January 2014
Homeplace & Community

Cane Syrup and Bluegrass

Above, Kenny Campbell holds a jar of the clear, golden syrup. Inset, the syrup is bottled under the Stone Cabin label, and Kenny Campbell gives it away. Those who manned the syrup kettle get first dibs.  
   

Each year on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Pike County’s Kenny Campbell basks in the memories of his boyhood as he hosts his annual syrup making, culminating with a camp stew supper and bluegrass music.

Syrup is just naturally too thick to get in one’s blood.

 

But somehow it got in Kenny Campbell’s blood and that, along with the bluegrass in his bones, is a rather unique mixture in a man.

Campbell is the co-founder and president of KW Plastics in Troy, the world’s largest plastics recycler of high-density polyethylene. Plastic recycling is a complex procedure, but Kenny Campbell is, admittedly, a simple man.

"I like the simple things of life," Campbell said, as he relaxed against the backdrop of the lake near his home on the outskirts of town.

The chilly wind of the late November day swirled the sweet, sticky steam from the nearby bubbling syrup kettle and it mixed amiably with the cheerful chatter inside the barn.

The Friday after Thanksgiving has become a tradition at the Campbell barn on Henderson Road in Pike County. On that day, Campbell invites family and friends to the annual syrup making that begins not long after sunup, and the camp stew supper and bluegrass picking and grinning that begins just after dark and winds down around midnight.

Campbell grew up "all up and down" County Road 223 in rural Pike County. It was on that road that syrup somehow got in his blood.

"Back then, just about everybody had a cane patch and the best cane was a green cane," Campbell said. "Most of the cane was the purple variety, but the green cane was the best. It was easier to peel and to chew and it was sweeter. And the syrup made from green cane was the sweetest, the best syrup you could get."

  From left, a meter is used to help maintain the correct temperature. Reeves skims the cooled juice, the bubbles, as it accumulates.

Several years ago, Campbell began a search for the green cane he remembered so vividly from his boyhood days. He had almost given up when he met a sugar cane farmer from Louisiana who participated in a bass fishing tournament hosted by his son, Christopher.

The Louisiana farmer was familiar with the green cane and sent Campbell the seed cane he needed to start his own patch.

  Christopher Campbell pours the syrup from the large kettle to a large stockpot.

Campbell shared the seed with others in hopes the green cane would make a comeback in and around Pike County. He also decided to make syrup from the green cane.

"I couldn’t find a cast iron kettle, so I had one made," he said. "Harry Bullard made the kettle from stainless steel. The kettle has the same dimensions as the old kettle, but stainless steel won’t rust and it’s easier to clean."

Campbell, laughingly, said the stainless steel kettle wasn’t foolproof.

"The first syrup was taffy syrup," he said. "We didn’t even think about eating it. We poured it all out."

But that was then. This is now and the syrup made on the Friday after Thanksgiving was the clearest, the "goldenest" syrup you could ever hope to find.

After the syrup is poured into a smaller specialty cooker, it is drawn into glass Mason-type jars.  

The syrup makers first poured the syrup in glass Mason-type jars. A few days later, they bottled the syrup under the Stone Cabin label and Campbell gave it away. Those who manned the syrup kettle got first dibs.

With the syrup "poured up" and the kettle cleaned, all attention turned inside the barn where the camp stew was cooking in a pot, but not just any pot.

Campbell said the large cooker is oil heated. The oil is inside the wall of the cooker, originally used to make cosmetics – lipstick to be exact. Campbell found it by chance and it proved to be just perfect for cooking camp stew.

"The way the cooker is heated – with oil between the walls – the lipstick wouldn’t stick and neither will the camp stew," Campbell explained. "So you don’t have to be constantly stirring the stew. That way, making camp stew is much easier."

When the stew is done and everyone pushes back from the table, it’s bluegrass time.

"That’s the kind of music I grew up listening to," Campbell said. "My daddy played the fiddle and his brother played, too. Another brother played the guitar and their sister Lureen played the ‘violin.’ It’s the same instrument. You just play it a different way. She went on to play in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra."

 

 

 

Left to right, Kenny Campbell (far left) enjoys playing bluegrass with family and friends who show up for the syrup making. The stew is prepared in a larger cooker that has oil inside the walls. The cooker was originally used to make lipstick.
 

Campbell said playing music was the only entertainment available to his family.

"They would play music until bedtime and most of them were accomplished musicians because they had plenty of practice," he recalled. "They would move the furniture out of one room of the house and that’s where they would play and square dance."

Campbell said the musicians learned from each other.

"Nothing was written down," he said. "That’s how I learned to play the guitar, from listening to and watching other pickers."

His dad Newton Campbell was legendary among Alabama fiddlers. He played all around the area and entered local and state fiddling contests.

"My dad never entered a contest that he didn’t win first place," Campbell said. "I played guitar with my dad and my friend, the late Reynolds Rushing, backed his mom on the guitar. His mother was one of the best fiddle players around. When she died, Reynolds started playing fiddle. When my dad died, I wanted to play fiddle and I tried because I really wanted to play it, but it was not in me to play fiddle."

Campbell has been blessed in that he enjoys all kinds of music – except rock and rap. "I’m not even sure that’s music."

"But it’s bluegrass that’s in my bones," he said. "It’s what I grew up with and what I love."

So, each year on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Campbell basks in the memories of the days when he was a boy, chewing green cane and sopping a biscuit in syrup made from green cane juice and sitting on the porch listening to the bluegrass music his family played.

And, when the day is done and the green cane syrup has been bottled, the camp stew is on the table and the bluegrass is playing in the barn, Kenny Campbell straps on his guitar, tunes it a time or two and joins the band.

As the old Shaker song says, "’Tis a gift to be simple." Kenny Campbell has the gift.

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.