Jesse Pennington and Larry Brasfield are taking a break and posing for the camera in this sorghum cane field. Sorghum cane was first imported into the United States around 1857 from Africa and almost immediately became a popular crop for southern farmers. Before frost, the canes would be cut, the leaves stripped and the head cut from the canes to remove the seed heads. Next, horse(or mule)-powered mills would be used to squeeze the juice from the canes. The juice was then cooked down to a syrup, and any debris was removed and fed to livestock along with the crushed cane. The whole affair was often celebratory in nature, marking the transition between seasons. Sometimes neighbors would join in, especially if the sorghum mill was a portable one that moved from community to community.
Because sorghum making was typically done only once a year, there was little chance for the average farmer to become proficient at it. For that reason, there was often an experienced miller who would go around to the various communities and farms with a portable mill. Although the sorghum cane itself was fairly dependable as a crop, molasses-making was less so. Farmers had to know when the cane was ready for processing because "green" cane made "green" molasses which did not have a good flavor. And if a frost came before harvesting of the cane, then the resulting molasses could be bitter. In addition, the sorghum syrup had to be closely watched to avoid scorching. A sorghum miller that produced good results was often highly sought after.
Purists will tell you that molasses is an incorrect term for the sorghum syrup, but that is how I have always heard it referred to - either as just plain molasses, or sorghum molasses. Molasses, however, is a by-product of sugar cane not sorghum cane. The black sorghum syrup was a replacement on the Southern farm for sugar which was considered a luxury as it was expensive and often difficult to obtain. If honey was unavailable, then the farmer's family would be without a sweetener. Sorghum cane allowed farmers to be more self-sufficient.
Hat tip to Bobby Gene, son of Jesse, for providing the interesting photo!