(c) October 2020 By Tommie Flannery Baskis
It was one of those crisp October mornings that one remembers as a child; a day that held a promise to be special. The sun glistened upon the dew and the sky was a bright, crystalline blue.
Those who know me understand the passion I have for keeping the ‘Old Story’ alive. I have been writing and photographing abandoned places, historical towns, cemeteries and the ‘Old Ways’ that are still practiced by the Mennonite and Amish Families in Kentucky.
The story that will be told here is from a special October morning. We had the immense pleasure of visiting Spring Valley Sorghum Mill on Strawberry Lane and were greeted by Brothers Andrew and Reuben Habegger who were very gracious with their time. When I asked Reuben if he could share any stories, even funny ones, from days gone by, he gently smiled and began to tell me about the early days.
Join me as I share my story and photographs about the charming moments and laughter we shared with the men, women and children of this community in Allen County, Kentucky.
A little of the age one, Reuben Habegger’s Father moved them from Pennsylvania to the mountains of Eastern Tennessee.
Reuben commenced to tell me that it was hard in those days to make a living in 1965 in the country. His Father did thinking upon what southerners like to buy and on what they would do to earn money. There was no extra money to buy things, Reuben said.
“Eastern Tennessee was hard going,” said Reuben. It was a coal mining community and not many other opportunities.
Sorghum was a popular crop then and southerners liked to buy it. “You could save your own seeds and it cost nothing to plant it.”
Reuben smiled and told me something funny his Father said. In the early days before they perfected their special way of sorghum making, his Dad learned that some of the people who tried their sorghum said it tasted like axle grease.
They found an old cane press in Missouri and used a galvanized pan with wooden sides his Dad made. The first year crop wasn’t a good crop with the weather being dry and planted on a rocky fescue hill.
At the age of 18, after Reuben’s Father passed away his Mother moved the Family to Kentucky.
Reuben’s Mother was a widow now with seven children and three she would adopt later.
He told me how it is a community effort to work the sorghum cane. People have to spend time with one another. If there are differences to air, the menfolk will work them out because you are spending so much time together during the season, Reuben stated with a smile. I noticed that they all did their work efficiently and with ease.
The men folk that work together here including the Habegger, Zimmerman and Troyer Families had a common desire to make the most pure and delicious sorghum from the cane they grew.
Reuben said that his brother and their cousin Joe Troyer happened to be in a store where they were giving away free samples of sorghum from Indiana. They both wondered if it was pure so when no one was looking, he took a sip out of the jar to make sure it was pure. It was.
They stated, ‘If people in Indiana can make good sorghum then we can too.’
That gave birth to them perfecting their sorghum to be lighter and better.
I enjoyed Rueben sharing his stories with me; as we talked one could smell the delicious sweet syrup that was heating in the large evaporator pan where Mr. Curvin Zimmerman tends and cooks the lovely amber liquid that will soon be bottled. The younger sons in the Zimmerman and Habegger Families were very kind to show me how the cane is pressed to produce the sweet green juice to be strained in order to remove the dirt and impurities before it is cooked.
Curvin Zimmerman was kind to show me how the cooking process worked. He said he came to the mill back in 1987. In the 1990’s he started working full time.
Curvin told me a humorous story too. He stated that one particular day Reuben had some errands to run and wanted him to take control of cooking the sorghum. He left and they did not know when he was coming back. Curvin told me he felt like he wasn’t ready to take control of the cooking on his own back then. At this point Curvin starts to grin and I knew a good story was coming.
I listened as he said Reuben was actually sitting behind the bushes in the forest, watching them. ‘From then on I was more relaxed and confident I could do the cooking’, Curvin told me.
I met a few of Habegger’s sons. Cornelius Habegger was a stately young man who has been tending the large fires that are responsible for heating the pans filled with sorghum juice. ‘I have been keeping the fires for 11 years’ he stated. He told me he shoes horses too. He explained the differences between the Belgian and Percheron breeds that they use and own. I enjoyed the things I learned from him.
Curvin skimmed some of the cooked cane juice off in a cup for me to try. It was a delicious treat in the cool morning. We also enjoyed homemade biscuits with butter and sorghum. The taste was pure delight.
The younger sons and daughters were busy bringing in the fresh organic vegetables, herbs and pumpkins that Andrew Habegger and his Family grows. The produce was fresh from the fields and healthy looking. It was a bountiful view of lovely blue potatoes, beans, turnips, greens and many glass jars of pure sorghum, shelved and glowing in the morning sun.
Another highlight I thoroughly enjoyed was when the sons of Zimmerman and Habegger led me to the sorghum mill where the cane that grows to 6 to 12 feet tall is then hauled in by wagon to be put into a roller press to squeeze out the juices. The beautiful Belgian and Percheron Draft horses are the power that operates the steel rollers of the press.
During the harvesting the Families believe that stripping the leaves from the stalks is important because they leave a bitter taste. We then cut the stalks into piles and let sit in the field for three to five days. In the sunshine the plant’s enzymes help it to convert the starch into sugar.
The juice is strained over and again to remove impurities before settling into an evaporator pan. The squeezed green juice is cooked to a clear amber color where it will be strained again. It is then cooled to 180 degrees F and then bottled in glass jars. As the sweet sorghum is further cooling, the jars seal.
Since the 1850’s sorghum has been grown as a crop and processed in Kentucky.
Sorghum is one of the oldest natural sweeteners used by the early settlers. It is a wonderful part of our heritage. It is rich in nutrients such as iron, potassium, calcium and phosphorus. During the 1940’s sweet sorghum was a main ingredient for drinks, meats, confections and baked goods such as bread, pies, cakes, pudding and cookies.
My October journey to Spring Valley Sorghum Mill was a wonderful treasure. I grew up spending time with my Grandmother Virginia in Indiana. I loved watching her in the kitchen and I have always had a fondness for making my own baked goods and recipes. I am eager to add the sorghum I brought home, to my autumn baking.
If you are ever near a country road called ‘Strawberry Lane’ in Scottsville, Kentucky, make sure you stop on by and visit with the friendly Habegger and Zimmerman Families. They indeed make some of the finest, delicious sorghum I have ever tasted and watch how they keep the ‘old ways’ and tradition of sorghum making in America.