Liberty Lions Club has made and sold molasses for generations. This year's crop halted the tradition.
KENNA — The sugarcane looked beautiful this year, but looks can be deceiving.
The past two years haven't gone according to plan. The Liberty Lions Club had always taken one weekend in the fall to host its annual festival — then COVID came. Live music and hundreds of people with hot dogs in hand used to occupy the Lions Club property, which sits on Route 34 overlooking countless rolling hills for the event.
This year there's been an additional obstacle. The molasses didn't turn out.
"How much is the molasses?" One eager customer asked Liberty Lions Club President John Wharton on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
"We aren't selling it this year," he replied with a shrug.
The sweet, thick syrup-like liquid the group has made for more than three decades turned out like a stiff jelly this year and isn't edible. There's too much starch.
How do you make molasses?
It's a tedious process.
It all starts with the sugarcane. Land is donated to the club annually to plant cane seeds. This year, the Liberty Lions Club had an acre and a half to work with.
Once the plants are ready to go, club members and even FFA kids go out into the fields, with machetes in hand and chop the inch-wide stalks at the base.
Wharton, with a pair of gloves, swings his machete at a stalk, holds it in his left hand and continues to the next. He keeps herding the chopped plants into his left hand until he can't hold anymore. Then he walks over and adds his stash to the pile and starts swinging again, again and again.
They harvest hundreds of sugarcane plants every season. It takes hours, even days to cut all of the stalks. Once the stalks are cut, the work has just begun.
The heap of sugarcane is hauled to the mill, located at the highest point of the club's property. Gravity is the biggest asset in the molasses-making process.
Wharton turns on the John Deere mill, which is at least 30 years old, and gets to work. One by one, he grabs a stalk and feeds it to the machine. When the ripe, green bamboo-looking plant kisses the mill, it's immediately flattened. Two wheels constantly churning in the mechanism grab the sugarcane and squeeze the juice out.
With every turn of the wheel, the juice is separated from the stalks and sent down to a drain. The cane juice meets a cheesecloth to ensure that no contaminants make their way to the next step. On the other end of the mill, the stalks are dropped down a hill to be later picked up for animal feed.
Once the sugary liquid makes it past the cheesecloth, it then descends down a pipe that goes underground and into the building where the magic happens.
With gravity being its only guide, the soon-to-be molasses creeps into what Wharton calls the "pan" — a custom-made, stainless steel maze. The maze is heated with fire brick and sits around 200 degrees throughout the cooking process.
When the juice seeps into the maze, it's greeted by a half-inch of water. This ensures that the liquid won't burn. With two wooden paddles, at least one person is constantly moving the molasses up and down the aisles of the pan. This goes on for three hours.
Eventually, the runny juice turns into a syrup-like mixture. Bubbles start to form at the surface — they're called frog eyes. Once Wharton sees frog eyes, he combs the molasses to the last lane where it falls into a container. The steaming molasses is then poured into another, larger container covered in cheesecloth. The molasses sits there until it's ready to go in the jars.
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It's like an assembly line. There's at least one person moving the molasses every 10 to 30 seconds on the pan, another person filling mason jars and another sealing the lids. The molasses goes in hot, so once it starts cooling down, tin pops fill the building.
It gets hot.
There's a small fan at the back of the building, but with a 200-degree oven and plenty of people working, sweat starts pouring fast. A door is opened on the side of the building facing the winding road that allows for the heat coming directly from the molasses pan to escape.
What actually happened
The Lions Club made tried to make two batches of molasses this year. Both turned out horribly — people spent hours on the process for no reward. They stopped once they realized it wasn't a good batch and didn't bottle any of it. The club has been making molasses for nearly four generations and nothing like this has ever happened.
No one knows the exact cause of the excess starch.
Cochran's grandfather made molasses, so did his grandmother. Molasses is in his blood, and now he's worried the tradition will soon die.
"Projects like this is falling by the wayside," Cochran said. "The help is not there that we need."
The club takes the money from the apple butter and molasses sales and puts that toward eye exams and glasses for people in need. The group lost $750 because of the molasses, as of Oct. 2, and the group had broken even on the apple butter.
Members spent the first weekend of October sitting under the pavilion, with dozens of milk crates filled with pint and quart jars of apple butter waiting for people to drive by and purchase the sweet, cinnamon-filled sauce.
Cochran said the group will try to make molasses one more time once the weather cools down — this week has been too warm to attempt another batch. But in the meantime, people who want to purchase apple butter must reach out to club members, like Cochran, and those who want molasses will just have to wait until next year.
— Katelyn Waltemyer (she/her) is the General Assignment and Enterprise Reporter for Jackson Newspapers in Jackson County, West Virginia. Have a news tip on local government or education? Or a good feature? You can reach Katelyn at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Kate_Waltemyer.
Want a jar of apple butter? Call Anthony Cochran at 304-532-8241.