Almost 40 years ago, residents of Montgomery County started recording the history of this rural area near Hot Springs. That group included Dick Whittington, whose ancestors helped settle the region. Eventually Whittington and others banded together—and funded—the Heritage House Museum of Montgomery County. Dedicated in 2000, the museum showcases several aspects of past and present life in the county, including a general store, a barn exhibit and cases with quartz crystals and other minerals native to the area.
One of the biggest attractions to the museum each year is the Sorghum Festival and the living history area just outside the main museum building. We featured this festival as part of our Arkansas Food and Farm Fall Festival line-up, and since the event is right around the corner, we thought we’d share some further details with all of you. This year’s event will be held Saturday, Oct. 31, from 10 am until 6 pm.
Why a sorghum festival in a county known for digging crystals? “One of the men on our board, “Hodge” Black had been an agricultural agent,” says museum director Emilie Kinney. “The board thought it would be fun to raise a crop of cane,” she says. So with help from an agriculture agent in a neighboring county, the group held their first festival in 2010.
A grain originating in Africa, sorghum (often called “milo” in Arkansas) is the fifth most important cereal crop in the world. Its natural drought tolerance makes it capable of being grown in a variety of places, and the grain has a wide range of uses as a food for people and livestock alike. It is also used as an alternative to wheat to bake cakes, breads and cookies that are gluten-free.
Sorghum mills were a common sight during the autumn months in frontier Arkansas communities. Sorghum is ready to be harvested just before the first frost (usually in early November in Arkansas). The molasses was important to early settlers in the South because processed and granulated sugar was not always available, or it was too expensive. “We’re trying to preserve the heritage of sorghum molasses making in Montgomery County,” says Jack “Hodge” Black, who grew up in Norman. “Seventy-five years ago, most people relied on sorghum as their sweetener. When I was a kid, we ate sorghum almost every morning on hot biscuits,” he says.
The making of sorghum molasses is quite the process, because it is both time- and labor-intensive. After the sorghum is ready to be harvested, all leaves and seed heads are removed. Once the cane has been stripped of extra foliage, the cane is brought to the sorghum mill and the seed heads are removed. Cane is then fed through rollers that crush the cane and produce a sugar-rich juice. “Old timers used a mule or horse to power the mill with. We still have a mule at our festival, but we’ve had to shift to an engine-based approach because using a mule or a horse-drawn device takes forever to squeeze the sorghum juice,” Black says.
The light green juice is cooked for four to six hours, with frequent skimming. “In the past, the syrup was cooked in copper pans with pine knots as fuel, but the museum uses stainless steel pans that are heated with propane burners,” says Black.” It takes 12-13 gallons of juice to make 1 gallon of syrup.
When the syrup is done is often based on experience, but volunteers use a thermometer to determine when the temperature registers 228-230 degrees, he says. After the molasses has been cooked for an appropriate time, it’s ready to be bottled. The pan is transferred to an area where clean jars and bottles are lined up ready to be filled.
Festival attendees will be offered free samples of sorghum, as well as baked goods made with the sweetener. Sorghum will also be sold at $6 a pint, but it won’t be as plentiful this year, says Black. “In previous years, we’ve tried to do up 2-3 batches of syrup, but we’re only able to do one batch this year. We don’t have enough help to grow and process that much now, as we’re all getting older and it’s pretty tough,” says Black.
The Heritage House Museum of Montgomery County uses all volunteers for Sorghum Fest, including those who grow and harvest the sorghum. The tenuous nature of the crop and its harvesting is why setting a date for the festival is a challenge, says Kinney.
Here’s a recipe for a sorghum based treat from the Heritage House Museum. You might want to double the recipe, as these cookies are popular!
Sorghum Molasses Cookies
*3/4 cup shortening or butter
*1-1/4 cups sugar, divided
*1/4 cup Arkansas sorghum
*2 tablespoons milk
*1 teaspoons vanilla extract
*2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
*1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
*1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
*3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
In a large mixing bowl, cream shortening or butter and 1 cup sugar.
Beat in the egg, sorghum, milk, and vanilla. Combine the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg. Gradually add to the creamed mixture. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour.
Shape dough into small balls. Roll in remaining sugar. Place two inches apart on greased baking sheets. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 10-14 minutes or until tops crack and edges are slightly firm. Remove to wire racks to cool.
Let us know if you tried these cookies, and tell us all about your memories of eating sorghum molasses. And be sure to catch the Sorghum Fest, because it’s a great way to learn about the history of food in Arkansas.