A descriptive story of recent molasses workings in the southern Appalachian community of Sandy Mush serve as a vehicle for looking at some aspects of the social and economic history of the mountain valley, at efforts of local residents to hold onto the memory and values of the old ways in the face of unsettling changes, and suggests that these have more in common with rural folkways generally than with the Appalachia of mythology.
“Git up, Jack. What’s the matter with you? Come on, Jack!”
At least once during every 69-foot circuit turning the antique sorghum mill, Bob Buzzerd’s half-broke three-year-old mule – sired by a Mammoth Jackstock donkey on a Percheon mare – would turn stubborn even though the load was light. But at Buzzerd’s sharp command, the 1,250-pound mule resumed his trek, pulling the boom in yet another circle. The boom was nothing more than a counter-balanced sapling, with the fat end lashed to the top of the mill and the skinny end fastened to the mule’s harness by a two-foot leather strap.
Sitting low in a rickety folding chair so the boom wouldn’t knock his cap off, host Larry Cook fed the mill, three or four stalks of sorghum at a time, half-a-dozen or more if they were skinny, and sickly green sugar juice trickled out through a cheesecloth filter and into a white plastic 55-gallon drum.
Buzzerd, who said he doesn’t even like molasses, had been looking for an excuse to work Jack and stable mate Kit, a 1,200-pound-plus get of another Percheon-Mammoth Jackstock mating. Cook came up with an acre of bottomland where Hog Eye Road empties out of a cove of the same name and crosses Big Sandy Mush Creek, and Buzzerd put in the first crop, alternating the mules behind a single-bottom plow.
Cook, poking through several generations of accumulated stuff in his shop and barns, found and restored a 200-pound sorghum mill manufactured by the Chattanooga Plow Co. in 1815, according to the date stamped on the bottom of the mill’s cast iron body, and mounted it atop a sturdy frame he made from bolted-together sections of railroad ties. Cook also built a seven-foot-long outdoor brick oven with a sheet metal door at one end for feeding the fire with old fence posts, broken down pallets, and scrap wood, and arranged for the construction of a three by seven-foot stainless steel boiler pan with six-inch sides that would sit atop the oven.
Together, Cook and Buzzerd started the Sandy Mush molasses working in 1998. Cook, then 46, who hadn’t made molasses since he was a child, said he thought it would be something to do “just for the fun of it.” Unlike the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s annual re-creation of pioneer days in Cades Cove just across the Tennessee border, the molasses working wasn’t a conscious effort in this Western North Carolina community to reclaim a slice of the rapidly vanishing southern Appalachian heritage. But it’s worked out that way.
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The first molasses working almost didn’t come off. As the crop was maturing – it looks like corn from distance -- an extended family of beavers discovered its true nature and began chewing down stalks and dragging them back to the creek to make their dam and houses. To the beavers, who survive the winter by eating the insides of their houses, this was an unparalleled treat.
Cook, who discovered the maze of trails cut through the sorghum, sat up most of one night with his rifle, firing near the beavers in an effort to scare them off. They would scamper back to the creek only to reemerge and head for a different part of the patch. Another night, Cook spread several boxes of mothballs. “The mothballs helped for a little bit, but then the beavers were back,” said Cook, who runs a grading business with his son and one other regular employee. “Finally, we tore down their dam with a track hoe. We had better luck with that. They moved on down the creek.”
Cook saved enough of the crop to produce about 400 gallons of juice, which was boiled down to 60 gallons of molasses, filling 240 quart Kerr and Ball mason canning jars. That level of production was an excess which Cook and the other participants in the workings vowed never to repeat, since it took from Friday afternoon until mid-day Sunday to boil down all the juice and left the most dedicated of the workers badly sleep deprived. Cook estimated that 200 to 300 people – about a third of whom he had never seen before -- showed up on Saturday to watch the molasses being made and feast on smoked pork barbeque and fixings. One of Cook’s neighbors had planned to bring down his old still that hadn’t been used in several decades and show the folks how white liquor was made. After a lengthy back-and-forth debate, he opted for discretion, which was fortunate since Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford showed up in search of reelection votes.
After the first year’s bumper crop, Buzzerd reduced the size of the planting. The initial crop failed the second year and had to be replanted. The 2002 crop, hostage to inconstant weather, came in with predominately thin stalks, a formula for twice the work and half the yield. Half a dozen men showed up at 8 a.m. on a weekday to begin the harvest. Several others wandered in during the course of the day. Vance Garrett of Garrett Cove, whose family settled in Sandy Mush prior to the Civil War, carried a machete he had fashioned from a worn out saw blade. Most of the other men wielded homemade tobacco choppers: Six-inch-wide, 10-inch-long strips of steel, with one end of each strip ground to a wicked edge and the other wrapped around and nailed to a 24-inch hand-carved hickory handle. The one newcomer to Sandy Mush among the harvesters came armed with a pricey and somewhat heavier Japanese brush-cutting knife.
