopper and let the syrup strain through many layers of cheesecloth into a large barrel. Yellow Jackets were always trying to get at the syrup, attracted by the sweet smell. Maybe they account for the sharp tang that's part of the flavor of good sorghum!
The last job was filling the pints and quarts and attaching labels. Granddad started as a syrupmaker at a time when he would have to put syrup in earthenware jugs and peddle it from farm to farm. He lived to see the day that people would drive from Atlanta or even further away to buy his syrup. Sadly, no one in our immediate family has made syrup in the last couple of years.
Hog killin' time was also busy. It was hard, dirty work for the most part, but the reward that evening was cracklin' bread, tenderloin, and for Granddad, a plate of scrambled eggs and brains. Somehow I never wanted to share that particular delicacy!
For many years, Granddad's household got their water from a well on their back porch. At first it was completely kid-powered, with a bucket and windlass. Later, an electric pump was added. But either way, in the dry part of the summer, that well usually went dry. That meant that any kids or grandkids who were handy when water was needed were sent across the road, over the side of the ridge to the spring, to bring home two five-gallon buckets each. Having to carry water a half mile or so helps you appreciate being able to turn on a tap anytime.
I could talk about long walks to visit our great-aunts, of watching a long plume of dust on the distant road as we anticipated the visit of the bookmobile, of playing on the barn roof and the haystack, of 'skating' in winter on the frozen water that collected on the 'cane chews,' and so much more…but there's no room, and a deadline looms.
c 2009 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Feb. 26, 2009 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.