Every kitchen table in Gadsden County prior to 1950 had a syrup pitcher proudly sitting next to the salt and pepper shakers. Used on everything from biscuits to country ham, this rich amber tangy-sweet product of sugar cane was a staple of all farm families. Sugar Cane was grown throughout Gadsden County, and most farms had a mule-powered cane grinding mill and a syrup kettle to cook down the cane juice. Much of the product was sold and shipped in barrels via the Apalachicola Northern Railroad.
These articles are provided courtesy of The Gadsden County Times newspaper, Quincy
July 28, 1927
Syrup cane is grown here under good conditions, and the syrup shipped from this section is of excellent quality. Mr. Green estimates the syrup crop this year, unless adverse conditions set in, at $50,000.
September 8, 1927
The production of sugar cane is one of the leading and profitable industries of the western section of Gadsden County; thousands of acres have been planted this year and the prospects are flattering for an immense yield. Soon the grinding and juice boiling season will be here and everything living on the farm will begin to show signs of gaining flesh; even the dwarfed pig of the barn yard develops into a marketable porker after "chawing' several stalks of the cane and drinking liberally for a few days of the "skimmings." Puny and sickly children become red-cheeked during the "sugar cane grinding" season, and the old men and women brighten up and forget their ages. This is the kind of life that the western section of Gadsden County is offering the man who is content to live a life of happiness and ease without too much labor to come while coming is good, and buy land while land is cheap. It is a motto and established principal of the business men and citizens of the twin cities to extend every courtesy to those visiting the town, whether on business or pleasure, and it will pay those seeking homes or investment to visit River Junction and make investigations before going any farther.
May 31, 1934
L. J. Clark, Gadsden County Director of the Cane Grower's Cooperative Association, will return from Washington, D. C., the latter part of this week. He was accompanied to Washington by J. H. Millward, of Albany, Ga. They attended a meeting called by the Secretary of Agriculture relative to a processing tax on cane products and the possibility of reimbursements to producers.
By Reuben Byron Clark
Gadsden County Native
Now my Daddy used his Daddy’s, which was Granddaddy Clark, syrup works which I don’t remember Granddaddy Clark having any cane. I guess he quit that before I got old enough to remember. But anyway, this cane would be piled at the mill, no huge pile either, something oh maybe about 4 or 5 feet high and 8 or 10 feet wide and the mill would crush the juice out of these cane stalks. The power to operate these big rollers that crushed the juice out of the cane stalks – you’d have a mule attached to a long pole going from the mill downward at about a 45 degree angle way out and the mule would be hitched to the end of this pole and the mule would just continually walk around and around, all day long and there’d be a guy standing there feeding the cane into the mill, through the rollers and you didn’t put too many stalks in at the time, usually I think about 4 or 5 something like that. If you put too many in it would put too much pressure and you would bust the rollers. You were out of crushing the juice out of the cane then and, of course, that was a catastrophe and hard work, expense, and all changing it out. This juice would pour out into a barrel which then would feed by about a 1 inch pipe down just a little bit of a slop to where the cooking of the cane juice was done.
When the cooking of the cane juice was done, what I’m remembering is the way I saw it, in an 80 gallon cast iron kettle they called it which was mounted on a brick wall of clay; mud was used as mortar, not concrete but mud and bricks or either had big ole stones or something you could use. Then there was sorta a throat like that run out from that and that’s where it was more or less called the firebox. The firebox was sorta of an oval shaped top of this same time of material I was speaking about, but in front of the firebox was big ole cast iron grates we called ‘um. They were mounted over what we called a pit or like a ditch and the ditch thing would be a couple of feet deep. The ashes from the fire that would be in here on top of these grates would fall through and then they came on out to where that eventually from time to time you could pull the ashes to the front end, dip’um out, and throw’um out in the field or something like that.