There is an elegant and utilitarian simplicity in folk implements – tools fashioned and refined by generations of users. Burley tobacco is the most labor-intensive of mountain crops, demanding an average of 339 hours of backbreaking work per acre. Except for the one newcomer, the sorghum harvesters had all grown up with burley and were, to a man, efficiency experts at that type of manual labor. In experienced hands, the awkward-looking tobacco choppers – with the morphology of Indian tomahawks – sliced cleanly through the stalks an inch or two above the ground. A second swipe of the lightweight tool took off a fruited top.
Everyone was tired by late afternoon, when the massive flatbed farm wagon, filled precariously high with sorghum stalks laid crossways and held down with a pair of 25-foot yellow straps, was finally hauled up Hog Eye Road to Cook’s workshop, where the mill had been readied. Enough had been cut for three runs. “I’m glad I wasn’t born a Cuban,” quipped one of the harvesters, stiff from his labors. The newcomer with the heavier knife couldn’t lift his right arm above his shoulder for three days.
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Ted Surrett, 56, the short sleeves on his gray cotton work shirt rolled up to expose a matt of salt-and-pepper hair on his heavily muscled biceps, propped one foot on the stand of the Delta table saw on which Cook’s father, Tom, had made furniture in the 1950s and picked out passages from a dozen old-time bluegrass and mountain tunes, from “Tennessee Waltz” to “Old Rocky Top” to “Shady Grove.”
“The music’s not in me. It’s in this,” he said, tapping the side of his banjo. “All I do is figure out how to get it out.” No one believed that, of course, but it was a good line, and everybody was far too mellow to argue with the man providing the music.
There was the friendship of shared purpose among the several dozen men, women, and children gathered in and around the occasionally used woodshop, a rapidly emptying cooler of Bud Lite and Icehouse, and a bottle of peach-flavored five-year-old moonshine in a George Dickel bottle that Cook left on the table saw for anyone to sample.
Moonshine doesn’t improve with age, but Cook, who had dropped out of school after sixth grade to fish, hunt coon, and run a small still an uncle taught him how to operate, said he bought two cases from the distiller in neighboring Madison County shortly before the man died several years before. He brings out a bottle on social occasions.
It was 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18, 2002, the first day of the fifth annual Sandy Mush molasses working, and Surrett started off playing slowly, a few hesitant chords of this and that, eventually picking up speed until the fingers on his right hand were a blur on the strings. In tempo, it was rather like the banjo half of the famous banjo-guitar duel in the movie “Deliverance.”
“It’s hard playing all by yourself,” he complained. Surrett borrowed cell phones tied to three different wireless providers until he found one that would pick up a signal from Hog Eye Road, which cuts into the east side of the Newfound Mountains and is 20 miles west northwest of Asheville, N.C.
Half an hour later, long-haul trucker Junior Turner, 66, who had been driving since 6 a.m. and had just gotten back to his mother’s home in Turner Cove, changed into a faded black and white check wool work shirt, grabbed a baseball cap advertising “Three Mules Welding Supply” and his old guitar, and came striding in through the door to join Surrett.
Almost unnoticed, 69-year-old Earl Surrett, who like Ted Surrett lives up Surrett Cove at the head of the valley, slipped in through a side door to the shop, a pair of harmonicas tucked in the pockets of his well-worn and often-washed “Pointer” brand bib overalls. Both Surretts wore camouflage hunting caps.
For the next two hours, before taking an extended refreshment break, the three men went through a repertoire of bluegrass and mountain tunes, tune fragments, and musical passages that weren’t part of any recognizable song. Ted Surrett, the most musically accomplished of the three, usually took the lead, but occasionally Earl Surrett’s insistent harmonica forced its way to the front. Sometimes they were in harmony, sometimes discordant, but always they were enthusiastic. Earl Surrett put down his harmonica to sing one song in the style of Ralph Stanley, but his voice was so soft that the words were barely audible to a listener standing only 10 feet away. It was shyness from a man who, contrary to the vigorous assertions of his listeners, said several times he didn’t feel up to the skill of the other two. “I used to play when I used to drink a whole lot,” said Earl Surrett. “I picked it up on my own … never did learn too much. Then I had two heart attacks and didn’t play for years.” The other two said they were also self-taught.
“Wait until Gerald Brown shows up,” someone said. “He’s really something.” At the molasses working three years before, Brown, a National Park Service ranger who is in his 50s, squeezed into a pair of too-tight, cracked, patent leather shoes with steel “jingles taps” on the heals and toes and – with Earl Monroe bluegrass emanating from a boom box -- buck danced for an hour on a makeshift platform formed by a pair of four-by-eight-foot plywood sheets laid in front of the commercial smoker.
