Southern Matters

Southern Matters

Sugar Cane - Main

Cane mills mean a simpler time to me. They bring forth images of friends and families working cooperatively in community-oriented, low-impact subsistence farming. Many mills, like many plants, remind me of particular people who have gone on. Some of the descriptions on these pages will reveal these nostalgic connections to the past. As a general rule, however, I will do my very best to stick with cane, but I am given to digression, so keep your mouse pointed to the scroll button.

As this is an admittedly personal experience, let me start by sharing a letter written to my father, W.H. (1912-1986), from his mother, Della (née Sutton, 1891-1932; see young Della). In a 1908 photograph, Granny Della is shown with 11-year-old Lena Belle Outlaw. In the following year, 1909, Della married my grandfather Lucious and became Lena's stepmother. Aunt Lena is wearing a dress made of material purchased by her deceased mother, Ardelia. The second photograph is of my father made during his Berry College years. Unfortunately, neither of these photographs is from the exact time of the letter, but they are the closest available

Before sharing the letter with you, I ask your forbearance while I place the letter in context. Now, there are no first-person memories of my father's father, Lucious (or Lucius?), and few stories survive, but those are beginning to add up. My paternal grandfather, L.G. Outlaw--unlike his father, W. H. H., who was a tall Primitive Baptist preacher--was of only medium stature, but blocky, and for reasons that need not be revealed in their entirety here, he decidedly was not fit for the ministry. He lived on the L.G. Outlaw Homeplace, which he and his first wife bought from her father, Stephen M. Lewis. This house still survives and is owned by his descendents. Later, he bought an adjacent farm from his second wife's father (my grandmother and greatgrandfather Sutton, repectively). This farm has passed to me and is now part of the W.H. Outlaw Farm, a Centennial Family Farm and Stewardship Forest that I named after my father. Both of L.G.'s farms joined the home place of his brother Joe, and they did not speak. He also carried a pistol against the potential mischief leveled toward him by a man whose injury could not be made whole by any means. My grandfather, though 45, went to sign up for the Great War, got drunk as he was wont to do, and died on the way home, which is the take-home message of this paragraph. (He was, I have learned since the first draft of this was posted in 2002, much more substantial than I had thought at the time.) Note that Della's farm joined that of my maternal grandfather, Mark Watson, and they got along sufficiently well that my paternal grandfather, on the birth of his son Buren (1917-1976), took the first step toward the betrothal of this son to my mother, who was born within three weeks, in 1918. The families were joined, but through marriage to the elder son, my father. Anyhow, the relevance of the harmony is that these families had had a bit of a tiff during the previous generation when Daddy's grandfather W.H. Outlaw formed a committee that waited on Mama's grandfather Sam Watson because of his drinking, all of which is duly recorded in the 1906/07 minutes of New Hope Baptist Church.

I heard my maternal grandmother Addie Watson (née Fountain) assert many times that "a piece of a husband is better than no husband at all." (This opinion had an origin, but none of us would be improved by disturbing that abscess.) It appears that Granny Della must have held this belief, too, because she married poorly after my grandfather died. This man was alleged to be so loathsome that a disinterested indigent Canadian, displaced by the Depression, offered to kill him as a general favor to the community. (It was not uncommon in that time and place for unattached men to drift through the country seeking food and shelter. However, my father never subscribed to the sanitized version of this Canadian's origin. Daddy thought he was a fugitive on the basis of his dress, ready cash and several phone calls made from town.) Unfortunately, the Canadian did not follow through. Predictably, Daddy and his stepfather did not find nirvana in the newly formed family. This situation reached a climax one night when the step-father, with murder on his mind and hatchet in hand, entered the bedroom of my then 12-year-old father, who was presumed asleep. My father escaped with his life through an open shutter-style window, but whatever remnants remained of his childhood were gone. After that, he lived with relatives, in the back room of a store, . . . in short, from pillar to post. In the end, Daddy wound up as a tobacco sharecropper and when the chance came, he sold his half of the crop for ten dollars, the better part of which went for a train ticket out. When this letter was written, he was struggling to work his way through Martha Berry's little college in the Appalachian foothills. At the same time, his mother had her own struggles, but took the time to go to a cane grinding, an oasis of plenty and pleasure in the Depression, though not a cure for pellagra, which hit many rural folks, including Della's sister Belle, then. Granny Della was but a wisp of a woman, but Sutton blood fed her soul and she was therefore willful and resilient. Before Daddy finished college, weeks of argument between Granny Della and her husband ensued, and he must have concluded she would never sign over her property to him while she had breath in her body. After he took that, he sounded a general alarm, ringing the dinner bell. When neighbors responded, he was circling a tree in a new roadster paid for by his VA check. He was generally held in contempt; he was an unrehearsed actor. Bereft of the courage to admit to femicide, he did so only indirectly by unsuccessfully floating one after another shallow and incongruous concocted tales, one of which included, of course, a mysterious intruder. He met his maker four months later, convicted of murder, sick, and chained to a prison bed without relief.