Anyway, thinking back of a morning, there would be cane juice from the night before already over in the kettle. Get it fired up, that means building what we called a great big roaring fire under it, soon get it to cooking. In the cooking process, there were certain
amounts of sediments or trash or so forth that would come to the top and that was skimmed off with something like a wash pan with a bunch of holes punched in it with nails on a long wooden pole. As it was cooking, you’d run this what we called the skimmer around and get all this sediment stuff and dump it over into a barrel. Well, after it cooked for awhile, then there was a big ring lowered down that was set right on the edge of the kettle and of course the syrup had to come up and boil over that. Between the rim and the edge it had a little flange to it and then there was some more of this sediment stuff and we’d have little dippers to keep dipping it out. Anyway I don’t remember just how long it would take to cook a kettle of juice into syrup and I’m thinking about 4 or 5 hours, something like that. Of course, in the cooking process there was a lot of steam from this juice because you see this juice had a lot of water content in it, but it was sweet. That’s the reason they made syrup. Cook it so long and get it cooked down to where it would get rather thick. Daddy, and the other farmers who cooked syrup, had what they called a hydrometer, something like a thermometer but it was in a little wooden tube. They’d dip this tube down into the syrup when thought it was about ready for dipping up. Dip this little thing down in the syrup, put this hydrometer down in the tube and it would register the thickness, the density of the syrup. If you didn’t let it get dense enough, you had syrup that was almost as thin as water. If you let it cook too long, you had thick thick stuff that would almost turn into syrup candy. The farmers knew from experience just how much density they needed. So when it reached that immediate density, there was a pole that had a metal hook on the end of it and the cooker would reach in and start pulling any and all of that fire off those grates, get it away from the kettle and let it start cooling down. Then at the same time there was a wooden barrel right beside the kettle that had a split croaker sack draped over the top of it and then there was a wooden bucket on the end of a handle. The wooden bucket I guess would hold the equivalent of 2 or 3 or 4 gallons. As soon as this fire was pulled out, the farmer would start using that wooden bucket dipping this syrup out of the kettle and puttin’ it over in this half barrel and if there was any sediments or trash left it would catch in this croaker sack and it would go into this half barrel. Just as he dipped the last part of it, he would dash around or usually the guy who had been feeding the cane into the mill would be on the other side where there was 2 barrels of fresh juice and he’d start pouring it in before the kettle could get hot so that it wouldn’t crack. This would be the beginning of what they called the 2nd boiling.
Underneath this half barrel that would have syrup in it and I don’t remember just how many gallons of actual syrup there would be – oh I’d say 10 or 15 or 20 gallons at the most of pure syrup. Then the syrup would be put into wooden barrels that were made to hold maybe 35 to 50 gallons. They had an opening on the side and had a wooden stopper that was called the bung. Take the bung out and have the barrel positioned just right under a faucet, have a funnel and then drain the syrup from out of this half-barrel
into this empty barrel. Of course you wouldn’t get the barrel full with just one cooking. Eventually when you got the barrel full, you’d take the bung and drive it back into the hole and roll it out and put it more or less into storage out there on the yard and after so long a time, you’d start delivering.
Daddy was a member of a syrup co-op down in Greensboro. Cousin Lonnie Clark was the head of that syrup co-op down there and he was the inspector of the syrup. As these barrels of syrup were delivered and eventually when I got big enough, maybe 14 or something like that to drive, I’d take the ole Model A truck and it’d hold about 2 barrels – here I’d go to Greensboro. Big deal! Unload it into the warehouse down there and Cousin Lonnie would take a hammer and a long nail and drive it into the wooden barrel and little bit of the syrup would start oozing out. He’d take his finger and get a smear of it and taste it. He judged it by the color, taste, and density and it was put over to the side and after so long a time the freight train would leave off a boxcar and the barrels of syrup would be loaded into the boxcar and shipped to I don’t know where. Then it would go into making candy and things like that and I don’t know going into syrup. Sometimes and even in this day and time you don’t find real pure cane syrup. So many times the cane syrup has been diluted with other substances. I don’t just what all; you can read the labels in the stores and see that. But anyway that ruins the taste of real syrup when you start dilutin’ it with other items.
