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A sweet family tradition

In Community, Community Contributors by OC Monitor Staff

Rhonda Blacklock with her cousin Everett “Cowboy” Blacklock at the Blacklocks’ sorghum mill. Rhonda is from Texas and her husband is stationed at Ft. Campbell, and discovered a grandfather from Cromwell, Kentucky, while looking into her ancestors and family tree. After finding the Blacklock Sorghum Facebook page, she decided to visit during production. (Photo by Heather Blair)

**This piece was submitted as part of our Community Contributor series.

By Heather Blair / OC Monitor Community Contributor

Few families can boast of an annual tradition lasting over 150 years. The Blacklocks, however, are richly steeped in a yearly custom passed on from generation to generation in the hills and hollers of Cromwell, Kentucky, tracing back to the late 1800s.

On a brisk, beautiful fall morning, I had the honor of stepping back in time to watch the process of making sorghum on the Blacklock farm. Not much has changed since the patriarchal beginning, other than mules have been replaced with motors.

I grew up watching sorghum made as a child, though I really only remember the steam and sweet syrup. My stepdad would take us most years, but I was probably too distracted with my nose in a book or playing on the hillside, as I watched grandchildren do this day.

Blacklock sorghum was (and is) a community event. Back before Facebook and text messages, neighbors would know by the time of year and the smell of the smoke in the air. Men would gather around the pit, much like a liar’s table at your local gathering holes.

The tall frames and familial smiles made it obvious all were related, even if I hadn’t known. Grandfathers, uncles, brothers, fathers, cousins and wives gathered busily around the pit preparing what would be the final batch of the season.

Sugar cane being fed into the mill to produce the sweet juice which eventually becomes sorghum. (Photo by Heather Blair)

“Cowboy” Everett Blacklock walked me back up the hill to see the process from start to finish. Once the sorghum canes are harvested and stripped, truck beds are backed up to the shed, where the stripped canes are then transported by conveyor through the crusher.

Sugarcane piles up after it has been through the mill. (Photo by Heather Blair)

 

The thin sugary liquid runs off the side, into a funnel and filter system, carrying it down the hill to the fire pit where it boils and snakes through the handmade tray. About an hour through the vat, small shovels then “skim” the foreign matters bubbling to the top.

Sorghum cooking in the vat. (Photo by Heather Blair)

 

Wood is placed below the vat for the fire which reduces the juice from the sugarcane into the thick syrupy sorghum. (Photo by Heather Blair)

 

Impurities must be skimmed as they gather on top of the sorghum as it cooks. (Photo by Heather Blair)

 

Alva Blacklock making sorghum. (Photo provided by the Blacklock family)

The finished amber liquid is then poured from the tap and filled into mason jars, hot off the table. Though three men could do the entire process, more than a dozen or so were helping or at least enjoying the visit.

A jar of Blacklock Sorghum filled straight from the tap. (Photo by Heather Blair)

This year’s crop produced between 100-150 gallons. Last year, due to the hurricane and weather patterns, they weren’t able to produce as much. Yet back in their ancestor’s day, it was not unusual to see 3,000 to upwards of 5,000 gallons.

(Photo by Heather Blair)

When asked why the change in production size, Cowboy laughed and said, “Cuz, we’re all fat and lazy now.” Then he and the family reminisce of how others used to plant extra crops just to have the Blacklock’s process.

Sorghum, or “principal sweetnin” as our ancestors knew it, is one of the oldest natural sweeteners around. The juice is cleansed of any impurities and what is left behind is only natural sugars and nutrients, such as calcium, iron and potassium. It is not the same as molasses, a sister syrup usually made with sugar beets, as this crop is specifically grown for the purpose of sorghum.

When asked how they best enjoy it, “biscuit, butter, syrup” was a common answer. Though Mike and Fran chatted about favorite recipes, such as shoofly pie and adding it to barbecue baked beans. They were kind enough to give me a recipe book where sorghum was the star ingredient in every dish. And Marsha remembered sliding a cane stick into the dipping spoon as a child and sucking off the sweet nectar.

While there, cousins and neighbors would arrive, sit a spell and then leave with boxes of jars and smiles, reliving the good ole days. One lady showed up a stranger, but left a friend.

Rhonda Blacklock, whose husband is stationed at Ft. Campbell, but hailing from Texas, found Blacklock Sorghum on Facebook, as she traced her family roots back to Cromwell. She came out to sample the syrup and meet her cousins, who before she only shared a namesake with.

“Best sorghum I ever had,” she said with a smile as she shook the family’s hands with a goodbye.

Cowboy snickered, “Just don’t let this reporter hear it was your first taste.”

No matter your age, you never forget your first sugary sample. And since each crop, every batch is unique, the yearly tradition is always just as sweet.

Heather Blair is an Ohio County native, residing in Beaver Dam with her husband, Tim, and son, Noah. She is a Family Support Worker for the HANDS program, through the Green River District Health Department. Through HANDS, she helps families build healthy, safe environments to boost growth and development for their children. She is active in her church, enjoys rock painting, photography, fishing and exploring with her husband. Heather has a passion for writing and sharing about faith, family, and finding joy in every day.

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