DADE CITY — The afternoon was gray and dreary. Certainly no time to be out cutting firewood. But even in the rain, Wilbur Dew swung his ax.
The "Raising Cane" cane syrup tasting contest begins Saturday morning at the Pioneer Florida Museum, and Dew is starting early. This year, he's making a double batch of syrup. That means twice the fire to heat the kettle.
So Dew, a 78-year-old man wearing khaki, dirt-caked Dickies work clothes and a sweat-ringed fisherman's hat, got chopping. He gripped with thick, dusty hands as he brought down the ax handle. A layer of damp sawdust had formed between his boot laces. The black dirt crescents under his nickel-sized fingernails were noticeable when he pointed to artifacts around the museum farm.
On Saturday, 24 syrup makers from Blountstown in the Panhandle to Fort Lauderdale are scheduled to gather with samples of their work to offer for judging. The samples will be portioned out to attendees, who will vote for their favorites.
All the while, and with the help of Molly the mule, owned by Zephyrhills High School's FFA team, Dew will be grinding cane and boiling syrup in a jacuzzi-sized, 80-gallon cast iron kettle for the crowd.
The sugar cane for Saturday comes from Charlie Kirksey, 57, a fellow syrup maker of Dew's, who grows sugar cane up in Lacoochee.
Because of cold weather last week, Kirksey was forced to cut all his cane to keep it from going sour. It will make about two batches for Saturday, which won't be used in the contest. Dew made his own syrup in November to compete.
Making a sweet brew
Syrup making works like this:
Around Thanksgiving for those up north, sometimes later for local growers, the cane is harvested. Then, it's hauled off where it can be milled.
Cane mills come in two forms: fully automated ones that run on the power of a tractor engine, or the more rustic option, which looks like a wooden crane, with a boom attached to a mule, who is led in circles to turn the gears.
The farm at the pioneer museum has both: One run by a John Deere, the other run by Molly.
Cane stalks go in the mill. Juice is squeezed out.
Dew measures the cane in pick-up truck loads. One heaping load of cane usually yields 80 gallons of juice, about one batch, or one "cookin.'"
As a rule of thumb, the juice cooks down to one-tenth of its volume. In this case, 80 gallons of juice should boil down to 8 gallons of syrup.
And it goes well on "all kinds of cookins," Dew said. Pancakes, biscuits, waffles, basted ham, baked beans, "anything that you use brown sugar on."
Dew, a trustee at the museum, does all this because it takes him back.
"When you get old age," he said, "you like to remember the good ol' days."
In those days, some 63 years ago, Dew wasn't the one cutting wood. Instead, he remembers paling around with other youngsters, playing games such as marbles, tag or mumblety peg, during the annual cane cooking on local farmer Wendell LeHeup's property.
Back then, making the celebrated sweetener was an all-day affair for the whole Zephyrhills community. Mothers and daughters who hadn't left their farms all year finally had a reason to dress their best. Twenty or 30 people would gather for hours of socializing over biscuits, sausage and ham. A few men tended to the boiling cane juice. Older adults went down to the barn for a more intoxicating version.
"We didn't know why, but the old folks were walkin' funny and talkin' loud when they came back," Dew said with a smirk.
Syrup-making's history has been a little rough in recent years. In 2005, the practice was almost outlawed in Florida.
It started when Willard Smith, a Blountstown syrupmaker who also runs the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement, had his shelves stripped of syrup by inspectors from the Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services. He said they told him the practice wasn't up to par with health codes.
Requirements for making the syrup would have included a $350 permit, impermeable walls and no dirt floors among other things. That didn't jibe with tradition.
"There's no way you can do that in syrupmaking," Smith said.
The requirement would have been a blow to the more than 300 syrupmakers he estimates are in the Florida.
He mentioned the incident to his longtime friend and state Rep. Mary Brandenburg, D-West Palm Beach, who took the issue with her to that year's legislative session.
Smith, 72, rounded up all the syrupmakers he could from around the state. About 50 of them sat in meetings with health inspectors in hopes that they could get an exemption to Florida's statutes on food permits. Syrupmaking later got the backing of the department, which cited no health concerns in the process, Brandenburg said. Similar exemptions have been made for boiled peanuts sold in roadside stands around the state.
Two months later, the amendment passed. Smith founded the Southern Syrupmakers Association with about 100 members from all over the South. The association is also sponsoring Saturday's contest.
Brandenburg still considers herself a syrup-lover.
"If you get a pecan pie at my house," she said, "there's going to be cane syrup in it."
She and Smith will both be at the contest Saturday. With a sample from the 120 gallons of syrup he made this year, he's gunning for a spot as Florida's best cane syrup maker.
For him, syrup making has always been "tremendously hard work."
Even as a 6-year-old boy, half as high as a cane stalk, he could be found in the field, hauling cane with a mule-drawn wagon, uphill, through wet soil.
"The only really fun thing about it was when people would come to help," he said, "and you'd have sort of a fellowship time with them."
Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.