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Sweet tradition

As Frank Marshall drives his 1949 Allis Chalmers in tight circles, it powers the antique press to squeeze the sugary juice from sweet sorghum cane on the Mailes farm near Seneca, Mo. The juice will be cooked into sorghum syrup during this annual community event, held this year on Oct. 7. Brothers Corbin and Nathan Lasiter keep the press fed, while Cory Mailes supervises the work and removes the spent stalks. Cory, a customer of MFA Agri Services in Neosho, Mo., said those leftover stalks are fed to the family’s beef cattle.

Mailes family preserves the old-fashioned art of making sorghum syrup

Woodfire smoke settles across the cool, damp air of an early October morning as guests begin to gather at the Mailes farm near Seneca, Mo. Today is the family’s annual sorghum festival, a 34-year tradition with a rich and flavorful heritage.

The event is part homecoming, part history lesson and all fun for the more than 100 relatives, friends and neighbors who gather here each year to take part in the old-fashioned custom of making sorghum syrup. The long, labor-intensive process is tailor-made for community camaraderie, and the action-packed day includes lunch, live music and lots of fellowship interspersed with the task at hand.

“There just aren’t enough things like this anymore, get-togethers that give you a chance to visit with people and take part in something meaningful,” said neighbor Trent Wilson, who was accompanied by his 9-year-old son, Creek. “Seneca is a really special town, and sorghum day is something we look forward to all year.”

Presiding over the activities is 88-year-old Maurice Mailes, who hosts the event with his wife, Janice. Preserving this nostalgic craft befits the patriarch’s penchant for collecting antiques, especially vintage items related to farming and rural life. The idea took shape after Maurice acquired an old sorghum press from Janice’s family, and then added a firebox and cooking pan from a friend and former neighbor, Cecil Humburg. For years, Cecil, who has since passed away, would come over from neighboring Oklahoma to help the family cook sorghum syrup.

From the start, the entire Mailes family has participated in the event in one way or another, including the couple’s three children and their spouses—son Kevin and wife Sherri, son Cory and wife Jo, and daughter Karla Boatright and husband Bruce—plus seven grandchildren and now eight great-grandchildren.

“We do this mainly for Grandpa. He loves it, and it keeps him happy,” said grandson Monty Mailes as he stoked the fire under the stainless-steel pan. “If nothing else, it gets everybody together in one place to visit, and there are people we don’t see but once a year on this day. I’m 21 now, and I’ve been doing this my whole life. I guess we’ll just keep doing it as long as we can.”

In fact, in a forward-looking gesture, granddaughter Taylor Roark pointed out that the family installed a permanent concrete pad this year to replace the aging wooden platform where the music and dancing usually take place.

“My Pawpaw told my Memaw, ‘Well, I guess the kids are planning on doing it after we’re gone because they’re pouring concrete,’” Taylor said. “It was the sweetest thing.”

The day starts in the field, where a host of volunteers, including local FFA members, hand-harvest the sweet sorghum cane. Unlike the grain-cultivated variety, this type of sorghum is grown specifically for its tall, robust stalks with high sugar content. Wielding machetes, the workers methodically work their way through the one-acre patch, chopping the cane near the ground, whacking off the seed head and leaves, and stacking the stripped stalks in truck beds.

From there, the cane is piled near the antique sorghum press, which is powered by a 1949 Allis Chalmers G model tractor driven in tight circles by the Mailes’ neighbor, Frank Marshall. The stalks are pushed through the press, squeezing out bright-green juice that runs down a trough, through a mesh screen and into a large collection barrel.

Even the work is enjoyable—or at least, that’s the verdict of 11-year-old Nathan Lasiter, who spent most of the morning feeding the press with help from his younger brother, Corbin.

“I could hardly sleep last night, I was so excited,” Nathan said. “Besides the Fourth of July, Sorghum Fest is my favorite day of the year. I love getting to come here and work!”