. . . and, now the letter:

Lenox Ga

Dear W H hope you are getting long fine I am bout sick this am. have got to where I cant sleep at night My heart bothers me so bad I cant sleep. recon just need some rest. WH I dont no where I can get all the money by Christmas or not but think I can before long Elma has been here 3 weeks will be one more week before she pays. dont know where she will draw her pay then or not.

I sure would hate for you to quit school before its out. just part of term wouldnt be much good for you. Buren [Della's younger son] has been to school ever day this week. We have been with Elma over to her house 3 nights this week to the cane grinding sure was large crowd their. some of them danced. all the rest are getting a long very well. Your grandma has done gone back she couldnt leave George [Della's brother]. he said she wouldnt have no body to quarrel with if she left him. Have you eat all your pecans will send you some more pop corn candy if you like it. Havent heard from Lena [née Outlaw, Della's adult step-daughter] since I wrote you last will try to send you some more money before long is it dry up their it sure is here. Son wont to see you but still I wont you to go to school. ans soon. from
your Mamma [Della]


For a continuation of discussions on cane grinding in the 1930s, visit my grandfathers' page. I assure you that there would be no dancing around my Granny Watson. (Dancing, card playing or any other kind of jollification was against her religion and nature. Being blessed with an excess of advice that was unrestrained by self-doubt, she provided guidance to all around her, even when they did not have the good sense to want it.)

Generations come and go, prosperity waxes and wanes; traditions, customs, and technologies shift with the time. So it was with cane-syrup production. By 1975 (8 years after Daddy's debilitating stroke that left him physically handicapped and sometimes confused), no one in my family made syrup and my parents were purchasing it from Luther Roland (the father of Raymond Roland), as indicated in this letter from my father to my sister:

Dear Carolyn and Tar Baby [Carolyn's Lab],

Temper [Daddy's miniature pinscher] and I have dressed and shaved. Yes, he helps me, too. Your mama is cleaning the carpet in the living room, now she is working with her African Violets before the traffic rush. She had real good luck making some kumquat jelly and preserves. Sam [Mama's brother] shares in this because he furnished the kumquats. Wednesday your mama spent most of the day traveling around with Granny W. [Mama's mother] to tend to her business at Harvey's [supermarket], Elbert's [Granny's grandson-in-law], bank, Moore's [department store] and Bill's Dollar Store. That P. M. they, all three (?), went to Luther R. [the father of Raymond Roland] after syrup. Then, she carried Granny W. home. Wednesday P. M. Stevie [ Granny's sister's grandson] shook the two seedling trees and he, Aunt Eula [Granny's sister], we, and the Shirleys [neighbor] picked up the seedlings, around 34 #. Had 11 # of Stewarts. She had a sale of $16.30 for that lot. There still remain a few in the trees but selling is now over.

[Remainder of letter missing.]


Now at the end comes the fine print. I have had some exposure to plants and their workings, but don't know nearly enough. But, about all the other things I write on this site, I know next to nothing, or maybe exactly nothing. I do not have significant experience, training, attitude, or aptitude in cane culture, mechanics or food. I only hope that I have copied reasonably well what others have told me. I hope you will still enjoy the pages despite the truth of this disclaimer.William H. Outlaw Jr.