The “Molasses” Winter
Place: Beckett Mountain, AR
The fall and winter of 1936-37 were tough times for my folks. We had moved into this share-cropper’s cabin which was hardly livable. (See previous post.) Even after Mama and Daddy lined the walls with cardboard and building paper, water froze in the kitchen during the winter.
My dad spent most of his time working on the church building, but that fall someone in the community hired him to cook off a batch of molasses, a skill he was good at. Income from the church was very low, so my parents were happy to take this job to earn some money. Mama went to help, and since my sister was in school, I went along, too.
The mill was set up in the man’s yard, and cane was brought in on wagons. Mama fed the sugar cane into a machine that pressed the juice out into a long narrow pan. Dad had a fire under one end of the pan and as the juice cooked, he watched to see when he needed more fire or more juice. He had a stack of old newspapers and when he thought the juice had cooked enough, he spooned some on a piece of newspaper. If he could read the print through the juice, he had molasses!
We worked several days. I spent my time sucking the leftover juice out of pieces of pressed cane and playing around the “pummey” pile. (Pummey was the name for the cane after the juice was pressed out. It was used to mix in feed for livestock.) Sometimes I brought wood for the fire. When I got tired, I sat on the ground and drew pictures in the dirt with a stick.
Dad had understood he was to be paid for the job in cash, but when the work was finished, the owner paid him in molasses! I remember how disappointed my folks were. When Dad asked the man if he could be paid in cash, he was told to sell the molasses to get his money.
I don’t know how many buckets of molasses we got, but it must have been 15 or 20. Mama and Dad took them home and stacked them along the wall of the big room of the cabin. Sometimes, when Dad went to Rose Bud he could sell one or two buckets for 50 cents each. That bought gas for the car, and a few basic food items, such as flour, tea and coffee. If we ran out of anything, we did without until more money came in.
That winter we didn’t buy sugar; Mama cooked with molasses. We had molasses cookies, molasses cake, molasses custard, and molasses on cornmeal pancakes for breakfast and sometimes for supper. For her lunch at school my sister took molasses cookies or corncakes with molasses spread between them. Cornmeal was given to us by church families who grew their own corn and ground it into meal.
Across the field in front of the cabin lived one of the church deacons and his wife, Emil and Virgie Clark. They had three young boys, E.C., Martin, and Tommy, who became my playmates. Virgie was small and energetic; Emil was slower and more deliberate. Neighbors said that if they saw a lantern moving around outside the Clarks’ house or barn at night, they could tell whether Emil or Virgie was carrying it by how fast the light was moving.
The Clarks were hard workers and thrifty people. They had prepared for winter by stocking their barn with feed for their animals and their smokehouse and cellar with food for their family. That fall and winter, Mama and Virgie worked together; they dried apples on screens set across saw horses, and shelled corn and made hominy in a big black kettle over an open fire. Later they made lye soap for both families, and Mama helped with the meat at butchering time.
The Assemblies of God is built on the bedrock of faith and commitment of families like the Clarks who stood by a pastor and sacrificed to help build a church. On Sundays Virgie taught a class for children and played the pump organ for the song service. My sister had been given a few piano lessons by a friend in Oklahoma, and Virgie continued teaching her on the pump organ. However, Lucille had trouble remembering to pump while she played, so the sound slowly grew weaker until it stopped!
During the cold months, Virgie got up early and, dressed in a warm outing-lined jumper, went to the barn to milk and gather eggs before breakfast. During this time she also prayed. Sometimes she felt impressed to walk across the field and bring us milk, eggs, and a piece of bacon from their smokehouse. Mama was always happy to see her coming with her jumper pockets filled with things to add to our molasses and corncake diet.
Virgie was especially thoughtful to bring food on mornings when we had overnight guests. Sometimes my sister had a girl friend spend the night and occasionally an evangelist or traveling preacher would stop in, broke and hungry. Mama always gave them the best she had. Bedding a guest in such limited space took effort. If Mama put the minister guest in my sister’s small side-room, our whole family shared the big room, some sleeping on pallets, while Daddy kept the fire burning on cold nights.
The “molasses” winter passed as slowly as cold molasses pours, but eventually warm days ushered in the spring of 1937 – a spring that brought both joy and sadness. But that’s another story.
Copyright 2013 Joyce Wells Booze