It's syrup-making time at Dauset Trails; Skills of past demonstrated

Dauset Trails Nature Center invited the public to step back into bygone days at harvest time, on Saturday, Nov. 20. The staff and friends of Dauset Trails worked at making cane syrup and demonstrating blacksmith skills at the Acorn Forge in the Farm Animal area of the nature center, so that others might experience the sights, sounds, scents, and even tastes that were once a part of fall on farms in middle Georgia.

Rosebud, the mule, who is a full-time resident at Dauset Trails, stepped into a role familiar to mules in the past as she turned the cane press to squeeze the juice from 1,200 stalks of sugar cane purchased for the syrup-making demonstration. Rosebud walked in a circle as canes were loaded into the press and then removed after their sweet juice was extracted, sending the pleasing aroma into the air.

The cane juice ran from the press via pipes to drums near the large metal tub where the approximately four-and-a-half-hour process of boiling it down took place. Observers and workers were able to taste the sugary juice before it began the cooking process.

Ray Freeman, of Dublin, who grew the sugar cane used in the demonstration, oversaw the syrup-making process on Saturday. Freeman said he usually grows about 12,000 stalks of cane each year on less than two acres of land, growing about 30 stalks to a yard. This year, the crop was down a bit to about 8,000 stalks.

Freeman said he began helping with syrup making when he was around 5 years old, and he is now 84. He said he has been making syrup on his own for 60 years and now usually does eight to 12 boilings a year, one for himself. He has helped with boilings at three Georgia state parks already this year.

"Cane is easy to grow, but you have to cultivate it," said Freeman. "You have to love to do it."

He explained that cane grows from a stalk, whereas sorghum grows from seed. Cane is harvested cutting it off level, and then it sprouts to rejuvenate. It plays out in a cultivated spot after five to seven years. It is best to replant every five years, according to Freeman. He said he has not had any problems from deer or other wildlife in his cane patch but added that if cows or horses manage to get into the patch, they will destroy it.

Gordon Respess, of Dauset Trails, said that the nature center does grow some sugar cane but not enough for the annual syrup-making demonstration. This is the fourth year of the demonstration. Respess said Dauset Trails used the evaporation-pan method the first two years and has used the boiling method the last two years.

"This is easier. It was hard to regulate heat for the evaporating pan," said Respess.

The boiling pan is an 80-gallon kettle. Six hundred stalks of cane make 80 gallons of juice, and 80 gallons of juice boil down to eight gallons of syrup. Fire in the bricked area under the kettle is stoked with wood to keep it boiling during the four and a half hours it takes to boil down the 80 gallons of juice. On the top side, the kettle is constantly skimmed and monitored to make sure it does not boil over as it sends bursts of sticky steam into the air above it. Finally, the syrup is strained through cheese cloth and put into bottles.

Dauset Trails processed two batches of cane syrup on demonstration day.

As the fires burned under the cane juice, a short distance away, fires burned at the forge for the blacksmith demonstration provided members of the Ocmulgee Blacksmith Guild. Visitors watched from benches or hung the windows as Jim Davis, of Newborn, and Dennis Tingle and Rob Thurston, of Butts County, pounded metal on anvils, reheated it in the fires, shaped and twisted it, and pounded it again. They answered questions about their tools and techniques, and the art of blacksmithing.

At one time, patrons watched Davis turn a railroad spike into a steak turner while Thurston created a hook from which might hang kitchen utensils, a sign, or a plant.

Flyers reminded the public that the Ocmulgee Blacksmith Guild will hold an auction of some of its works at the Dauset Trails Atrium Room on Saturday, Dec. 4, from 9 a.m., to 2 p.m. Some examples of the guild's craftsmanship are currently on display at the Dauset Trails Visitors Center. Proceeds from the auction benefit the Blacksmith Scholarship Fund.

Many local patrons, other visitors, and groups of campers from more remote locations of Dauset Trails came to enjoy the blacksmith and syrup-making demonstrations on the fall day, as well as to drop in on the goats, cows, pigs, and chickens who are regular residents in the Farm Animal area of Dauset Trails.

A special treat was a big, black kettle of Brunswick stew prepared Marion and Donna Britton. Mr. Britton said he had shared his recipe in an edition of the "Towaliga Baptist Church Cookbook." Other friends of Dauset Trails brought greens, lima beans, cornbread, and other foodstuffs that completed the atmosphere of an old-time farm, where the community worked together in projects like annual syrup-making and made the work lighter turning it into a social event as well.

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