That was a cash crop that Daddy and, of course, other farmers had. Daddy, of course, naturally that being a cash crop, would help pay for, naturally you had to pay for the expenses of raising the cane and producing the syrup, but it would help to pay property taxes and different things like that and bills. Farmers could get things charged at these stores a lot of times from one crop to the other and when the crop was sold they’d go pay up their indebtness. This was a hard hard life and had to do all this before it got to be cold cold weather because the cane would get what they called frost bit. It would begin to turn sour and then it was no good for making syrup. If before you got through making syrup you had a hard hard freeze come along, you had to go to the field and where it was in little piles in the field you had to start gathering up all those cane blades and start covering those piles so that it wouldn’t freeze. Like I said, if it did freeze, then you were just out.
Another method that was used some for making syrup was that farmers would buy a gasoline engine and get it hooked up to their mill. The mill would be a larger mill for grinding the cane from what I was describing earlier that was powered by the mule going round and round and round in a circle. Eventually as tractors became available some folks got to using their tractors instead of just the ole regular gasoline engines. So there were all kinds of different methods of it. Every farmer thought he had the best grade of syrup.
Linda Clark Smith
Gadsden County Native
The Dezell family is a very unique family in this area in that they did not migrate to our county in a similar manner as many other families. Many of our ancestors who settled in this area in the mid-1800s came from the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia. Samuel Dezell, his wife, Mary Ford, and their children moved to Mt. Pleasant, Florida, from the southwest corner of Missouri in 1886.
What brought them to this region? We can only speculate. During the Civil War, Samuel was a private in the Union Army and his Company engaged in battles around Chattanooga, TN; Kennesaw, Atlanta, and Jonesborough, GA. So he had seen an area several hundred miles to the north of Florida. Samuel was a carpenter; therefore, it is believed he had heard of the bountiful virgin pine and hardwood forests in this area of Florida.
The earliest census records located for the Samuel Dezell family are the 1870 Census records for the State of Illinois, Cook County, City of Chicago, which lists the household of Samuel Dezell, age 40, carpenter, and his wife Mary, as well as their children James, age 3; and Lizzie, age 9 months.
By the time of the 1880 Census, the family had moved to southwest Missouri and the household includes Samuel Dezell, age 50; his wife, Mary, age 43; and children: James, age 13 born in Illinois; Sicee, age 10 b. in Illinois; Mamie, age 8, born in Illinois; and Alice M., age 6, born in Missouri.
Most all census records for 1890 were destroyed many years ago in a fire in Washington, D.C.; therefore the first census records in Florida showing the Dezell family is in 1900. Soon after their arrival in Florida, Samuel built a house for his family in Mt. Pleasant which still stands today and is one of the oldest houses in that community. Miss Rachel Hubbard’s history of Mt. Pleasant refers to several houses which Samuel Dezell built in Mt. Pleasant, - The Holcomb House - The B. Shepard House - The Henry Shepard House - The Hubbard House - The Charlie Bevis House.
Samuel & his wife, Mary, are buried in the Old Mt. Pleasant Cemetery about 5 miles east of Chattahoochee, adjacent to the Old Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church.
James A. Dezell found his bride in Gadsden County. Margaret (Maggie) Lillian Shepard, daughter of William Marquis DeLafayette and Elizabeth Ann McDougald. The Shepard family lived near what is present day Greensboro. James and Maggie were married September 11, 1893.
In the 1900 Census, they are found in Independence, Alabama (northwest of Montgomery). James, age 32 working as a mill man, Maggie, age 31, son Samuel W., age 5, daughter Leila, age 3, and son Frank G, age 1.
By 1910, they are back in Gadsden County and Census records for the Sycamore/Greensboro District, lists James A. Dezell, age 42, born in Illinois, married 16 years, as being the manager of a lumber novelty works. His wife, Maggie, age 41, their children are listed as : Wilbur S., age 15, who ran a band saw and planer; Leila, age 13; Frank, age 11; Elton, age 9; and Annie, age 7.
James A. Dezell built his home in Greensboro at 328 East 8th Street between the years of 1912-1918. Adjacent to the house was his sawmill and and in 1912, James Dezell opened Dezell Enterprises, a novelty wood work and lumber store, and blacksmith shop at 100 E. 9th Street in Greensboro.
