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Sugar cane steeped in traditions
Shirley Says
Frances Meeks stands beside her kumquat tree in the backyard of Folly Farms. - photo by Photo by Richard Bates
Nothing says fall in the South like old-fashioned syrup making. Although easy in theory, making syrup requires a lot of hard work, precision and skill. It has to be more than a hobby. Because it’s done only once a year, it can take a syrup maker many years to perfect the science.
In a few families, syrup making is a tradition. What is it about tradition? I believe tradition gives us an identity and keeps us in touch with the past. The sweet tradition of making sugar cane syrup has been going on at Folly Farms for the past four years.
For 364 days of the year, John Meeks’ syrup shed looks pretty unassuming. However, one day in November it becomes anything but ordinary. The pile of sugar cane stalks and sweet smell of cane juice cooking are the only hints of a daylong southern ritual taking place under the large oaks.
He and his friends are making cane syrup. John has researched syrup making and traveled long distances to talk to people with reputations as great syrup makers. Each year he improves his product.
“All my life I’ve heard my mom talk about her dad and granddad making syrup,” John said. “Although I never knew either of them, I’ve always had an interest in it.”
When I talked with John’s mother, Frances Meeks, I began to understand.
“John doesn’t remember his grandfather, Joseph M. Lane, but I have so many cherished memories of him,” Frances said. “Of course, I remember Joe…he was my father.”
As a young child, I remember my grandfather, W.W. Lane, making cane syrup using the evaporator method. My dad was right in the middle of the operation, but it was my grandfather who determined when the syrup was ready each time. It was a family affair and went on for days.
During the Great Depression hundreds of gallons of several varieties of cane syrup were made. This was not only for family consumption and the tables of workers living on the place, but also to share with friends and those in need.
My mother learned to bake with cane syrup. Many winter mornings she would pull from the oven a big black baking pan of what we called cinnamon syrup bread. It was good for breakfast with milk, and the rest was packed in our lunches for school. She traded eggs at the rolling store to get cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla and other spices.
I remember our family eating hot biscuits with homemade butter, fried quail, grits, quail gravy and, of course, sugar cane syrup. My dad would say, “Children, we are eating better than the president of the United States tonight.” I’d always believe we were, even if it was in the midst of the Great Depression.
My father planted every variety of vegetable for which seeds were available. I remember a year he grew 11 kinds of squash. This included summer and winter varieties. My mother cooked and served each kind. “Mrs. Dull’s Cookbook” served as her inspiration in those days. She tried many of the recipes and created many of her own.
When I was 12 years old we moved from our little town to the farm. My dad bought me a ’39 Chevrolet. The car was to be used on unpaved country roads for running errands and delivering vegetables and fruit from the orchard to people who had neither gardens nor means of growing food. We were taught to share and still enjoy sharing today.
I get so much pleasure watching John enjoy growing vegetables summer and winter. I enjoy his work with syrup making, as well. I observe his pleasure watching plants grow and see his satisfaction of sharing fresh produce with friends and acquaintances. I often wonder: Is this passion I’ve observed for three generations really determined by genetics?
John took the time to tell me how he was able to begin making syrup.
“Through a mutual friend, I found an old fellow in south Florida who was packing up his little farm, selling it off to a developer and heading to a retirement center,” he said.
“The old man had been a syrup maker for many years and was looking for a good home for his pot and mill,” he continued. “We struck a deal on the money under one condition – I was to use them every year and not let it turn into a piece of yard art. If I ever decided I didn’t want to make syrup any longer, I had to pass it on.”
John has modernized the syrup making tradition a little. In the old days, either a mule or a horse powered the mill. He uses a unique piece of machinery instead.
At the time, John didn’t know one thing about making syrup, though he had seen it done many times.
“It’s like seeing somebody barbecue,” he said. “It looks like a pretty simple process, but the devil lives in the details.”
My interest was aroused and wanted to hear more.
“My friend Buck Owens and I started off together learning how to make syrup,” he said. “We asked everybody we knew how to do it. It’s like everything else in life, you have to get out there and learn it the hard way.”
First, they had to get a truckload of cane, dig a trench, and plant the sugar cane horizontally. This propagates cane for the next year. Essentially, every joint of the stalk has an eye that will sprout and make a new stalk. After the grown stalks are chopped down, they will come back for three or four years from the stubble.
John knew the fate of next year’s syrup begins the year prior. Sugar cane is a tropical grass and must be protected from the cold. During the winter, he covers the stubble with a little dirt to protect it from the cold. In the spring, it comes back. 
“You always save some and plant a little new every year,” John said.
Flashing a big smile, John continued, “In the beginning, we made everything but syrup. We made the world’s biggest deer lick and peanut brittle. Each year we got a little better. Now I know enough, I’m getting some confidence.”
And making some mighty good syrup, I must say.
Last week, John and his friends made syrup. Waiting for the syrup to cook has turned into a social event at Folly Farms. Whenever syrup is made, people congregate.
“Sharing food and good company are other aspects of the syrup making process,” John said.
It takes from daylight to dark to make syrup. John’s pot holds 60 gallons of cane juice. In the end it equates to 6 gallons of syrup, or 50 bottles. The label on the bottles reads, “Made by the Members of the Universal Club of Liars, Richmond Hill, Ga.”
John and his good friends (The Liars) have coffee every morning at Hardee’s.
“You know a tale or two does get told up at the corner,” he said.
Does John have a special syrup recipe? He laughed.
“It’s like this: When it goes right, everybody’s got a hand in it. If it goes wrong, it’s lonely at the top,” he said.
To know John is to know he is never idle.
“I truly believe life is one project to the next. I always want to have something going on,” he said. “If I knew how to juggle three chain saws at one time, I’d try for four. Syrup making is a great project.”
John, like his grandfather before him, grows a summer and winter garden.
“I grow everything,” he said. “I have a wonderful group of folks that garden with me. Different people bring different talents. Before long I had to expand the size of the garden.”
He lowered his voice and his clear blue eyes revealed sincerity.
“The truth is, you just go a little further down the field before you turn the tractor around,” he said.
As the sun was setting, John left me musing over his last words: “At the end of the day, the reward ends up being mine.”
This is tradition – pass it on.

Hiers was born and raised in Richmond Hill. She can be reached at

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