Buck dancing or clogging, a particularly vigorous and often undisciplined cousin to the English and Irish jig, was largely tamed and commercialized beginning in 1938 with the appearance of Sam Queen’s Soco Gap Dance Team at Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “Mountain Dance and Folk Festival” at Asheville’s old civic center and similar exhibitions at the White Top Folk Festival in Virginia. The festivals promoted group clogging, often featuring identically dressed men, women, and children. Although group clogging started off as a rare variation of mountain flatfoot dancing, the popularity of the Soco Gap Dance Team’s Asheville appearance led to a White House performance a year later for the state visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II of England. In an interesting feedback loop, group clogging – established in the public mind as the quintessential mountain dance -- became the norm at contemporary fetes celebrating old-time Appalachia. Indeed, the last several fall festival celebrations at the Sandy Mush Community Center have featured a troop of identically dressed cloggers.
On this Friday, the rail-thin mountain man, wearing work boots, pounded out his dance steps on the poured concrete of the workshop floor with ferocious energy that seemed to have dancer and musician feeding off each other. Cook, usually reticent about any personal public display, joined him and did his best to echo the “dancing fool” step for step. After trading wisecracks, they hugged each other in feigned exhaustion, and Cook retired to the sidelines.
Several other men – some drunk, some sober – took turns dancing opposite Brown. A knot of women in their 20s and 30s, some with young children underfoot, watched the dancing with great amusement and flatly refused Brown’s blandishments to join him. Finally, he grabbed the hand of a 40-ish woman who danced with him for about two minutes before slipping into the other room. On this day, in this place, dancing was a guy thing. “Brown goes dancing over in Marshall about every Friday night,” Cook said later.
Outside the cinderblock workshop, a commercial smoker that had been towed in by a pickup was loaded with 70 pounds of pork to be shredded for barbeque when the actual molasses working got underway the next morning, four hindquarters of deer that had been taken out of season, and three turkeys. The molasses working has become something of a “Brigadoon” for Sandy Mush, attracting old-timers who Cook said hadn’t been seen out and about for years.
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The Sandy Mush begins its life as Bald Creek, a rivulet seeping from the thin soil and broken rock just below the treeless crown of Sandy Mush Bald, one of scores of still-mysterious grassy mountaintops in the Smoky and Blue Ridge mountains, features that were once thought to be the work of Indians or lightening strikes. Somewhere down from the base of the mountain – no one can agree on the exact location – Bald Creek becomes known as Big Sandy Mush Creek and embarks on its southerly flow through the broad central valley of the Sandy Mush Community, picking up water from streams out of Garrett’s Cove, Willow Creek, Sugar Creek, Hog Eye, and a dozen smaller valleys and coves. In the 100-year flood of 1977, the Sandy Mush lifted Jones Valley Baptist Church from its foundation and floated it toward the base of Early’s Mountain, named for Gen. Jubal Early, who was fired by Lee for incompetence. The creek took a left turn to the east. The church went straight.
The valley narrows dramatically, and the creek’s flow picks up speed during the remaining 2.5 miles to the Buncombe-Madison County line, where it merges with Little Sandy Mush Creek carrying waters down from Doggett’s Mountain. The standard maps of Western North Carolina identify the confluence as the Village of Canto, which hasn’t existed for at least 75 years. The only things there are Eric Wells’ failed dairy farm, five rusted single-wide trailers he rents out, and Don Reeves’ two-pump BP gas station and country store – Sandy Mush’s sole remaining commercial establishment. Southern Appalachia is dotted with vanished settlements, including Odessa and Gem in Big Sandy, Cross Rock in Little Sandy, and Canto where the streams come together
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Between 1715 and 1776, an estimated 250,000 Scots-Irish – fiercely Presbyterian Scottish lowlanders who the British had forcibly resettled on the King James plantations in Ulster -- came to America, mainly through the port at Philadelphia. They brought with them the family tradition of making poteen (pot liquor), which was expressed as bourbon in Kentucky and Tennessee and corn liquor further south, and a skill and style of stacked-stone construction that can still be seen in the foundations and chimneys of log structures that have long since gone to soil. During the subsequent migration that took tens of thousands down the Great Valley of Virginia and into the Carolina Piedmont, they gained the Scandinavian-influenced techniques of building log houses and barns but largely lost their religious identity. In the late 1700s, the Scots-Irish and members of other less numerous immigrant groups filtered into Asheville, the only significant town in Western North Carolina, and began moving further into the mountains two decades before the Cherokee ceded most of their land in Western North Carolina in the treaty of 1819.
Cattle herders, who let their animals range freely most of the year, came into Sandy Mush around 1800. During the summers, some drove their herds west to graze on the grassy balds surrounding the Big Cataloochee Valley, which was first settled by three men from Sandy Mush. Farmers, who cleared the fertile bottomlands and planted corn, quickly followed the herders into Sandy Mush. They were numerous enough and prosperous enough by 1816 to establish subscription music school for their children.
