Pressing on

Sunday, October 29, 2006


(Poplar Bluff) Daily American Republic

ELLSINORE, Mo. -- In the shade-dotted backyard of the Ellsinore Pioneer Museum, 75-year-old volunteer Virgie Alcorn Evans stopped pulling sorghum cane through the cane press just long enough to push a riding lawn mower driven by Charles Whalen out of a rut.

Although the press is normally powered by a mule or horse, the participants in a recent demonstration had to make do with the mower until a mule could be brought from 13 miles away.

Volunteers began preparing the cane, removing leaves and seeds. The stripped cane was then fed into the rollers of an old-fashioned press, squeezing out a frothy light green juice that would later be boiled to make sorghum, a thick sweetener used by early settlers of this area.

"Most of the families would try to grow a cane patch each year," Evans said, cleaning stalks after her turn at the press. "We just want to keep these nearly lost skills going. We think there's a rich heritage and early lifestyle that's just about vanished.

"[This] is a living history museum as much as we can make it."

The press rollers were turned by a large log, attached lengthwise to the top of the press. One end of a rope was tied to the log, the other end to a mower that circled the uneven ground.

"The stalks are supposed to be as big [around] as thumbs," first-time volunteer Fred Davis said as he examined the cane press. "My dad raised and cultivated it, just like corn in the late '40s. We used old wooden swords to strip [the cane] down the sides in the field."

Davis, of Poplar Bluff, Mo., said he came down for the demonstration because, after all the years his family spent growing sorghum cane, he had never seen it pressed and boiled into the final product. He was one of a few people who stopped by throughout the demonstration to help or just enjoy the show.

After the sorghum juice is collected and strained, it's placed in evaporator pans and boiled for two to three hours, Evans said. The light green juice turns golden as it boils down, becoming a gooey sweetener. Nothing is added to the concoction before, during or after the process. After hours of work, seven quarts of juice make a single quart of sorghum.

It wasn't the first time Shirley and Charles Whalen had helped the museum with this process. The couple, who live on the edge of Butler County, have even raised cane for the event in past years.

"My husband grew up in Butler County on a farm, likes doing things like this," Shirley said from her post, pulling leaves and cutting seeds from cane at the corner of the yard. "It shows how people had to work before they had machines. You had to do things by hand."

"We're just trying to preserve our heritage ... because the younger generation have no idea how they did it," Evans added.

Evans bought the cane press in 1978 after a group brought it to Carter County to demonstrate sorghum making for the 200th anniversary of the United States.

"We didn't have the museum yet, but I said we'd love to keep it in the community," Evans said.

The press was moved to the museum when it opened in the mid-1980s, and volunteers have demonstrated sorghum making there each year. The jars of sorghum are later sold to support the museum.

The museum building, built in the early 1920s, was originally a filling station, but closed because only about a dozen cars a year stopped to fill up at the pumps that used to sit out front. It later housed a boxing ring in the 1930s, before it became the home of the grandparents of the woman who opened the museum.

For more than two decades, local residents have stocked it with historical treasures, like the Japanese flag Johnny Johnson brought home from World War II, and records of patients, treatments and payments from 1903 to 1907 at the Grandin Hospital, run by the Missouri Lumber and Mining Company.

"I think it's very important that we keep our history in front of our young people as much as we can because so many of our old things are being lost," volunteer Norma Hampton said. "If we just keep doing it, maybe we can touch a few of them."

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