The early morning fog still blankets the hills and hollers of Texas County as Larry Hayes and Carl Shelton begin work on grinding sorghum molasses. The Kirkwoods, Sheltons and Hayes families still make molasses the old-fashioned way — using a horse powered mill.
On a warm autumn day in the Ozark Mountains, four generations of Kirkwoods, Sheltons and Hayes gathered together for the first time in eight years to cook molasses the old-fashioned way. In the 1960s Elmer Kirkwood bought a sorghum mill for $5 at an auction; afterward, he taught his kids how to make molasses. “Mom and my Aunt Bonnie are the last of grandpa’s children who grew up doing this every year,” LeAn Shelton Stallcup said. For years the clan discussed the need to start cooking again before it was too late, but never made plans until now. “Our parents are getting older and we really needed their guidance,” Stallcup said. “We felt like we needed to stop putting it off.”
Rydden Hays waits for one of the adults to hand him a bundle of sorghum cane. The kids were eager to help haul cane from the back of a trailer over to sorghum mill.
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Larry Hayes feeds the sorghum cane into the mill on Saturday, October 10, 2020 in Texas County, Mo. The mill crushes the cane, producing a juice and and pulp which are collected in a bucket. Once enough is collected it’s placed over a large fire and boiled down until it caramelizes and becomes molasses. The process is a long on — on this day it took over 8 hours for the sorghum juice to cook down into the sticky, sweet, molasses.
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The top of sorghum cane stalks lay in a pile on the ground near the molasses mill. The process of preparing to make molasses is a long one. Harvesters strip and cut the cane days in advance before running it through the mill. Any kind of frost can ruin the cane in the field.
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Rydden and Kyson Hayes make headbands out of sorghum cane leaves. The adults tried to get the children to help strip cane but they often lose interest pretty quickly and make their own fun.
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Annetta Kirkwood Shelton, center, and her daughter LeAn Shelton Stallcup, left, joke with Chelsea Sawyer as she skims foam from boiling sorghum juice. Annetta’s dad, Elmer Kirkwood, is the man who bought the sorghum mill the family still uses to grind cane. As Kirkwoods married into other families those families joined the molasses making tradition. Annetta married Lester Shelton and now Lester is one of the people with final say on whether or not the molasses has finished cooking.
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“This is the boring part,” LeAn Shelton Stallcup said of the wait for the sorghum to boil down. The wait was long, but not boring. This was the time when everyone got a chance to talk and catch up, when younger kids played football or wandered through the remaining sorghum cane field and when older ones learned a bit about the molasses making process.
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LeAn Shelton Stallcup teaches her grandson Raylan Campbell how to skim and aerate the sorghum juice while it boils down. The process helps the liquid not overheat, as well as removes parts of the sorghum juice that would make the final product bitterer. At least one person is at the vat of juice all day working at this job.
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Carl Shelton takes Carlee Shelton and Kayson Sawyer on a ride in the four wheeler. It had been a long day and some of the children needed some extra stimulation to keep them occupied while the molasses was still cooking.
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The cooking shack stands among the Ozark hills as night fast approaches.
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Once the cooking is close to finished all eyes are on Lester Shelton. Shelton has the final say on when thee molasses is ready to remove from the fire. To make that determination he checks for “bat winging,” the moment when the sorghum juice clings together as it drips and looks like the wing of a bat on the edge of the scoop.
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As the cooking nears completion people are constantly checking the molasses to see if it’s thick enough and the right color. The molasses experts, like Lester Shelton, are looking for “bat winging,” the moment when the sorghum juice clings together as it drips and looks like the wing of a bat on the edge of the scoop.
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After getting the go-a-head that the molasses was ready the men move quickly to remove the large vat from the fire. When cooking was done there was worry the molasses had come out to foamy, but as the foam settled the thick brown liquid everyone had been working all day towards was revealed.
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The end result, and what everyone had been waiting for, the taste test. Cheta Shelton gives some of the freshly made molasses to her grandson Kayson Sawyer. Sawyer didn’t like it very much. That seemed to be the consensus among most of the children, but the adults were pleased with the results.
On a warm autumn day in the Ozark Mountains, four generations of Kirkwoods, Sheltons and Hayes gathered together for the first time in eight years to cook molasses the old-fashioned way. In the 1960s Elmer Kirkwood bought a sorghum mill for $5 at an auctio...