Corn, cattle, apples, and logging became the mainstays of the valley economy, supplemented by hogs, turkeys, geese, potatoes, and tanning bark. The Buncombe Turnpike, which connected Asheville with the South Carolina’s urban centers in 1827 and was extended along the French Broad River into Tennessee, expanded their market for produce. There were gristmills in Sandy Mush (periodically washed away by floods), four Post Offices, five churches that remain standing today, and the remnants of several clapboard stores are still visible. As the Civil War approached, newcomers were left to buy still forested land further up Sandy Mush’s numerous side coves, where the soil was thinner and the slopes steeper. Large landholdings were divided among children and then further split among their children. There were few slaves in Sandy Mush, but sharecropping was prevalent. A sharecropping family would clear a hillside, farm it for three to five years, and then be forced to move on. Only a handful of sharecroppers ended up as landowners. Population pressures, smaller holdings, and the general decline of inefficient mountain farming led to overgrazing that turned a significant portion of Sandy Mush’s hillsides into washboards of deep ruts. There were hard times. Burley tobacco came to Sandy Mush early in the 20th Century. It could mean the down payment on a truck, tractor, or piece of land. The November tobacco payment could mean a bright Christmas for the children or break your heart. Some years, blue mold or bad weather would destroy the crop. Several times, the price of burley dropped below the fees it cost to store it. Bluford Surrett recalls that, when he was a kid back before World War I, “I’d possum hunt and catch enough possums where I could buy my shoes in the fall.” Added Duckett: “A lot of people talk about the good old days. I don’t think they’ve been there.” From the First World War through the Korean War and beyond, the community’s greatest export was its people: Some went to the factories of the north, some to Asheville, others to the textile mills that the Carolinas had lured south from New England with promises of cheap, plentiful labor. Farmers were forced to find jobs – they called it “public work” – and tend their cattle and plow their fields on the side. By the end of World War II, the population of the community had dropped from several thousand to about 500. Sandy Mush followed the pattern of the Appalachian “Great Migration,” which cost the region more than three million people between 1940-1970.
Sandy Mush is postcard beautiful but has the advantage (or disadvantage) of not being on the way to anywhere. Except for a switchback dirt road that’s barely passable and doesn’t even appear on some maps, it is a dead-end valley that no one would visit unless they knew it was there. But with the paving of Sandy Mush Creek Road from Reeve’s Grocery to the base of Early’s Mountain and the construction and paving of a shortcut route over Early’s Mountain, Sandy Mush became a 30-minute commute from the Asheville City Limits. Outsiders began buying up tracts of land and trickling in during the 1970s and 1980s, but the 1990 Census showed that only 79 of the unincorporated township’s 1,003 residents had come from another state. It was still a rural township, with 21 percent of its residents living below the federal poverty level, 50 percent of its houses more than 20 years old, and 46 percent of the occupied dwelling units heated with wood. But that trickle of immigration turned into a gusher, as more than 800 outsiders – both Asheville area residents seeking bucolic surroundings and retirees mostly from other states – poured into the community by 1999, leaving old timers distressed that their Sandy Mush was slipping away. That sense has fed into a widespread disdain of outsiders, who are seen as hiding their homes behind locked gates and “No Trespassing” signs. Don Reeves calls city folk “money people.” In years past, sensible Sandy Mush residents built their homes down slope from springs so the water flowed to them. Outsiders built on mountaintops “so they can look down on us,” according to the popular cant. Bill Duckett, president of the Big Sandy Mush Community Club for two decades and one of the valley’s few remaining full-time farmers, tells a revealing story about one encounter, a story that he has repeated many times:
It was raining. I was hauling silage. An old fellow, he came up to look at some property for sale. He pulled right out in the field to turn around. Of course, he just bogged down, which was stupid. And he came down, wanted the tractor to pull him out. I said, “Yeah, I’ll help you a little bit.” He had on a suit and tie, all dressed up. He was a real estate agent or something. I got a chain on the tractor. I was mad. My heart really wasn’t in it. It’s one thing to be that dumb, not knowing where else to turn. So I backed up to his car. He got out. So, I just pitched the chain to him. I pulled him out. He got messed up a little bit crawling in the ground. I was feeling a little better by then, but he started on. He says, “What do I owe you?” He jerked out his wallet, you know. I said, “Just pass it on.” He said, “What do you mean, ‘pass it on?’” I said, “Well, you help somebody else. Somebody needs help, you get in there and help ‘em.” So he looked at me like I was crazy.
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The persistent myths that outsiders use to define the “strange land and peculiar people” of Appalachia hold that mountain folk had become degraded and somehow different from other Americans due to generations of isolation and that they tended to be violent, anti-authoritarian, and ruggedly independent. So it is hardly surprising that popular culture has brought us such women as Al Capp’s Moonbeam McSwine and “The Beverly Hillbillies’” Granny and Ellie May Clampett. The men have ranged from a mythologized Sgt. Alvin York, born in a two-room dogtrot log cabin in Pall Mall, Tenn., to the retarded sodomite killers in James Dickey’s “Deliverance.” But the reality was captured by John C. Campbell in the forward to “The Southern Highlander & His Homeland:” when he wrote: “Let us now come to the Highlands – a land of promise, a land of romance, and a land about which, perhaps, more things are known that are not true than of any part of our country.”
