Sorghum-making Brings Sweet Memories

As printed in the Dane County Historical Society Newsletter

Volume VIII, Number I, July1991

By Mrs. Alfred Johnson (Ella Ranum)

Edited by Mark Ranum (Ella's Nephew) & revised February 18, 2009

When I was a child on a small farm in Perry township, Dane County, my favorite time of the year was sorghum making time. My recollections of this annual event date from 1910 to 1914.

Our farm was a far cry from the large modern farms of today. We usually had no more than a dozen milk cows, some pigs, a team of horses, and a flock of Golden Wyandotte chickens.

My father was also a beekeeper, an interest which began with one swarm of bees acquired when he was 15. As a youth he had learned the art of sorghum making which he pursued for a number of years. This involved a great deal of work since it was, more or less, a year round operation. It began in winter when wood had to be cut for cooking the sorghum, as well as for the wood-burning stoves we used to keep us warm during the cold Wisconsin winters.

Planting the sugar cane seed came in May, around corn planting time. The cane was planted by hand, six to eight seeds to a hill. In late June the plants were thinned, leaving only three or four of the strongest stalks. The crop needed cultivation during the summer to keep the weeds down.

In September, when the seed clusters at the tops of the stalks turned from green to a rich red-brown color, the cane was ripe and it was time to strip off the leaves. The seed was removed, the best being saved to plant as next year's crop. The stalks were then tied in bundles and hauled from the field with horse-drawn wagons.

As a child, I had no idea how much cane was grown each year, but it was probably several acres. The clay loam soil in this part of the state was favorable for this crop.

Besides processing the cane, my father also did custom work for those who raised their own cane and brought it to him to be converted into sorghum. Fortunately, extra help in those days was no problem. There were always neighbor boys who were available when needed. These willing workers contributed much to the successful completion of the sorghum making season.

Sorghum operation on the family farm facing southeast. Bee hives can be seen on the left-most side of the picture. This dates the picture to sometime before 1914. Note: The Lunn farm can be seen in the upper right backround. This is where Grandma Lunn came from. The Lunn dugout was located just over the hill in the upper left backround.

Processing the cane into sorghum was a time of much activity and excitement for my brother Alvin and me. Our two younger brothers missed this experience, being too small to know what it was all about. Saturday was a big day when we were not at school and could enjoy the hustle and bustle around us.

Cane was hauled in from our fields as well as from the surrounding countryside. The gasoline engine which furnished the power for operating the cane press was putt-putting away. Men were feeding the cane into the press and bright green juice coursed through a rust-proof strainer.

The juice ran into a wooden trough and then into a clay tank where the sediment was allowed to settle to the bottom, leaving a clear liquid. The clear juice was then taken to the sorghum shed, a building with a large vent in the roof so smoke could escape while the cooking was done.

The cane stalks were cut up with a silage cutter and used as feed for the cows in winter. Ours was one of the first silos in Perry town-ship.

During all this activity, people would be coming to take their sorghum home, usually in their own containers. Papa furnished square five-gallon tin cans or 10-pound pails for those without containers.

I remember one farmer who was loading his wagon with filled stoneware jugs and jars. As he lifted one into the wagon, the jug broke and he was drenched from head to toe with sticky sorghum. This was very funny to my brother and me, but from the look on his face, we knew that it was no laughing matter to him, especially since he had some distance to drive to get home and clean up. The jug must have been cracked, and no doubt the incident was a lesson to him to check his containers more carefully.

Cooking the sorghum was done in the evenings, after other farm work was finished. This was the last step in sorghum making, and by far the most important. Papa had the expertise for this and never entrusted the task to anyone else.

Cooking took three to four hours over a slow fire and required patience, constant stirring and careful watching. The juice was cooked in large, shallow metal pans and stirred with long-handled wooden paddles. Papa knew when the bubbling liquid was just the right consistency to take off the fire. He was a perfectionist and his product was always the best.

