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The Syrup Sopping

By Ronald and Candace Hackett

Every year around Thanksgiving, the descendants of James Dillon Proctor, Candace's Great Great Grandfather, gather together to celebrate a family tradition we call the syrup sopping. Grandpa Proctor once owned and worked over 2000 acres of farm land in Central Florida just south of what is now the Ocala National Forest.  This photo of James Dillon Proctor was probably taken in the late 1800's.
Grandpa Proctor began growing sugarcane and selling cane syrup in the early 1900's. He bought a 100 gallon, cast iron kettle from Ohio to make his cane syrup. We don't know when Grandpa Proctor bought the kettle, but it must be close to 100 years old.  The cane grinding and syrup sopping has always been a social event.  This photo was taken about 1912.  It shows Grandpa Proctor's syrup cook house which was near the main house.  The small girl in the picture is Candi's Great Grandmother, Alma Proctor.  Her mother, Grandma Proctor, is standing next to her.  They are surrounded by family friends.  The dog in the foreground was named Ring.
Five generations of the family have now used that same kettle for making cane syrup. Although Grandpa Proctor and his family did use some of the cane syrup for themselves, most of the syrup was sold for cash. Most of his other crops were used by the family or traded for the staples and services they needed. The picture to the left shows the sugar cane being unloaded.
Today the family makes cane syrup for their own use, because it is not cost effective to sell the syrup. It has evolved into a large family gathering around Thanksgiving. The family brings biscuits, pancakes, sausage, and other goodies to sop up the syrup. This is where we get the name syrup sopping.  The tractor and wagon in the background belong to Candi's Grandpa Hackett.  It stands ready for the annual hay ride that follows the syrup soppin'.
To make cane syrup, the juice inside the cane is extracted by squeezing it between powerful rollers in a mill. Here we see Ed Richards inserting a cane stalk to be squeezed for it's juice.
The crushed cane is fed to the cows, and the cane juice is poured into the old 100 gallon kettle. Some people like to drink the cane juice, and chewing on stalks of sugarcane used to be a special treat for children.  In this photo, Chuck Glaze fills his cup with cane juice.  Notice that he filters it first.  The cane juice if full of debris from the crushed cane stalk.
Grandpa Proctor used a mule or a horse to power his mill, but today we use a tractor engine. This photo was taken about 1912 and shows Grandpa Proctors old mill being powered by the plow horse. The syrup cook house is in the background.
After the kettle has been filled, a fire is started under it. Grandpa Proctor stoked his fire with wood, but today we use a propane burner. As the cane juice boils, the water in it evaporates making a thick, sweet smelling steam. 
Also as the juice boils, the impurities float to the surface and are skimmed off using large strainers or skimmers. The "skimmings" are collected and can be fed to the animals, or used to make a strong alcoholic beverage called "buck." It takes about four hours to boil 100 gallons of cane juice down to about 8 gallons of cane syrup.
During the final phase of the boiling, the syrup bubbles furiously, and splashes up on the sides of the hot iron kettle. These bubbles crystallize to make a caramel tasting candy. We remove the candy using strips of the sugarcane stalks and eat it while it is still hot.  Some of the hot syrup is intentionally pour onto the hot iron kettle to make more of the candy. 
While the syrup is still hot, it is dipped out of the kettle, filtered through cheesecloth, and poured into sterilized bottles. This must be done before the syrup cools or it will be too hard to filter.

This is where our family stops. To make the cane syrup into sugar, the syrup is placed in a centrifuge. As the syrup spins, the sugar crystals separate from the syrup leaving behind molasses. The result is light brown colored crystals called 'cane sugar.' This is how the sugar is shipped in bulk. When the sugar reaches the final processing plant it is washed, dissolved into water syrup, and then crystallized by boiling it in vacuum pans and centrifuging again. The final product is the white, crystallized sugar we are familiar with. Brown sugar is extracted from the molasses after all the white sugar has been removed. It is brown because it is coated with a thin coat of refined molasses. Technically, brown sugar Is called 'soft sugar.'

A little more than half the worlds sugar comes from sugarcane. The rest comes from the sugar beet and a few other sugar rich plants. Sugarcane is not native. to Florida, but it thrives in the warm. moist climate and rich, sandy soil. Settlers brought the sugarcane with them when they came to Florida, and by the year 1600, sugar production in the subtropical and tropical Americas had become the world's largest and most lucrative industry.

Reference: Grolier's Encyclopedia, 1992

Last Updated: 4 December 2000
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