By CYNTHIA McCLOUD ∙ For The State Journal
ARNOLDSBURG — When farm families in Calhoun County made molasses as long ago as the 1920s and before, it was for necessity. The thick, sticky sweetener was a staple in baking and cooking.
Families and neighbors would get together and make a day of the labor-intensive process, similar to a barn-raising.
Bob Weaver, editor of the Hur Herald, an online newspaper covering Calhoun County, writes about the history and his memories from time to time.
"Alva Bell and Grover Starcher were noted molasses makers in the greater Hur community, traveling from farm to farm with their mill and horse," Weaver reported
The horse walked in a circle to turn the mill and press the sugar from the cane, he said. Then the juice was put into cooking trays called evaporating pans atop a wood fire and slowly boiled. When a green scum rose to the surface, it was skimmed off. Thickening the juice into syrup took a long time so people talked and played.
Forty-five years ago, Calhoun County residents turned molasses making into a festival to celebrate the old-time ways and have a homecoming.
The West Virginia Molasses Festival takes place the last full weekend of September at West Fork Park in Arnoldsburg, where there is a machine for squeezing the cane and a wood-fired stove for cooking the syrup. This year, the festival will be Sept. 27-29.
Preparing to make molasses begins before the festival's opening day. The sugar cane has to be made ready. It's a process festival chairwoman Dawn Burris got to experience for the first time last year.
Rick McCartney planted more than an acre of sugar cane for the festival and Burris got to help harvest it.
"Last year was the first time I ever got to go work in the field and cut down the cane and blade it," Burris said, explaining the process of cutting off the plant's big leaves with a machete.
Then volunteers top the cane, removing the seeds at the top of the stalks and saving them for planting next year. The stalks are cut and stacked and taken to the machine at the park in Arnoldsburg to be pressed.
Festival organizers pay people to plant a patch of sugar cane; some, like McCartney, donate the money back to the festival, Burris said.
The molasses is bottled and sold. It's also served at a sausage and pancake dinner that weekend. Burris said some people eat it on biscuits. She likes it best in cookies and beef jerky.
There's more to do than watch the molasses cook. The local school's parent-teacher organization hosts a pageant for preschoolers through fourth-graders, Burris said. The Molasses Festival King and Queen are the boy and girl who raise the most donations.
The festival also features a parade on Saturday and music, craft vendors, inflatable toys such as bounce houses for children, and exhibits, such as apple butter making, throughout the weekend.
"I'd say at one time we have at least 300 or 400 people there," Burris said. "Some people come every day."
Local children visit to learn about area history and watch the process.
Burris moved to Calhoun County from Ohio seven years ago. Her fiancé, Jim Helmick, was born and raised there. Before they moved, she visited the festival with him.
"I didn't grow up on it but I've always liked the festival," Burris said. "Because when I didn't live here and I came down here it seemed like a big family get-together. Everybody knew everybody. I don't come from a big family so it reminds me of a great big reunion."