Americus Times-Recorder, Americus, Georgia

Local News

November 29, 2012

Trains and Cane at the Boyhood Farm

PLAINS — On the crisp and windy morning of Saturday November 19 over 300 people visited the Jimmy Carter Boyhood Farm to enjoy Cane Syrup Days. Living history celebrations like Cane Syrup Day are held to keep traditional farming techniques alive. President Carter wrote about his memories of the syrup making process and farming in the 1930s in his book, “An Hour Before Daylight.”

National Park Service ranger Randy Dillard demonstrated the entire syrup making process from cane stripping and cane squeezing to boiling down the cane juice in a giant syrup kettle.

Dillard’s demonstrations were assisted by Francis, the park’s 37-year-old mule, who operated the cane press for most of the day. Francis has already retired once from a National Park. She pulled barges full of visitors up and down the Chesapeake and Ohio canal in Washington, before taking up residence in Archery.

The sugar cane was grown on site in the demonstration garden from seed cane. Foot-long segments of cane stalk are buried each May in small trenches about a foot and a half apart. Cane sprouts up from the ring of seeds in the bands between segments of the stalk. The cane is harvested five or six months later by cutting down the stalks with a sharp knife.

A woody stalk of cane is fed into a slot on the side of the press where it is ground up to release the sweet cane juice. Ivy Williamson helped ranger Gabe Laster feed stalks into the press. She is from Birmingham, Ala. and stopped at the park with her family on their way home from a trip to Orlando, Fla.

After Francis completed her time hitched to the shaft attached to the cane press, visitors began to take turns powering the machine. Dewey Paradise watched his daughter Katie fill in for Francis. The Southland Academy second grader pushed the pole so fast that cane juice gushed into the collection bucket.

The family is from Plains. Paradise brings her to the park frequently. Katie is a graduate of Camp Jimmy Carter, a summer program that trains Junior Park Rangers.

“I bring her to this every year so she can see this and so she won’t grow up like other kids that don’t know what it used to be like,” explained her dad. “It is a good learning experience for her to see how her grand-daddy and great grand-daddy used to farm.”

The grindings pile up on one side of the press and the juice runs down a channel and is strained through burlap into a bucket. Ranger Dillard adds the contents of the buckets to the syrup kettle which is mounted over a crackling wood fire. It takes about 80 gallons of cane juice to fill the syrup kettle and produce eight gallons of syrup.

Dillard tells an onlooker that the fire heats the juice to 2,000 degrees to cook out the water. “If you let it go too long, it will turn into taffy,” he explains as he strains the film off the bubbling cauldron of syrup. The juice must cook for four hours before it becomes syrup.

The cane press at the Carter farm was made by Golden’s Foundry, which still operates in today. During the depression era, foundries were located in river towns because of the hydro power required to turn the turbines. Wayne Hardy, a former Golden’s Foundry employee, brought his 15-year-old grandson Patrick Crowley to the park from Columbus.

“I wanted my grandson to see this while he still could. This won’t always be around,” he said. Patrick fed stalks into the press while Hardy talked with Dillard. He explained that Golden’s was still making parts for the cane mills when he worked there from 1963 to 1969. “I worked for them right out of college.”

In addition to syrup making, rangers performed living history demonstrations of other important fall farm tasks such as corn shelling and blacksmithing. Ranger Kevin Alexander made J-hooks, which can be purchased in the general store on site. He heated up metal shards and pounded them out on the anvil to make them longer and thinner.

“In Carter’s youth, a pile of scrap metal was collected behind the barn. It was recycled to make repairs to farm equipment. You had to watch out for rattlesnakes, because they liked to hang out in the warm pile of steel.”

“Carter work in his daddy’s blacksmith shop from the time he was five years old. He would haul coal and water and turn the blower,” Alexander explained as he re-heated the metal in the steaming forge. “By the time he was 12 he could make mule and horse shoes, and sharpen plow points.”

Lilly Kate Ricketts was celebrating turning three with her brother Christopher and friends. Brooke Ricketts of Ellaville said that “Christopher is studying Jimmy Carter in school and wanted to come to the farm. Lilly wanted to ride the train, so we decided to do both.” The birthday girl is named after both of her great grandmothers and is learning to love history. And Francis, the mule, appreciated Lilly’s attention.

Ranger Patty Kuehn gave Paxton Driggers a Junior Ranger knapsack with a water bottle, medal, pencil, crayons and a badge. The nine-year-old East Smith Station Elementary student came from Phoenix City, Ala. with his mother Betty Adcock and his grandparents, Joe and Emma Davis.

Paxton flashed an “Opie Taylor grin” at Ranger Kuehn as he looked through the contents of the Ranger Kit. “The thing I like best would be the windmill out front and the house,” he explained. He quizzed Kuehn about nearly everything in the store and on the farm. “This store is awesome!”

A loud whistle announced the approach of the SAM Shortline’s Sugar Cane Express. The train was pulling a full complement of rail cars and disembarked a few hundred passengers on the loading platform. Maintenance Director Marshall Wooten of Americus and Engineer Brian Terry of Andersonville gave a quick tour of the train while their riders visited the National Historic Site.

Nearly 50 of the passengers were on a fundraising trip for Milledgeville’s Flag Chapel Baptist Church. Sherley Smith explained that they were raising money to pay for the monthly dinner the church hosts for senior members. She and her husband Alphonza and friends Annie Miller and Evelynn Owen remained on board to rest up from the previous stops.

Joe Kennedy and his daughters were talking about the dinner table in the Carter family home. This was the first train ride for 17-year-old Annie and 12-year-old Kira. Both girls were impressed with the Plains High School, the town of Plains and the peanut butter ice cream.

Kennedy is a power plant operator for the City of Tallahassee, Fla. and the girls attend Leon High School and Cobb Middle School. “We drove up to Cordele this morning,” he said. “We just wanted to ride the train. We enjoyed the farm, especially the sugar cane and the blacksmith. You don’t see that every day.”

Both girls agreed that now they “would understand when their grandfather talks about when he was a kid and they did cane squeezing. They are seeing it for themselves,” Kennedy said.

Eddie Cortez, a floor technician at Phoebe Sumter Medical Center in Americus was outside the Carter home chatting with passengers re-boarding the train. He brought his friends who were visiting from Florida to the park. Cortez said that he enjoys giving tours of the historic sites to his out of town friends.

The North American Railroad Car Association (NARCOA) also set up a selection of railroad inspection cars to demonstrate the importance of the railroad in the history of Plains and Southwest Georgia. Three-year-old Robert Walker was reluctant to allow his mother Christina help him dismount from one of the inspection cars. Wearing a conductor’s cap and clutching a juice bottle, he put a great deal of energy into testing the car’s controls.

NARCOA members on site explained how the self-powered, two-man cars traveled the rail lines keeping the tracks clear and safe. Today, the group maintains abandoned rail lines and takes hobby excursions on rails belonging to the Heart of Georgia Railroad, which operates the SAM train.

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