Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Dade City man savors age-old art of making cane syrup

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.

Had to.

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.

Almost outlawed

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 or (727) 869-6247.

>>if you go

'Raising Cane' syrup tasting contest

Featuring two dozen cane syrup concoctions competing for top honors, as well as cane grinding

Where: Pioneer Florida Museum and Village, 15602 Pioneer Museum Road (off U.S. 301 north of Dade City)

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

Cost: $6 adults; $5 seniors; $2 students; free parking.

For information: Call (352) 567-0262 or visit

Dade City man savors age-old art of making cane syrup 01/12/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 12, 2012 9:17pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. New Graham-Cassidy health care plan stumbles under opposition from governors


    WASHINGTON — The suddenly resurgent Republican effort to undo the Affordable Care Act was dealt a blow on Tuesday when a bipartisan group of governors came out against a proposal gaining steam in the Senate.

    Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., joined by, from left, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., speaks to reporters as he pushes a last-ditch effort to uproot former President Barack Obama's health care law, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. To win, 50 of the 52 GOP senators must back it -- a margin they failed to reach when the chamber rejected the effort in July. [/J. Scott Applewhite | Associated Press]
  2. Former Lightning forward Brian Boyle diagnosed with cancer, expects to keep playing

    Lightning Strikes

    New Jersey Devils forward Brian Boyle has been diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, a type of bone-marrow cancer that the team's doctor said can largely be treated with medication.

    Brian Boyle has been diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, a type of bone-marrow cancer that the team's doctor says can be treated with medication, the Devils announced Tuesday. [AP photo]
  3. Editorial: Genshaft right to oust USF St. Petersburg leader


    In times of crisis, leaders cannot abandon ship and be unclear about their whereabouts. That is essentially what the leader of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg did with Hurricane Irma headed this way. Sophia Wisniewska's actions fell short of what should be expected from an experienced administrator …

    Sophia Wisniewska’s actions fell short of what should be expected from an experienced administrator responsible for the safety of her students and the security of her campus, and the move by USF president Judy Genshaft, above, to fire her was appropriate.
  4. Duke Energy Florida president answers questions about utility's response to Irma


    ST. PETERSBURG — After more than a week since Hurricane Irma knocked out power to millions of Floridians, Duke Energy announced it will finish its restoration efforts Tuesday.

    Duke Energy Florida President Harry Sideris greets St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman on Tuesday at a news conference where both spoke about Hurricane Irma recovery. The event was held at a Florida Department of Transportation lot next to Maximo Park in St. Petersburg, where the city is collecting Irma yard debris which will be mulched and sold to a local tomato farmer. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]

  5. Leaves, mountains, ice cream and cheese: What's not to like in Burlington, Vt.?


    If I loved Burlington, Vt., during a visit with my daughter when the high was 37 degrees, I feel completely comfortable recommending the city as a great destination for fall, when it's considered one of the top leaf-watching spots in the world.

    Founded in 1791, the University of Vermont is the sixth-oldest college established in New England.