There is no question that much of southern Appalachia has been isolated compared with most of the rest of America, if the measure of isolation is the slow development of its infrastructure. Even in Sandy Mush, despite its proximity to Asheville, electricity didn’t make it up many of the side coves until the 1950s. But that supposed isolation didn’t stop great numbers of men of the southern Mountains from serving in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the various conflicts since. Nor did it keep the coal companies from digging up central Appalachia or the logging companies from stripping the southern mountains of their great trees. Yet the myths persist, perhaps because visitors can’t see beyond what they expect to see or perhaps because mountain folk tell outsiders what they expect to hear. For example, “Mrs. Nannie Carson” (actually Mrs. Carrie Helper), a rural schoolteacher and practical nurse interviewed in 1938 for the WPA Federal Writers Project’s “American Life Histories,” described the Hackles of Hackletown as “people who had very little respect for religion. Many of them had never heard of the Bible.” The implausibility of that level of ignorance was illuminated in a marvelous encounter in Charles Frazier’s novel “Cold Mountain,” which he drew largely from local history and family stories passed down through the generations. In the novel, the heroine’s father, Monroe, a highly educated minister from Charleston who moved to Cold Mountain about 15 miles southwest of Asheville, offended the locals with his condescending lectures on theology. Monroe never caught on that his friend Esco, a “dipped Baptist,” was putting him on when he suddenly understood the Holy Trinity: “Three into one. Like a turkey foot.”
The popularization of feuds, including the Hatfields and the McCoys, and acts of naming, such as referring of a locale in eastern Kentucky only as “Bloody Breathett County,” led to a branding in the late 1800s and early 1900s of Appalachia as a violent and dangerous place. “Our Southern Highlanders,” Horace Kephart’s sympathetic and widely read romanticization, nevertheless reinforced the stereotype. Campbell countered with a meticulous analysis of homicide data from 1916 which showed that the murder rate for the rural mountain areas of Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia was about 13 percent lower that in the rural non-mountain areas of those same states and less than half of the urban rate. On the other hand, the view that mountain folk are suspicious and often resentful of authority seems to have a greater grounding in reality, certainly in Sandy Mush. Although the manufacture of moonshine was widespread during the first half of the 20th Century and didn’t tail off until the 1960s, Cook said the only raids he was aware of resulted from wives who were fed up with their husbands staying out all night and coming home drunk in the morning. The tacit understanding, he said, was that the sheriff would bust up the still but not make any arrests. But Miss Mabel Duckett noted one exception to that pattern. During World War II, an outsider who was rented from her father was busted for moonshine on a complaint from ladies in the neighborhood. It was during rationing. The women couldn’t get enough sugar for their canning, but they saw large bags being delivered to the moonshiner at night. And Don Reeves recalled with disgust and anger an incident in which he witnessed a neighbor using a backhoe to dig a trench and bury the carcasses of some two dozen diseased dairy cows within 20 feet of Sandy Mush Creek. He said he did not call the authorities either then or the next year when the neighbor buried two more cows nearby.
And on the question of independence, the reality is that people who live on the margins must be interdependent to survive. The late Duke historian Robert H. Woody, in a 1950 article on Cataloochee in the “South Atlantic Quarterly,” offered a fine distinction: “There was a rugged independence in the people’s minds and actions; the keynote, however, was not individualism but co-operation. Co-operation was both a matter of practical necessity and an avenue for social activity.” In old Sandy Mush as well as just about everywhere else in Southern Appalachia, workings had been a way of life. Neighbors gathered to raise houses and barns. Half a dozen or even a dozen farmers would work out a harvest schedule in which all the families would move from farm to farm, shucking a huge mound of corn each day, and then eating a potluck feast, drinking, and socializing after each day’s work was done. When someone died, a church bell was tolled, once for each year they had lived (if it was known), and friends would gather to dress the body, build the casket, and dig a grave. When Jim Hannah’s father, Mont, died in 1972, men of the community gathered with pick and shovel to dig a grave for the long-time schoolteacher who had come to Sandy Mush when the National Park Service forced the residents to leave the Cataloochee Valley. An old man sat off to the side, whittling a notch in a stick every time a wheelbarrow of dirt was dumped over the bank. When the right amount remained to cover the casket, he signaled the diggers to stop. And, of course, there were molasses workings. But as the mountain economy increasingly forced people to seek public work, they ended up with the money to pay for things but not the time to participate in the cooperative economy. As workings became more difficult for time-constrained friends and family, individuals with a strong preference for the folk tradition of workings would buy cheap, rough-sawn planks for boxed construction so their new homes could be thrown up in a hurry.  After the mid-‘70s, there were no more workings in Sandy Mush except for two special cases: Neighbors, church members, and co-religionists from other parts gathered to rebuild the Jones Valley Baptist Church on a hilltop that would protect it from all but Noah’s flood, and there was a similar gathering in 1994 when lightening ignited and burned two of the Rev. Bill Gillespie’s barns while he was preaching at Jones Valley.
