Somebody's Gotta Do It: Cane syrup maker

LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - One might wonder why anyone would want to make syrup, when you have the convenience of buying syrup from the store.

James Jennings, the owner of Pure Cane Syrup helps people from all across East Texas and around the nation turn sugar cane into syrup. His expertise makes him a champion in sugar cane syrup making.  He's been running a mill outside of Lufkin for seventeen years now. His mill is located off FM 1197, west of Lufkin.

Each year about the first week in November Jennings fires up the evaporator pan. Sugar Cane growers haul in their truck loads of cane, run it through a machine to squeeze the juice out of it, shed the stalks and then process the juice.

They take the juice over to the evaporator pan where it is brought to a boil. The juice is constantly skimmed and eventually thickens into syrup.

"It takes about 45 minutes for it to come through the pan to cook it," said Jennings.  Jennings has the most trusted job of watching the syrup cook. He has to make sure it doesn't burn.  The fire is heated to 226 degrees and the juice is boiled until it turns into the liquid we know as syrup.  The syrup is drawn down from a vat into glass jars and packed away until it's time to eat.

Doris Arrington, a Sugar Cane Syrup Connoisseur says sugar cane syrup is, "The best thing there is.  It's great stuff."

Never mind all of the smoke, the juice splashing, the noise, or the hard work, for some folks making sugar cane syrup is a treat they look forward to every season.  Hulen Hogg grows a sugar cane patch in Nogalus Prairie between the Trinity and Houston County line.  He says hauling the load to Lufkin is a chore, but he has a lot of help.  When it comes to processing sugar cane, everyone pitches in and helps one another.

There's a lot of history among the people who attend syrup-makings.  They are people with strong family ties and a passion for an art that has been passed from generation to generation.  Jennings says, "Mr. Sherman Thomas and Sam Loggins taught me how to cook syrup."

Among the faithful is World War II veteran, L.C. Page.  Every year he brings his harvest to Jennings' mill.  He says there's little profit in making sugar cane syrup.  He says he does it for the tradition and for the fellowship with others who appreciate the art as much as he does. "It's something that will grow itself.  It takes a whole year, mostly, to grow.  And then you strip it, come the Fall of the year like this October, last of October, November.  You strip it, cut it down and then you take it to the mill," said Page.  He, too, thinks it's worth all of the hard work.  "You've got all of that fodder and stuff you're working in and that stuff is almost like a razor and it will cut you.  If you don't be careful, it will cut just like a knife," said Page.

Heat at least 226 degrees is necessary to make the cane juice into syrup.  The sugar cane has a lot of water in it that has to be "cooked out."  "Nothing is added, just cook the water out of it, thicken it up, that's all we do," said Jennings.  It's all natural.  No preservatives.

Page's grandfather taught him how to grow sugar cane and make syrup from it.

Jennings says it's hard to get the younger people these days interested in syrup making.  But that doesn't keep him and others like him from trying, because sugar cane syrup making is an art that is being kept alive by the passion and dedication of men and women like the ones in this story.