BY FAITH HARPER
A tract of land in Van Zandt County was once known for its sugar cane production, which was used to produce a variety of Pure Ribbon Cane Molasses that was known across the United States for its quality.
Willis Jarrell (W.J.) Hale is considered to be the pioneer of the sugar cane syrup industry in the county, which died out after World War II, according to an article written in 2001 by Lawrence Greer, past chairman of the Van Zandt County Historical Commission.
Hale settled in Van Zandt County in 1880 on a 500-acre farm east of Canton on what would now be Van Zandt County Road 4123, according to Greer. He used a pond at the top of a hill to irrigate his crops to protect them from drought, according to a September 1921 article in the Canton Herald newspaper.
Hale began growing the cane around 1884 on what became known as the “Hale Farm” and quickly gained a reputation for making a quality syrup product.
A 1902 article in the Wills Point Chronicle stated he sold several thousand gallons of syrup produced on the farm because “he has been careful in making it, guaranteeing every gallon, put it up nicely with his label on every package and has made a reputation for his syrup.”
The Chronicle sent some of the sugar cane syrup to Washington before Christmas in 1905, and it was distributed to members of the Washington press gallery, who “declared nothing to equal had ever been tasted,” according to a March article in the paper.
The product also received press in northern papers, including The Washington Post, and Hale routinely sold out of syrup from preorders, according to Greer.
The land was farmed by Hale for 23 years. He quit farming because of illness and sold the farm to Henry Jones in 1915, who made syrup on the land for another 45 years, according to Greer.
Jones expanded the production to 25 acres and shipped the product by rail inside and outside of Texas, according to Greer.
The syrup was sold at a premium price of $1.25 per gallon, while typical syrups were sold at $1 a gallon, according to a 1921 article in the Canton Herald.
“The Hale Syrup is known to never ‘sour in the can’ or turn to sugar,” the article states. “Mr. Jones explains this as being due to the manufacture that he boils his syrup until it’s thoroughly done and is thick enough to cut with a knife.”
Demand for the syrup declined after World War II, but the Jones family continued production until 1960, according to Greer.
The process of turning sugar cane into Pure Ribbon Cane Molasses is labor intensive.
The harvesting process begins with cutting off the leaves on the sugar cane stalks, said Dan Peden, a member of the Van Zandt County Historical Commission and one of the last remaining sugar cane farmers in the county.
The stalks are then cut near the ground and stored. He said harvest usually happens in November, and the cut cane will actually produce sweeter syrup if it is subjected to a light frost.
The cane is then run through a grinder that squeezes all of the liquid out of the stalks and moves it into a collection bin.
From there, the liquid is cooked until it has a syrup consistency and packaged.
Historically, the process was a community effort, according to Greer.
Local families would get their syrup for the year by helping in the effort and were paid by the day in syrup, according to Greer. His father worked for the Hale Farm in the 1930s, and was paid one bucket of syrup per day.
A RESOURGENCE OF HISTORY
Syrup is still made in Van Zandt County, but nowadays it’s mostly to keep the history of the tradition alive.
Peden, 61, of Edom, said his father W.A. “Willy” Peden made syrup for almost 20 years, beginning in the 1970s.
Dan Peden said the product was never sold and was treated as a sort of family tradition where members would gather together around Thanksgiving to make the syrup.
In a good year, the Peden farm produced between 300 and 400 No. 5, half-gallon cans of syrup. Most of it was distributed between family members or given away as gifts, Peden said.
The work was done on a manual machine, using a donkey walking around in a circle to drive the syrup press. In the 1990s, the family sold the mule mill and bought an electric one that operated with tractor power, he said.
After Willy Peden died, Dan Peden took the mill down with the intent to continue the operation and grow sugar cane. He joined an association of sugar cane producers and started seed cane, but the drought of 2011 and continuously dry years made the effort difficult, he said.
“We tried to find enough seed cane to get started, and there was very little to none in the county,” Peden said. “A man near Edom was trying to grow some, and we got some start (cane) from his field.”
The mill was put back up in Ben Wheeler about three years ago, Peden said. Local farmers use it to press sugar cane and Sorghum into syrups.
The mill is fired up during Ben Wheeler’s Feral Hog Fest in October, Peden said.
“We are trying to get it started again,” he said. “Anyone that is interested in trying, (we can) give them some seed cane to get them started, so we can get it going.”