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It started in the dark

Lead Summary
By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

Author’s note: Many of you know I spend time on Sugar Tree Ridge in the Hoover Mennonite Community. I was originally invited to visit this community in 2018 by Scott Richardson. You may recall Scott was killed in a buggy/auto accident on Feb. 2 this year just south of New Market. Although Scott is gone, I dearly love his family and the community. They call me a “guest,” and I call myself a “parasite,” for it seems like I take a lot more than I can possibly give them. In the past, I have refrained from writing about these experiences out of respect for these fine people, their beliefs and lifestyle. However, from within the community, I was asked to write about this recent day, Oct. 19, 2021.

Ezekiel (not his real name, but one you might hear in this venue) told me to be ready by 6:15 a.m. (7:15 a.m. EDT – the Mennonites do not use Daylight Saving Time).

When I had gone to bed the night before, I had asked to be awakened by at least six. I needed to ask because my Apple watch, along with my iPhone, computer and other electronic gear were locked in my car. I turn off all modern devices when visiting.

However, the “alarm” was not needed for I was up at 5 a.m. – and excited. I lit the kerosene lamp in my room, quickly dressed and went to the neat (and new) little building outside to finish my morning preparations. Then, a big cup of coffee from the wood-fired kitchen stove, and I was ready to go.

Ezekiel picked me up in his buggy, amber lights (to the front) and red lights (to the rear) flashing. He and his family had been up since 1 a.m. “squeezing cane” for the day’s task.

I got into the buggy, wearing my coat with a borrowed one on top of it – it was cold. We pulled the buggy blanket up to our waists and headed east on Fair Ridge Road. Our destination was a farm near Sinking Spring.

Now, if you are doing this by automobile, it is no big deal. It's about 12 miles from farm to farm. In the one-horse buggy (pulled by the appropriately named horse, “Traveler” – no joke), it is a bit more challenging – close to two hours.

By the time we got to Fairfax, the sun was coming up. You have to be careful crossing a big road like S.R. 247. You must stop and listen for the cars, for you can’t get across the road by pressing harder on the accelerator if one surprises you.

I’ve noticed since Scott’s accident everyone is a bit more careful in general. It was much cooler as we dropped down into the Ohio Brush Creek Valley. Traveler’s exhales began to look like the stack on a steam locomotive. And, sadly, we were quickly reminded we were less than 40,000 feet from thoroughly modern technology, as Ezekiel rapidly counted a dozen different jet contrails above us in just one view of the clear morning sky.

In due time, we stopped at the old store in Belfast to get a cup of coffee and a sweet for sustenance for the rest of the trip. You spend just a little time on Route 73, and then back on county roads. It was well after daylight when we reached our destination.

Meanwhile, one of the English (that is what they call us who are not Mennonites or Amish) had transported a large plastic tank with the juice for our work. He was already on site with his pickup and the tank when we pulled up in the buggy. With some pipe connection difficulties resolved, we finally got the juice (that is, the cane squeezings) transferred to the holding tank at the cooker.

There was a price to be paid to get the juice out of the sorghum cane. Ezekiel and his family had been up since one in the morning, as mentioned earlier, processing it through an old vertical press consisting of three cast iron rollers. A board is attached to the top of this press and a horse walks in circles to power it (when I was a kid, C.S. Bell was making presses like this for export to South America).

All this effort was done in the dark, no electricity being available. During the morning, the family kept up this exercise so the English could bring us another tank of juice at noon.

The cooker, located in a shed behind the barn, consisted of three open-top stainless-steel pans with copper piping in a grid fashion inside them. The copper piping carried steam from the boiler, a very large wood fired, wheezing antique that left us wondering all day if we were going to be blown to smithereens. Had someone stumbled upon us and not known the unique piping design, they could have assumed we were making something else. As it was, to my knowledge it is perfectly legal to make sorghum molasses.

The runny, green squeezings were released into the first pan. Ezekiel had the eye for knowing when they had cooked long enough in this pan. While they were cooking, he and Samuel (not his real name but the boiler owner) used what looked like stainless steel ash shovels to constantly skim the foam off the cooking liquor.

When Ezekiel said it was ready, it was gravity drained to the second pan, which had a smaller surface area and hence less evaporative capacity. The process was repeated for the third, even smaller pan. When Ezekiel said that was ready, the sorghum molasses were strained into a pot, then manually poured into another elevated pan which had a spigot under which we placed jars to fill.

My task was to fill the jars and put labels on them. You learn quickly to be careful – miss the jar and you have 200-degree molasses on your hand. We got the better part of four batches done that day. Samuel finished up the last one by himself as it was getting dark, and we wanted to get on the road for home.

It was quite a day. Samuel’s mother made us a fine dinner (lunch to the English) and sent out supper to the cooker just before dark.

Ezekiel and I had a great ride back to Sugar Tree Ridge. You have time to ponder many of the topics of the day when you have a 12-mile buggy ride in the dark. I went to bed tired and fulfilled. We had done a real day’s work, but Ezekiel and family far more than I.

Wednesday, the next day, after breakfast with the family, I got in my car, set my Apple GPS for Duluth, Ga., and drove the 457 miles before darkness fell again. You can get whiplash moving in and out of the English world like this.

I am immensely grateful for these experiences, all started by the late Scott Richardson. I sorely miss you, my friend. Look forward to seeing you again in the Sweet By and By.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press. He may be reached at

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