Lincoln County family maintains molasses history

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Associated Press

Posted on September 23, 2013 at 9:00 AM

Updated Monday, Sep 23 at 9:00 AM

LINCOLNTON, N.C. (AP) — While the tradition of harvesting and cooking molasses has been in the Ellis family for three generations, initially a money source during the 1930s, family members now carry out the annual, laborious process in the name of heritage.

"There's no way I could be more proud of seeing him do that," Bud Ellis said with tears in his eyes as he pointed to his son, Rick, who rode a tractor in a sugar cane field Friday on his Lincolnton property.

While Rick's day job is serving as director of the Lincoln County Communications Center, his weekend and evening responsibilities revolve around his Lincolnton property, Ellis Farms.

The sugar cane harvest came two weeks earlier this year, Rick said, due to heavy rainfall this summer, which matured the cane at a quicker rate.

Typically, the Ellis family, including Rick, one of Rick's cousin, Bud and Bud's brother Wayne Ellis, commence the molasses process in September.

Bud said the Ellis men resumed the molasses-making process as a family nearly six years ago.

While the tradition's consistency died down during the 1980s after Bud's brother Terry Ellis took over the farm, Rick opted to bring molasses-making back as an annual end of summer event in recent years.

Ellis Farms originally consisted of 100 acres of land, used for growing sugar cane and a variety of cash crops, Bud said, when his father Hubert first purchased the property in the 1930s.

With nine brothers and sisters, Bud and his siblings usually missed the first two weeks of school each year in order to help their dad harvest and cook the cane.

"It was one of our dad's main cash crops," he said. "It wasn't for fun like it is now."

Now, Rick and wife Audra, a Lincoln County juvenile court counselor, farm on roughly six acres of the property, she said.

On Friday, the Ellis men worked all day to harvest the sorghum cane and prepare it for Saturday's long day of cooking.

Rick said he started the process early last week by pulling fodder off the two-acres of cane stalks each evening.

He also took time to remove the beef fat he slathered over the bottom of a metal boiler used to contain the sweet cane juice as it cooks. Rick said the fat preserves the boiler throughout the year.

The day before cooking the juice, the men used a 100-year-old corn binder — the first year they've applied the specific tool — to cut the stalks and bind them into bundles.

Previously, the men cut the stalks by hand using a sickle bar, Rick said.

After leaving the cut stalks overnight, the men began cooking the next morning around 5:30 a.m. after grinding and crushing the stalks an hour-and-a-half earlier.

Usually, a large scrumptious breakfast is involved_one that Rick cooks not only for the family but also for anyone who happens to stop by Ellis and Son Lumber, a sawmill Rick's uncle operates a short distance from his home on N.C. 150 in Lincolnton.

"It's work, and it's hot, but we enjoy it," Rick said.

Before the juice cooks, the men must complete a number of important steps.

First, they grind the stalks, which produce the plant juice.

The juice is then filtered through a burlap sack contained inside a horizontal roller mill, a device Rick said is no longer made and is the same one Bud and Hubert used to produce molasses over the decades.

Next, the men pour the juice into large barrels and filter it a second time to ensure all solids and stalks have been removed from the liquid.

The Ellis men then transfer the juice from the barrels into the boiler by way of a pillow case. The "batch method," as Rick called it, filters the juice a third and final time before it cooks.

The sweet liquid then rests in the boiler for eight hours, situated overtop a furnace.

During the tedious cooking process, the men frequently skim the surface of the syrup, removing any "trash."

"Standing over the fire all day is pretty rough," Rick said.

They also use the time to share stories of the old days.

"I've heard to make molasses you have to be 74-years-old and full of bull," Rick said jokingly. "I'm only half that."

Once the freshly-made molasses is done cooking, and the furnace has reached 226 degrees, the men remove it from the boiler and run the tasty product through a cheese cloth in order to strain it.

By bottling the molasses immediately after it's removed from the boiler, Rick said the hot temperature guarantees a vacuum seal.

Of the roughly three runs of stalks the men retrieve from the field each year, 120 gallons of juice is produced. This year, Rick hoped to gather four runs.

However, the juice is greatly reduced during the cooking process, resulting in only 25 gallons and 80 bottles of molasses, Rick said.

Typically, the bottles sell out by the following June and July.

He and Audra laughed at how each year one of their neighbors purchases a case a time and contacts the couple frequently throughout the cooking process, anxious to procure the thick, sweet syrup as soon as it's ready for consumption.

While Audra doesn't care for the preservative-free molasses, using it only for cooking certain dishes, Rick enjoys spreading it on a variety of foods including pancakes, cornbread and biscuits, he said.

"I'd hate to check his blood sugar after he eats it," Audra said.

Rick has even tasted 30-year-old molasses after finding a bottle of it on his uncle's porch a few years ago. The fresh taste surprised him.

"If it's made right, it doesn't spoil," he said. "If not, it will turn to sugar and crystallize."

In addition to molasses, Ellis Farms, as of this past spring, started producing and growing a number of other crops — tomatoes, cabbage and corn, to name a few — for the first time since the 1980s, Rick said.

The couple also maintains a number of farm animals including 17 chickens, four goats — "Mandy," ''Ellie," ''Sophie" and "Cocoa" — and one rabbit, a rescue named "Hopper."

While Rick and Audra sell the chickens' eggs, they keep the raw goats' milk for themselves since the state deems it illegal to sell, she said.

The couple's two children, Drew, 11, and Addi, 5, also help out on the farm, planting seeds and picking crops.

While molasses is no longer a source of significant money for Ellis Farms, the family men do not regret the time spent making it each year.

"It's a tradition, and I like keeping the tradition alive," Rick said. "There's just not many of us left that know how to make molasses this way."

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