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For the 1999 working, Cook and Buzzerd began the first molasses run early Friday afternoon, Oct. 8, and folks started gathering even though the main activities wouldn’t begin until the next day.
“I used to make molasses back in 1932. We kept it up for 8-10 years, quit sometime around World War II,” said Fred King, 87, a Sandy Mush native who now lives with his son closer to Asheville. “Times have changed since then. I’ve seen some good times. I’ve seen some hard times. Hard times was when we worked for 10 cents an hour. But people worked together back then, helped each other. Now, you can’t get together. This is a nice reminder.”
Doshie King, 80, one of four generations of Kings to attend the working, had great granddaughter Nichole in tow because she wanted the child to get to see “what we used to do back in the 1930s before I was married when I helped make molasses.”
Charlie Freeman, 69, and his wife, Mae, 70, who came across Early’s Mountain from North Turkey Creek, the next valley toward Asheville, joined King. “I can remember as a 10-year-old stripping the fodder off, cutting the heads off, taking the cane to Arthur Hawkins’ place on Big Sandy Mush to boil down,” he said. “There were five of us children. We made it to sell. Who ever wanted to would grind it at a neighbor’s. It was a neighborly thing. All you had back then was neighbors, didn’t have no money. When you were paid for work, it was five cents an hour.”
By mid-afternoon, there were far more people than work to do. Buzzerd would trade out Jack with Kip, when it was time for Jack to take a break and munch on fresh hay in the shade of an ancient white pine, and later trade out Kip with a refreshed Jack. Otherwise, there were no assigned tasks. When Cook got tired of feeding sorghum into the mill, Dillard Plemmons, his best friend and fishing buddy, would take over. There was always someone to bring fresh stalks to Plemmons, someone else to take the flattened stalks from the other side of the mill and spread them to cushion the mules’ feet as they continued their counter-clockwise circuits. Over at the farm wagon, Vance Garrett and several other men with pocketknives stripped the small leaves off the sorghum stalks. There has been a continuing debate at each of the working about whether or not this was necessary. While there were probably two or three who did not do the fine stripping for every one who did back in the old days, the consensus was that it wouldn’t hurt and might make the squeezing a tad more efficient. Besides, it was important to Garrett, and it gave the men something to do with their hands while they chatted. Hoot Worley of Asheville, the farrier who had shod Jack and Kip the previous Tuesday, carried a bundle of freshly stripped stalks to Plemmons, who was feeding the mill, and paused to talk with him. It had become second nature for the regulars at the workings to duck the slow-moving boom on its periodic circuit. Worley forgot to duck. He was embarrassed but unhurt.
When the 55-gallon drum was full of squeezings, both mules were given a break. Cook brought out a jury-rigged electric water pump the size of a baseball. They put the stainless steel pan on the fire pit/oven, ran one hose from the drum to the pump, a second hose from the pump to the pan, primed the pump, plugged in the cord, and filled the pan in about five minutes. Cook reached into a bucket of sloppy wet red clay soil and slathered it onto the interface between pan and oven, making a tight seal to hold the heat in. The fire was built up the point where the steaming green mixture was right on the edge of boiling and then held there for the next seven hours. Women and men took turns continually scraping the bottom of the pan so the sugary juice wouldn’t burn or crystallize and skimmed off the impurity-laden foam that formed on the swirling surface, chores critical to the quality of the molasses. Both tasks are performed with admirable efficiency by employing a flat-bottomed and perforated sheet of steel that has an open front lip, one-inch high sidewalls, and is welded at a 45-degree angle to a four-foot long section of pipe. The repetitive motions, as with knitting or churning butter, served as a backdrop for long, languid conversations among old friends. And when someone tired of the toil, all they had to do was look up, turn their head, and someone was at their shoulder asking if they could take over. A willingness to help is the ethic that makes a working work.
Then just about at the seven-hour point, if the fire has been maintained properly, the thickening molasses will start a rolling boil, producing a heavy foam that will gunk up the sides if not continuously scrapped off. Then the men folk gather to argue – as they’ve done every time – about whether or not the molasses will cool off to the proper consistency. Five minutes can make the difference between thin winter molasses and thick summer molasses that will flow in warm weather but not cold. Because no one at the Sandy Mush workings knows for sure, the decision of when to take the pan off the fire goes to who ever is most insistent about their guess.
