Molasses is a well-known product of the U.S. South, but in Kentucky and Tennessee the word more commonly refers to sorghum. There is a distinct difference between the two, even if the terms are used more or less interchangeably. Sorghum syrup is produced by crushing the stalks of the sorghum plant -- a type of grass – without removing any of the natural sugars. Molasses, on the other hand, is a by-product from the production of sugar from sugar cane or beets.
Kentucky has a documented history of sorghum cultivation from as early as 1899 when 21,982 acres were grown and 1,277,206 gallons of syrup were produced. Production dropped steadily during the 20th century, until an increase in sugar prices in 1972. Since that time, sorghum production has steadily increased and the syrup is easily obtained throughout most of the state.
Some varieties of sorghum are grown for fodder or grain (such as millet), but sorghum cultivation in Kentucky has always been primarily for production of syrup. The first step in this production is crushing the stalks in a sorghum mill. Although mechanized sorghum mills are now in use for most production, the original mills used horsepower of a different kind. Mills like the one pictured above would have been turned by a horse or mule tethered to the long wooden handle. The farmer would feed the stalks in through one hole, where they would be crushed by two steel cylinders. The resulting syrup would pour out through one spout, while the fibers would be extruded through another hole.
The mill pictured here is from a 1969 photograph from the Water Resources Study collection (2007ua034) in the University Archives, and was located in Spencer County, Kentucky. Even at this date, the mill appears to have been out of production for some time, but the field it stands in would once have been planted in sorghum. History (and sorghum) buffs can still see an antique sorghum mill in the model farm area of the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, and at sorghum festivals throughout the state in the fall.