This picture shows the sorghum shed from the south looking north. Note the dark colored chimney to the right of the shed and the piles of wood to the left of the shed. The cupola on top of the shed would open up to let the steam of the cooking process escape. The center portion of the barn to the left and the farmhouse in the center background are the only buildings that remain of those in the picture. This picture also appears to have been taken prior to 1914.

During those long, cool October evenings in the sorghum shed, Papa welcomed company and kept my brother and me with him until it was our bedtime. on these occasions he would whittle out small wooden paddles for us and dip them into the cooking sorghum. After waving them in the air to cool, we relished them as much as any store candy.

Another pleasure was breaking off pieces of the cane, peeling them and sucking the sweet juice inside.

Conversation Sweetens Evenings in the Sorghum Shed

Those long hours of tending the sorghum must have been boring, but it was also a resting time for Papa as he sat on a tall stool and stirred after a long tiring day. Sorghum making continued for several weeks.

One October I especially remember was when Mama's brother, Uncle Louie came to visit from South Dakota where he had homesteaded land in the 1890's along with two of his brothers. On this visit he spent long evenings with Papa in the sorghum shed. They must have talked themselves out by the time the sorghum was finished.

Uncle Louie had an interesting accomplishment. He could wiggle his ears! He was always willing to perform for us and it was the first thing we asked him to do on his infrequent visits. My brothers and I had many uncles, but none of the others could wiggle his ears. Uncle Louie was in a class by himself and we admired him greatly.

Mama must also be given full credit for her part in the sorghum making. She fed all the hungry men and kept the house on an even keel at the same time.

Papa was as hospitable as most Norwegians. If a man hauled in a load of cane around noon, he would be sure to be asked to stay for dinner. If anyone came to collect his sorghum, the same held true. With the hired workers, the family and guests such as these, the table was always filled. Mama had to keep plenty of food on hand.

She seldom had help in the kitchen, but she did have our two grandmothers who helped out at especially busy times and who cared for our two little brothers when the need arose.

"Big Grandma" had two rooms of her own in our story and a half farmhouse. "Little Grandma" lived in a small two-room house nearby. "Big Grandma" was not really so big, except by comparison to "Little Grandma" who was a tiny woman.

We were very fond of them both and considered ourselves lucky to have them sharing our growing-up years. My only regret is that I did not ask them more questions about their childhood in Norway. I realized too late that they would have been a rich source of information. Some things they told me are now treasured memories.

This picture shows how the stalks were shreded for the livestock and blown into the silo. This was one of the first silos in Perry Township.

Sorghum-making Gives Way to Beekeeping

By 1914 Papa had decided to go out of the sorghum making business. One factor in this decision may have been the limited woodland on our small place and that he believed some of it should be spared. Also, he wanted to expand his beekeeping operation. It turned out that he became as successful at that as he had been with sorghum. Ranum's honey became as well known as Ranum's sorghum. Papa satisfied the sweet tooth in our part of the country for some 65 years until he retired at the age of 80.


EDITORS NOTE: Aunt Ella became a Ranum family treasure through her endless and most generous hospitality and gentle caring. She lived in a simple but beautifully cared for house in the village of Mount Horeb Wisconsin, less than 10 miles from the family farm. Her household was a family magnet every year for Christmas and other holidays. Many hands of cards were played at her kitchen table in which I was eventually included by rite of passage. Countless plates of goodies were enjoyed including lefse, lutefisk, oyster stew, and other Nordic treats, some of which tended to "separate the men from the boys". This house also contained many family heirlooms and items of family history. She had a keen sense of our heritage and like her brother Maurice, became know as one of our family's historians.

My memories of this wonderful lady are etched in my mind. Both her and Uncle Alfred (her husband), provided me a home away from home during my childhood and left me with a rich sense of being, in my estimation, the most blessed child ever! I still have and treasure some of the many books she gave me through the years. Ella had a deep and firmly founded faith in God and went to be with him just a couple of years ago. She is dearly missed and memories of her are richly enjoyed by those of us left behind.

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