Family takes sweet trip back in time

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

CUTHBERT -- There was no light that suddenly blinked on, no revelation that the all-but-bygone art form of cane-grinding/syrup-making could be a financial bonanza for mechanic William Burnett.

As a matter of fact, for the "volunteers" -- family membership or close friendship serve as basic qualifications -- who gave up their Saturdays during the holiday season to take part in the fascinating yet tedious process, the fun factor eventually faded. And as little as Burnett charges for his product, a profit margin is not really a consideration.

But every year since 1999, as Thanksgiving and harvest time roll around, Burnett, his three daughters, their husbands and Burnett's grandchildren old enough to take part have harvested sugar cane, ground the long stalks for their sweet juice and cooked that juice into a cane syrup that is far superior to anything Aunt Jemima ever made.

And while Burnett's cane syrup has graced the tables of many homes in and around this small community, word of mouth has led to calls from as far away as Alaska from people wanting more of the sweet treat.

"Dad was basically making his syrup to give away; he was more interested in the art form," Susann McNair, Burnett's University of Georgia-educated daughter who works for the Southwest Georgia Red Cross chapter, said. "But more and more people started wanting the syrup for Christmas gifts, and as word of mouth spread, we started getting more and more calls."

Burnett's cane-grinding/syrup-making process is a fascinating combination of his mechanical skills and his desire to keep one of the lost arts alive for new generations. He purchased a 1942 John Deere motor and a 1944 Chattanooga '44 mill that he restored and put together for the grinding part of the process.

Burnett revitalized an old elevator chute that "hadn't been used in 50 years" and attached a motor to it that takes away the byproduct -- what Burnett calls the "plumbing" -- of the cane, while the juice is collected in a series of screened containers that eliminate most of the solids that get into the mix during the grinding process.

A modified pump system -- also created by Burnett -- carries the juice into an 80-gallon cast steel kettle built at the old Columbus Iron Works in the 1940s, and that's where the cooking process starts.

"We have made one modern concession." Burnett admits. "We have a propane line that heats the kettle. In the old days they burned wood."

The kettle -- an impressive piece of equipment -- cooks the cane juice, which requires constant stirring using an original cane dipper, for a minimum of three hours at temperatures up to 190 degrees, and then the juice is removed and bottled.

"How much syrup do you think we get from 80 gallons of cane juice?" Burnett asks a visitor, whose guess of 40 to 50 gallons draws a laugh from Burnett and McNair.

"If we get 8 or 9 gallons from a making, we're doing good," he says. "Most of the cane juice is water, and it cooks out during the process."

Burnett became fascinated with syrup-making as a young boy when he watched farmer J.C. Moore do it in their tiny Coleman community. For three years, before other interests drew his attention, Burnett would come home from school in the falls and help Moore make syrup.

Burnett established a successful garage that he built himself in Cuthbert, and for 40 years he's worked as chief mechanic and his wife Gloria -- best known as "Squeaky" -- has handled the business side of things as secretary. He recently sold that 14-car establishment and built a smaller, "three-hole" shop just outside the small town at the junction of Georgia Highways 27 and 216.

In 1998, an area Farm Bureau agent told Burnett about the agent's father's syrup-making set-up outside Cairo, so Burnett and Susann visited on a Saturday morning and stayed all day, asking questions and taking notes. Burnett spent the next year collecting and retooling the needed equipment, and by the fall of '99, the Burnetts were ready to make their own syrup.

"My sisters (Kris Peavy, who lives in Coleman and is a 4-H agent, and Deborah Yelverton, who lives in Ellaville and teaches school in Schley County) and I loved helping out ... for a while," McNair laughs. "After a few years, the novelty wore off. I think it was when it hit us how much work was involved."

Burnett built a small, two-room shed to house his cane-making operation, a throwback structure he dubbed The Sugar Shack. It now sits just off highways 27/216, next to Burnett's garage. Also on the property is the historic Reddick's Store that also served as the post office of the small Benevolence community. Burnett plans to restore the structure and turn it into an antique shop.

Burnett's cane syrup -- "Good to the last sop," his label proclaims -- is sold in fifth or half-fifth bottles for a modest $6.50 or $4.50 a bottle.

"People from around here stop by and pick up bottles, and then a lot of them become repeat customers," Burnett said. "Some have suggested we stick the word 'gourmet' on the label and charge more for each bottle, but that's really not why we're doing this.

"As word of mouth has grown, we do get calls from people who want us to ship them syrup, which we'll do if they pay for the shipping. We don't really market our syrup though. It's in the shop Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed 12 to 1 for lunch. People just come by and pick it up."

Even with a growing number of syrup-soppers clamoring for Burnett's sweet treat, he has no intention of changing the way he makes his syrup.

"I don't know of another syrup-making set-up in 50 miles around here," he said. "It's really a lot of hard work, but we do it because it's fun."

Adds McNair: "It's really neat to take part in something that our ancestors did. People come by and bring their children or grandchildren to watch. It shows them a process that's a part of their history."


(The Sugar Shack's cane syrup is available at Burnett's garage at 2920 Georgia Highway 216 weekdays. For additional information, call (229) 732-3811.)