That particular Friday afternoon, the run turned out to be summer molasses, and it was very good. A pair of long poles had been bolted to the sides of the pan, and four men – one on each pole end – carefully carried the pan over to a sturdy table. The molasses was ladled into 40 quart jars, the lids attached, and there was a symphony of pops as all 40 jars sealed. The hot molasses left in the pan was spread over a dozen-fresh from-the-oven biscuits that Irene Cook, Larry Cook’s mother brought over from next door.
“It brings back good memories,” said Hannah, who retired in 1993 after 26 years as an army intelligence officer. “I remember years and years ago we used to do this, but we had to ride the mules because they didn’t want to work unless you rode them. We couldn’t wait to have hot biscuits and molasses. You knew, when it got cold, there would be something good for breakfast for eight of us boys.” Harley Prestwood, 80, whose family built the last house up Hog Eye in the mid-1800s and has known Larry Cook’s family “for about that long,” took over a turn stirring the molasses. “I think it’s great, and it brings back a whole lot of memories for me,” he said, echoing Hannah. “I like it, and I like what comes out of it.”
The Saturday of each molasses working followed the same pattern. One of the men would begin taking the pork shoulders from the smoker at about 8 a.m., shredding enough to fill two or more 18-quart Hamilton Beach roaster ovens. Turkey breasts and deer hams would be sliced and kept warm in additional roaster ovens, and several gallon cans of pork and beans would be put into the still hot smoker to warm up. At 11 a.m. or a few minutes after, Larry Cook’s wife, Maxine, and his mother, Irene, would arrange to have everything laid out on several covered trestle tables, including the meat, a plastic gallon jug of Cattleman’s Barbeque Sauce for those who liked to wet down their pulled pork, hot pork and beans, cold potato salad, coleslaw, and bags of chips. A separate table was crammed with desserts that the women brought, including what has emerged as each year’s signature offering: A black walnut cake. There are also pitchers of sweet tea as well as ice chests packed with soft drinks for the children and beer for the adults. The food is served until everyone has had their fill and then some, and the last stragglers have dropped by to eat, generally mid to late afternoon.
Many of the regulars bring lawn chairs or card table chairs, and there are TV trays for those who have trouble balancing their plates on their laps. Some perch on the edge of the farm wagon once it has been partially cleared of sorghum stalks. The teens and younger children mostly sit cross-legged on the grassy bank between the workshop and Hog Eye Road. Most of the adults, however, end up with a paper plate in one hand, plastic fork in the other, and stand in conversational groups of anywhere from three to a dozen. No one stands off alone.
And at the end of the day, everyone who helped is entitled to share in the molasses.
Bill Duckett summed up as well as anyone the feeling toward the molasses working and feast: “I think it’s good that all the older people were involved and that a lot of the younger ones were here to see it. It is part of our heritage, and it gets people together.” The molasses working and the Sandy Mush Harvest Festival, with music, dancing, and cakewalks, “have been part of maintaining the community,” he added.
The other ways of remembering, include the annual grave decoration days in each of Sandy Mush’s immaculately maintained church yards, periodic reunions that a number of the old families hold either at the Sandy Mush Community Center or the Leicester Community Center in the adjoining township, and the school reunions that Miss Mabel Duckett helps organize every two years. More than 100 people showed up at the 2000 reunion, even though the Sandy Mush High School shut down in 1951 after only four students graduated that year, and the grammar school was consolidated with the Leicester Elementary School in 1966. “We had a memorial table for the ones that’s died since the reunion two years before,” said Duckett, who also brought out the more than 40 scrapbooks of Sandy Mush history that she has collected during the years. “And we have a speaker or a dance team or something, you know, just a little something, and we have a terrible lot of food, tables all across the back of the room. You just go around and fill your plate up and go on with another plate.” She said nearly half of those attending come back from outside Sandy Mush or Leicester, but “we’re all getting at the age, though, where a lot of them don’t come any more.”
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There are two fundamental question: Will the reunions, the molasses working, and other remembrances of times past necessarily end when the last of the old-timers are died and buried, and is it the culture of old Appalachia or something else that is being remembered?
In his answer to the first question, Woody, in “Cataloochee Homecoming,” offers no hope: “The time approaches when these reunions must cease, for ultimately there will be none left who was born or reared on Cataloochee. Even now not a single family lives on Little Cataloochee, and only three live across the mountain.” As he wrote in his lament:
This return to Cataloochee is something of a pilgrimage. We want to tread the familiar paths, to look on the simple white tombstones of our ancestors, to gaze on the friendly, eternal mountains, now disfigured by the gaunt arms of the dead chestnut trees, to smell the woods and the wild flowers, and to listen to the low monotone of the near-by creek, which lulled us to sleep in the nights of our youth. But this nostalgia, this remembrance of the old homeplace, the little adventures that cluster in our thoughts – this must give way to the reality of the desolate countryside, houses and barns empty and forsaken, the visible signs of a dead community.
