As the days grow shorter and the leaves begin to change, it can only mean one thing – it’s sorghum making time in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Sorghum-making demonstrations at Cades Cove Visitor Center take you back in time to the mountain farms that once populated the Smokies and their annual fall sorghum cane harvest. Demonstrations are free and open to the public. Upcoming dates are:
To ensure the demonstrations are as realistic and historically accurate as possible, GSMA partners with experienced sorghum makers. Sherry and Mark Guenther, owners of Muddy Pond Sorghum in Monterey, Tenn., have been making their well-known trek to the Smokies each fall for 20 years. Their mules and old-timey tools draw crowds of onlookers who sometimes stand for hours, marveling at the time and energy it took in years past to produce a family’s supply of sweetener.
“When we make sorghum at Cades Cove, we bring our mules, Mattie and Ethel,” Sherry said. “The mules take turns walking around the cane mill. They are harnessed, and a lead rope is tied to a long pole. As the mules walk around the mill, the rollers turn in the mill and squeeze juice out of the sorghum cane.”
Mark then boils the freshly squeezed juice down on a wood-fired furnace until it becomes a thick, sweet sorghum syrup – the same syrup featured in Aunt Becky’s famous barbecue sauce, available at the visitor center.
“GSMA sells our sorghum and barbecue sauce at a table near the live demonstration,” said Sherry. “I give visitors samples to taste and talk to them about this rich mountain tradition. It is gratifying to see others enjoying the sweet sorghum syrup after it is boiled down. It is labor intensive, but oh so worth it.”
Sorghum isn’t just a job for Sherry and Mark – it’s a passion. “Sorghum syrup making is a dying art,” Sherry said. “We want to keep this part of our past alive for the next generation. We love to see the excitement in the visitors’ eyes as they watch this process. It brings back a lot of good memories for middle-aged to older people and teaches the younger people a part of our past. We have visitors come up and say they remember Grandpa doing this.”
Great Smoky Mountains Association exists in part to help preserve the unique history and culture of the Smokies. One way it does so is through funding sorghum-making demonstrations in the national park. Sorghum syrup is distinct part of the Appalachian culture. For many mountain inhabitants, sorghum was the only sweetener available.
Visitors will find many nods to sorghum throughout the park’s eight visitor centers, including GSMA-published cookbooks containing delicious sorghum-based recipes.
Food & Recipes of the Smokies not only includes sweet sorghum recipes, it also dives into the history and importance of the crop. “In the past, most mountain farmers had a cane patch. Seeds were planted in spring, and some farmers believed that sorghum cane planted in dark ground produced dark sorghum molasses, while that planted in light ground yielded light syrup. When the seed heads turned red and hard, it was time to harvest the cane. This needed to be done before the first frost, usually by late September or early October.” (Rose Houk, Food & Recipes of the Smokies)
The plant’s leaves and seed heads were then stripped, and the cane was cut. It was taken without delay to a sorghum mill. Because molasses making was something of a specialty, usually only a few people in any area had a mill.
The Guenther family’s sorghum is 100% pure sorghum with no additives and is made from Muddy Pond’s own sorghum cane planted each year. Learn more at MuddyPondSorghum.com.
Since its inception in 1953, Great Smoky Mountains Association has supported the preservation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park by promoting greater public understanding and appreciation through education, interpretation and research. A non-profit organization, GSMA has provided more than $44 million to the park during its 66-year history.