Raising Cane

November 30, 2017

For decades growing cane and making syrup was a tradition across East Texas and the South, today, there are just a few keeping it alive and going.

Sugarcane has been a sweetener staple the world over for centuries.

It grows in warmer climates and can even be found in the southern regions of the United States, Texas is one of those states and sugarcane once was a staple in East Texas, generally on a line running from about the center of East Texas to the south. It’s grown extensively in South Louisiana.

As the growing of cane spread from Southeast Asia westward to North Africa where it met with the rising technology of Europe, sugar began to be a valuable commodity. Regents were known to trade fine jewels for equal weights of sugar. When Europeans traveled to the New World, sugar cane found a new home where it could flourish in the warm islands of the Caribbean.

The Spanish brought cane to the New World first, coming with Columbus’ initial journey. Less than 20 years later sugar produced a profit in the New World. By 1520 sugarcane was on the main continent, brought to Mexico by Cortez, who established the first sugar mill in 1535. Within 100 years sugar production made the tropics of the New World the most profitable industry in the world.

George Ivey and his sons, Mel, Clem and Roy, make syrup in the community of Snuff Town, east of Grapeland. Standing in back is Tommy Cutler.

While the Spanish ventured on their quest for gold, the British established their own empire through the sugar plantations.

The sad part of all this, slave labor and other-worldly working conditions made life unbearable for those at the bottom of the social chain at that time. Slaves were mere property and it didn’t matter if they died in the process, as long as the cane kept growing and the sugar kept flowing — that represents the dark side of the sugar industry. As the sugar industry grew, so did the slave trade.

Eventually cane production came to the shores of America. The shores along the Gulf of Mexico lent itself well to the crop. Sugar cane came to Louisiana in the late 1700s, then spread along the Gulf Coast to states like Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and of course, Texas.

Not all of the cane went for the making of sugar, much of the cane grew in small, private patches, for the making of syrup.

Up until the past 100 years or so, sugar proved an expensive luxury. During the hard times, like the Great Depression, and the rationing years of World War II, sugar for the home was non-existent at times. For farmers who grew cane, though, when the cold of fall came they could use mule power to squeeze the juice from the cane and boil the juice in large kettles, or in specially made evaporators. Every community generally had a “syrup mill,” and the farmers brought their cane to the mill, and helped provide the labor to make the syrup.

Syrup making proved to be a true community event. Enough syrup was made to carry the family through to the next year. The cane syrup could be put on biscuits and for the ingenious cook, used to make cookies and other sweets.

Today sugar cane can scarcely be found outside of the giant sugar-making operations; and the syrup makers are even fewer. Lonnie Fisher and his wife Judy grow cane and still make syrup every year on their little patch of ground near the Southeast Texas town of Mont Belvieu.

“I always like doing things, so a few years ago I decided I wanted to grow some cane,” Mr. Fisher said. “I made a syrup mill and pan and make syrup every year.”

Friends and folks from their church come over and get in on the syrup making. This takes place over several weekends throughout the fall. Judy makes delicious buttermilk biscuits and brings them to the syrup makers. The syrup makings are reminiscent of the old gatherings around communities across East Texas and the South where families came together to have some fun while getting some important work done. Those days are long gone from the modern life in this country, but folks like the Fishers still work to keep some of the old traditions alive.

Along with the cane, Mr. Fisher loves playing with old equipment including his old John Deere L tractor, in mint condition. He also has a few other machines around including an old John Deere hit and miss motor, a Cub tractor and much more doing chores around their 10-acre patch of paradise.


The old John Deere is for sale, for any interested $8,500 takes it home. Call Mr. Fisher at (824)414-4510.


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