January 2007
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It’s Syrup Sopping Time in Elmore County

Friends and Relatives Gather At Judge Jimmy Stubbs Farm for Some
Good Old Fashioned Syrup Sopping and Down-Home Socializing

By Ben Norman

The antique cars and tractor were points of interest at Judge Jimmy Stubbs’ syrup sopping event.  
When Elmore County Probate Judge Jimmy Stubbs decides to cook syrup on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, he invites the whole county.

Stubbs, who will begin his third term in office this month, began making cane syrup on his father’s farm as a boy. "Raising sugar cane and making syrup was just a part of farm life when I was growing up on the farm. We raised a lot of the things we ate back then, including cane for syrup making," says Stubbs.

Stubbs says that after his father died in 1968, he started up his cane mill the next year. "Daddy sold some syrup but our family consumed most of what we made. Now I just enjoy growing the cane and cooking syrup. We started inviting friends and relatives to our syrup cooking about fifteen years ago. It started off with about fifty attending and has grown to around 350 to 400 attending this year."

According to Stubbs, good sugar cane is absolutely necessary when it comes to making quality syrup. "The dry weather hurt me a little this year, I’ve made better syrup, but this year’s syrup is pretty good."

Several different varieties of sugar cane are grown on the Stubbs farm, including blue cane and the green varieties. Stubbs even has some of the old-fashioned striped ribbon cane. Stubbs says the old-fashioned striped ribbon cane does well in low, wet-natured soil, but doesn’t do well in upland areas.

Stubbs says the secret to growing good cane is to get it planted as early in the spring as possible because sugar cane requires a relatively long growing season. "Sometimes it will come back from the cut stubble if it is covered to prevent freezing."

  Mac Free, manager of Elmore County Exchange, helps Elmore Co. Probate Judge Jimmy Stubbs feed cane into the cane mill.
Harvesting the cane at the right time is critical, also. Stubbs and his helpers cut the top out of the cane and strip the leaves off the stalk while it is still standing. "We used to use machetes and hoes to cut the cane, now we put a saw blade on a weed eater and cut the cane down with it. We then load the cane on a trailer and bring it to the cane mill to squeeze the juice out to make the syrup," says Stubbs.

A pipe transports the cane juice to the cooker after the squeezing process. Stubbs has used a copper cooking pan in the past, but says after watching the Amish in Tennessee cook on a stainless steel pan, he switched to stainless also.

Tom Cafee, from Goodwater, has been making cane syrup for over forty years and has been helping Stubbs for ten years. Cafee says syrup making is an art passed down from one syrup maker to another. "You just can’t tell someone how to make syrup, you got to work with someone who knows what they are doing to learn. If you get the fire too hot, the syrup will taste scorched. If you don’t cook it long enough, the syrup will sour."

Cafee dips up syrup on his skimmer to show observers how to tell when the syrup has cooked enough to take up. "When the syrup hangs on your skimmer without dripping off easily, it’s time to take it up because it’s ready."

The process of making cane syrup hasn’t changed much through the years with the exception of the power source for the cane mill. "When I started grinding cane, Daddy had a mule-pulled mill. The mule was hitched to a long shaft and just walked in a circle to power the mill. We’re using a stationary Farmall motor to power our mill today."

Cafee smiles when he says his worst fear as a boy was that the mule would die and he would have to pull the cane mill. "I took better care of our mule than I did myself. Why I even gave that old mule my blanket one cold night," laughed Cafee.

While Stubbs’s syrup making is the center of attention, a display of antique cars and an old John Deere tractor drew a large crowd of onlookers. James Fuller, from Dexter, gave a short demonstration on how the hand-operated lift raised and lowered the single moldboard plow on the old model 41LA John Deere.

After viewing the syrup cooking process and talking to the antique vehicle owners, the large crowd drifts toward the barn where the grits, sausage, pancakes, and biscuits are being prepared. Addie, Stubbs’s wife, says their syrup cooking and breakfast feeding can be compared to a gigantic family reunion except the guests don’t have to be related to each other.

"We keep it about as informal as it gets," says Mrs. Stubbs. "We just eat off the back of pickups, trailers, and even string out some 2x8 planks on barrels or anything high enough to support them for people to eat on."

Hattie Jean Duke has helped the Stubbs do the cooking since they started their annual syrup cooking and social event. When asked how good Jimmy Stubbs’s syrup really is, she just smiled and said, "Well, I’ll tell you, Jimmy’s syrup is so good I saw a fellow a few minutes ago sopping syrup so fast he was drooling in his shirt pocket."

Mack Free, manager of the Elmore County Exchange in Wetumpka, says Judge Stubbs is a good customer of the Co-op, buying feed, seed and fertilizer, and syrup barrels there. "I’ll tell you another thing," says Free. "Hattie Jean isn’t stretching it, Jimmy Stubbs’s syrup is so good that it does make some folks drool in their shirt pocket."

Home cooked cane syrup so good it makes people drool in their shirt pocket? That just might be the ultimate complement to a master syrup maker like Jimmy Stubbs.

Ben Norman is a freelance writer from Highland Home.