After the first round of workers, folks continue to trickle in throughout the morning, carrying lawn chairs and potluck dishes for the communal meal, sharing enthusiastic greetings and warm hugs, and wandering through Maurice’s various collections of antique cars, farm equipment and gadgets displayed on the property and stored in barns.

“We don’t advertise this, but everybody seems to know when we’re making sorghum,” Cory said. “You see some new ones about every year but a lot of the main ones are the same— friends, family, neighbors, FFA kids, people from church. Word gets around. We’ve had several hundred people here before.”

At noon, activity pauses for lunch, with lines already forming along both sides of the food-laden row of tables. In reverence to God and country, the meal is prefaced by a blessing and children-led Pledge of Allegiance.

Then the tractor fires up again, the sorghum press starts rolling and conversations resume.

Once the barrel is about three-fourths full, the juice is poured into the cooking pan and begins the long, hot transformation into syrup. It takes roughly 10 gallons of raw sorghum juice for every 1 gallon of syrup, often mistakenly called “sorghum molasses.” The terms are not interchangeable, however. Molasses is actually a byproduct of processing sugar cane into crystallized sugar whereas sorghum cane only yields syrup, no matter how long it’s boiled (see accompanying story on page 23).

Screen Shot 2023 10 31 at 4.57.16 PMFor several hours, the liquid bubbles and boils in the pan over a constant high heat as family and friends take turns stirring the juice with wooden paddles and skimming the impurities from the top with a perforated scoop. The sloping pan is divided into a series of connected baffles, allowing the juice to gradually move downhill through the channels as it cooks and thickens. Eventually, the water evaporates and the sugary liquid renders into syrup.

This is where the process becomes art. Cook the juice too long, and the syrup will become thick, clumpy and strong-tasting. If it’s not cooked enough, the end product will still be green, thin and bitter. Ideally, sorghum syrup should be an amber color and the consistency of honey.

“The old neighbor who started doing this with dad was the main one who always cooked,” Cory said. “After he died, we didn’t do this for a few years and then started back. But since he’d always done the cooking, we had to kind of figure it out on our own.”

Guests who stay to the end can try fresh-from-the-pan syrup over hot, buttered biscuits or take home a jar or two for later. Like its molasses cousin, sorghum syrup can be used as an alternative sweetener or as an ingredient in baked goods such as pies, cakes and cookies (see the Mailes family’s favorite recipe for Sorghum Sugar Cookies at left).

Not everyone is a fan of the taste—even members of the Mailes family will admit that—but this day is not about syrup. Not really. Strengthening friendships, building community, making memories and preserving rural heritage are the true rewards. As for how long this sweet tradition will continue, Maurice just flashes a mischievous grin.

“I guess you’d say I’m kind of like a Biblical character,” he said. “I’m going to raise ‘cane’ as long as I’m ‘able’.”

Sorghum or molasses? They aren’t the same.
Though molasses and sorghum syrup have similar uses and are often used interchangeably in conversation and recipes, they are distinctly different substances.
Molasses is the result of extracting sugar from sugar cane. Much like the process of making sorghum syrup, the sugar cane is stripped and then crushed to extract the juice, which is then boiled. As the juice is boiled, sugar crystals are formed, and the thick, brown liquid left is the molasses.
That’s where the main difference lies. Sorghum juice just becomes a thicker syrup the longer it’s boiled rather than crystallizing. As such, sorghum “molasses” is wrong terminology. It’s sorghum “syrup.”
When it comes to taste, both molasses and sorghum syrup share common notes of caramel, but the similarity ends there. Molasses is sweeter than sorghum, with a deep, robust and sometimes bitter taste. Meanwhile, sorghum syrup has a complex flavor profile that’s earthy, nutty and mildly sweet with rich, savory undertones.
There are agronomic differences, too. Sweet sorghum has the ability to grow in colder climates than sugar cane, which helps explain why its syrup, rather than molasses, would have historically been the alternative sweetener of choice for geographies outside the Deep South.

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