Revisiting the Past with Sorghum

In Michigan, Luke Dane is Teaching History Through Sorghum

Revisiting the Past with Sorghum

By Ed Dane

It was a warm October afternoon in Hanover, Michigan, a small rural community on the south edge of Jackson County. People were gathering for the annual Corn Maze in Hanover’s Heritage Park. The park is the home of the Hanover-Horton Area Historical Society. This year there was a new attraction. Luke Dane brought his antique sorghum press and was going to do a demonstration for the interested onlookers.

Luke runs a sideline business called Dane’s Pure LLC. He makes and sells maple syrup. He does the sorghum production for educational and historical purposes. Luke grew up in a homesteading family and is carrying on that tradition.

He purchased the sorghum press in 2010. The press was made in the 1860s and weighs about two and a half tons. It is powered by a large belt stretched between it and a tractor. On this day, it was powered by a 1940 Farmall H. There was no shortage of help as many of those in attendance were more than willing to participate. It takes several people to operate the press. One to feed the press, another to take the refuse sorghum out after the squeezing and one to man the collecting and filtering.

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The process of making sorghum involves first, growing the right kind of sorghum. There are several varieties of sorghum.

Most are grown for animal feed. It can be chopped for silage or grown for grain. There is also a popcorn form and broomcorn, which is a sorghum. But for the dark molasses-looking product, you need what is called sweet sorghum. It has a much higher sugar content in the juice.

When it is still green in the fall, before the first frost, it is cut and taken to the press where the juice is collected and cooked down to make the finished product. In the past, it was cut either by hand or with a corn binder. Then the leaves were stripped off and the seed heads removed before it was taken to the press where the juice was squeezed out, filtered and collected in barrels. The next step was to cook it down to produce the sorghum product, similar to the way maple sap is cooked down to make maple syrup.

On this occasion, a large 30-gallon caldron was suspended over a fire to process the 90 gallons of juice collected. It takes several hours to cook it down and it needs to be watched closely to make sure it doesn’t burn, especially near the end of the process when it gets thick. It also looks a lot different when it first goes into the caldron than it does when the process is finished. The juice when first squeezed is green. When it is finished it is a dark brown.

Sorghum
Collecting and filtering the juice.

Sorghum looks and tastes similar to molasses and can be used in the same way. Many people call it “sorghum molasses,” but it is not the same thing. Molasses is made from the sugar cane plant, not from the sorghum plant. There is very little sorghum produced today, and that probably adds to the confusion. Back before sugar became such a commodity, many people grew and used sorghum. It was a very popular item on the shelves of the general stores of yesteryear. During World War II, there was sugar rationing and many of the farmers grew sweet sorghum to supplement the family’s shortage of sugar. They used the refuse of the plants to feed livestock. That’s what this press was used for, and it had just been setting collecting dust all those years until Luke purchased it, cleaned it up and put it to use.

Luke said he plans to bring the press back to the park every fall to do a demonstration. So if you are in the area next fall, why not drop in and see the operation first hand. You may even get to help operate the press.

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