But time has proved that Woody, if not wrong, was at least seriously premature. When cultural geographer and folklorist Michael Ann Williams visited Cataloochee on a warm Sunday morning in 1992, she encountered some 600 people gathered to “celebrate their tie with a community that has been uninhabited for over a half a century.” She added that, “The event bears a resemblance both to church homecomings and to family reunions. It unites two important themes in mountain culture – a sense of place and a sense of family.” Jim Hannah, descendant of one of Cataloochee’s pioneer families, was born and raised in Sandy Mush. Yet when he attended the 1998 reunion (accompanied by the author), he could call perhaps a third of the 300 people there by name. At every table where he paused to chat, he was invited to stay or at least come back to eat following a brief ceremony at Palmer Chapel. The white clapboard Methodist Church was filled to overflowing for its once-a-year service as Asheville businessman and reunion organizer Steve Woody – the only man who wore a suit that day -- read the names of those who had died in the past year. The bell was tolled once as each name was recited, and then the congregation sang “Amazing Grace” acappella.
While Cataloochee is a virtual community, recreated on one Sunday each fall, Sandy Mush has a physical as well as a spiritual reality. At least some members of most of the old families either remain in or have returned to live in the community, and their love of place remains intense. Faye Ferguson, born in Sandy Mush in 1925, moved north to Lincoln Park, Mich., to work in the war effort during World War II but returned in the early 1950s to care for her ailing parents. “Couldn’t be any prouder to be the Queen of England,” she said of her Sandy Mush mountain heritage. At the end of every molasses working, Larry Cook promises to do it again the following year as long as people are interested. But it is an open question whether his son and the other young people of Sandy Mush will try to keep alive the traditions of their parents and grandparents.
The second question is easier to answer. While a reliable picture of life in Appalachia prior to the dawn of the 20th Century remains at least partially obscured by the fact that virtually all of the written descriptions came local colorists, fabulists, nativists, social activists, religious missionaries from the north, and others with identifiable agendas, the traditions of the last century celebrated in Sandy Mush and elsewhere in southern Appalachia appear to have more in common with rural folklife in general than any supposed separate and distinct Appalachian culture. Consider Merle Curti’s observations in “The Making of an American Community,” the Pulitzer Prize winner’s meticulously researched pioneering social history of Trempelo, Wisc., observations that could as easily been written about Sandy Mush or Cataloochee before the diaspora:
When anyone sustained a loss to fire or other means, neighbors customarily donated time, labor, money, or other valuables to help rebuild or replace what had been destroyed … Thus, the settlement of the region … was a result of cooperation and joint assistance. For frontier women, men, and children alike, cooperation was a prerequisite for survival. But cooperative work sharing also afforded occasions for socializing among friends. People looked forward to candy breakings, quilting bees, house raisings, pea shellings, corn huskings, grain harvests, and hunting, fishing, and nut and herb gathering expeditions.
To test the idea of the commonality of rural folk life across regions, turn to Jacqueline Dowd Hall’s epic “Like a Family: The Making of the Southern Cotton Mill World.” Dowd and her colleagues in the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill conducted more than 200 interviews with former textile workers. Her observations about the workers and their families who came to the mill towns from the rural Piedmont areas of North and South Carolina applied with equal precision to those who came down from the mountains.
The farm household was an independent center of production; yet it was also part of a dense web of reciprocity and exchange … neighbors swapped work when there were fields to clear, houses to build, or a winter’s supply of quilts to sew. Thus, each family strove to take care of itself, but its survival rested squarely on a broader interdependence of kith and kin. Bound by ties of obligation and neighborliness, rural folks created communities where social and economic relations melded and values were widely shared.
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Just as the Cataloochee reunionists have resisted allowing their gatherings to be transformed into something touristy like Old Timers’ Day in Cades Cove, the molasses workers of Sandy Mush – when a crisis arose – were more interested in the practicality of getting the molasses made than in recreating an historically perfect yesterday. The 2003 working had been rescheduled several times. As the early November date approached, Bob Buzzerd developed a heart arrhythmia that could no longer be ignored. The day before the working, he was admitted to Mission-St. Joseph Hospital in Asheville, where his heart was shocked into quiescence and then restarted. Buzzerd attended the Saturday feast accompanied by his family, but he was in no shape to work his mules, and there was no one else who could handle them. A farmer friend of Larry Cook’s brought by a retired 13-year-old workhorse appropriately named “Sugar” who had been out to pasture for three years. Sugar managed to grind enough sorghum cane for only two-thirds of a run before quitting in exhaustion. Harley Prestwood’s son Terry, a joyous man of middle years and fixture at all the workings, mounted a four-wheeler, tied the lead from the end of the sorghum mill’s boom to the back of his olive-green vehicle, and finished grinding the cane for the first run plus a full 55-gallon second run.
Using the four-wheeler to finish squeezing the cane was more in keeping with such practical rural traditions as using an old boot sole for a barn door hinge than the alternative of letting the sorghum go to waste. Larry Cook said the second run was one of the best ever and proudly delivered a quart jar to a friend who missed the pouring off.