In the 1920 census records for Greensboro, James Dezell’s daughter Leila was not shown; she was married by that time. Wilbur was 25 and was foreman of the lumber mill; Frank, 21, was a laborer in the lumber mill; Elton, 19, was a salesman of hardware; and Annie was age 17.
The 1930 census records for Greensboro, James, A. Dezell, 62, Maggie Dezell, 61.
The 1940 census records for Greensboro, Maggie Dezell, widow was 71. James A. Dezell had died, June 2, 1937, just one day shy of his 70th birthday.
At some point Dezell Enterprises opened or moved their business to Quincy, and James and Maggie's son, Wilbur, expanded the business into furniture making. Wilbur engaged in the furniture manufacturing business, along with his wife until 1953, when the business was sold to the Quincy Millwork Shop later renamed the Hidgon-Bell Furniture Company.
Mrs. James Dezell continued to live in the Dezell house in Greensboro for many years following the death of her husband. Mrs. Dezell is remembered for all the beautiful flowers she had growing in the yard around the house. She died at the age of 89 on March 11, 1958 in Delray Beach where she had been living with her daughter, Mrs. K. M. Davis. She was also survived by sons, Frank of Miami and Elton of Jacksonville. Both Mr. & Mrs. Dezell are buried in Hillcrest Cemetery in Quincy.
James Dezell and his wife, Maggie, were very well respected people in the Town of Greensboro and the surrounding area. James was the first mayor of Greensboro.
Gadsden County Times
June 20, 1918. Tornado Did Great Damage at Greensboro: Barns, Warehouses and Trees Went Down in Path of Worst Storm in Years - ROOFS AND WINDOWS BLOWN FROM HOUSES - Diligence of Citizens Prevented Wreck of Train on Apalachicola Northern Railroad.
Soon after 12 o'clock Monday, clouds began to gather. No one saw anything unusual in this, but the men in the tobacco fields rushed their work hoping to finish the day's task before the rain came. It began raining about 4 o'clock but the women and children stayed in the barns, stringing the tobacco as the field hands rushed it in. It continued raining for a little more than an hour, but when the 5 o'clock train came, those in town who were not busy with tobacco went, as usual, to the post office. The mail had been distributed and persons were standing on the corner chatting, when suddenly somebody called attention to the dark cloud in the north. Before those on the streets could reach shelter, there came a terrible wind out of the north, and a blinding rain with it. In less than five minutes tobacco barns were lying flat, trees were wrung in two, and three warehouses along the rail road track had fallen, apparently offering no resistance to the wind. The wind blew window panes from nearly all the houses in its path, tore off the tin roofing from the stores, carrying the tin long distances. The mill buildings belonging to O. P. Green were blown down. A freight car loaded with fertilizer was on the rail road track ready to be unloaded; the wind drove it miles down the track. Telephone and telegraph wires snapped; corn, castor beans, fruit trees and even rose bushes were torn up by the roots.
In ten or fifteen minutes the wind had passed, but it continued raining and the thunder and lightning were terrific.
It seems miraculous that no one was injured. Those who were in the barns ran for the open fields when they heard the timbers of the barns cracking.
Forrest Davis, who had gone out to look after his mule and cattle, just managed to get out of his barn before it fell. He had presence of mind enough to run for an axe and cut a hole through the roof to get his mule out before she was crushed.
As the telephone wires are down, and as the roads are impassable, it has been impossible to learn how large the storm area is; however, it is the general belief that the width of the storm belt is not greater than ten miles. Almost everybody in Greensboro and for two or three miles in each direction lost barns, tobacco and castor beans. The corn is lying flat in the fields, but it is thought that almost all the corn will revive. It is rumored that L. Richards, living three miles east of Greensboro, lost all his horses and his cattle, but this report has not been verified. It is also reported that Smith Dean was slightly injured as he was in his barn when it fell.
Olin Brewer and Frank Dezell were in Quincy while the wind was blowing, but started to Greensboro immediately afterward. They had no difficulty until they reached Rock (sic) Comfort Creek. They counted sixty-four trees across the road between that point and Blount's mill. They drove through the woods for some distance, but finally had to abandon the car, and walk home. They reached Greensboro after 9 o'clock.
When the telegraph operator learned that he could not telegraph to the stations below, that a wild freight car was on the road, he was at a loss to know what to do. Three men, James Dezell, J. C. Brewer, and E. B. Fletcher, volunteered to take a car and go to Juniper, and try to get a message through to Apalachicola so that the passenger train, due at Greensboro at 10:30, might be warned of its danger. When they reached Juniper they found that no message could be sent from there. They found, too, that not even a Ford could be driven further, and they were told that the freight car had passed that place going not less than thirty miles an hour. Something had to be done, so Mr. Brewer, although it was raining furiously, and he was almost exhausted from a hard day's work, walked on, still hoping to be able to send a message from the little town of Sedalia several miles further down. When he had reached there he learned that the loose car had not arrived and neither had the passenger train passed. He stood on the track until he heard the passenger train coming, and then flagged it down, thus in all probability saving the lives of the passengers and the crew. The run-away car was found between Sedalia and Juniper, it had not momentum enough to climb the steep grade just north of the first named place. The passenger train arrived in Greensboro a little more than an hour late, bringing Mr. Brewer and the runaway car.
Instead of being depressed over the havoc wrought by the storm, the people in Greensboro are jubilant over the fact that they are alive.
Jane Wagner Clark
Gadsden County native
As a child, we were always "riding off" somewhere with my Aunt Kate, Emily Kathryn Ogilvie Agerton, known to most of you as Emily Agerton. Aunt Kate took us everywhere - to Lake Talquin, the Leaf Theater, Fletcher Company, visiting with neighbors, and to Willie Preshay's to get smoked sausage. Winding through an oak hammock down an old dirt road, off 65A, we would enter a clearing. Dogs, chickens and cats were everywhere. It was magical. In my mind's eye I can see his house on the right, a barn on the left, and a smokehouse standing beside it. The smell was glorious, like a fall afternoon of burning oak and hickory leaves with that rich aroma of smoked meat. We would fall out of the car and immediately begin to play while Aunt Kate visited with Mr. Willie and "Miss" Elise. They were old to me, but probably only in their 50's or 60's.
Willie Preshay's last name was actually spelled Porcher. I have no idea why we all misspelled it! He did NOT. Maybe because Mr. Willie only dealt in cash that he kept in a mason jar. Mr. WIllie did not accept checks. Anyway, as far as I know, everyone spelled it "Preshay", and the old dirt road is now called Willie Preshay Road. Mr. Willie owned his on farm and raised the hogs he turned into the best linked smoked sausage that I have ever eaten. I'm sure the hogs were being raised somewhere close by, but I don't remember seeing them. I was NEVER a hog fan and gave them a wide berth. Mr. Willie was a quiet man, as I remember, or maybe he just didn't talk to young'uns. Miss Elise was always sweet to us. My world was very small in the early 1960's, and I only measured folks on their "niceness" scale toward me. I do know that they were respected by many, and his smoked sausage recipe revered.
After our order of sausage was wrapped, Aunt Kate would hand him the cash, change if any, was made from the mason jar. Then we would all pile back in the car. No seat belts back then, my place was always standing on the hump behind the front seat. Sam standing in the front seat next to Aunt Kate, Carol in the passenger seat, she was the oldest and got to sit up front. Kathryn in the back with me, always seated and always the best behaved. When we got home, instead of our standard Saturday night meal of hamburgers and baked beans, Mama would cook biscuits and sausage for supper served with cane syrup. One of my best memories and still one of my favorite meals. When I think about it, I still enjoy a good hamburger on a Saturday night too!
I can't tell you how often we rode to Mr. Willie's to get sausage. maybe once or twice a year, maybe more, but in my adventure repertoire of childhood trips, I was always happy to get to go. I do not remember how long he continued to smoke sausage, as I had long moved away from home and stopped "riding off" with Aunt Kate when Mr. Willie died at the age of 90 in 1986. One thing I know for sure, it was the end of the best sausage in Gadsden County.
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