Down on the farm during the cane boil tradition

Bernard Williams, 18, a farm assistant at Morningside Nature Center, stirs the sugar cane syrup Saturday during the annual cane boil at the center. Volunteers and employees dressed in clothes from the 1870s and demonstrated how people made syrup back then.

BRIANA BROUGH/Special to the Guardian
Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2005 at 3:35 p.m.
The sweet taste of fresh syrup on a homemade biscuit makes 1870 seem like an appealing time in which to live.
But watching the work required to make the syrup and biscuits is enough to snap a person back into reality.
"It's a traditional way of doing something and it takes time," said Priscilla Moring, the resident syrup-maker at Morningside Nature Center's living history farm in Gainesville. "They were more patient in 1870."
Every Saturday from September to May, the center's staff dress in 1870s attire and interpret rural life from biscuit-making to blacksmithing. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the farm holds its Annual Cane Boil to show the arduous process of making syrup.
Cane is fed into a mule-powered press to make juice, which is boiled for up to six hours. The process turns 60 gallons of juice into a mere six gallons of syrup, which is sampled on biscuits at the event and used in the farm's education programs for the rest of the year.
"Best biscuits ever," said Florence Turcotte as she tasted the results in a farmhouse kitchen.
The Gainesville librarian brought her daughters - Celine, 11, and Devon, 13 - to show them what life was like back in 19th-century Florida. "It really takes you back," she said. "It's really good for the kids to understand what Florida was like." As she sampled biscuits, the sound of fiddles drifted from the nearby schoolhouse. The day's events included the Longleaf Pine Youth Fiddle and Open String Band Contest, in which players compete for cash prizes.
Both Anita Kilpatrick's boys - 11-year-old John Francis Banker and 7-year-old Noah Banker - ended up winning awards for their playing. The St. Pete Beach resident said fiddling allows young and old people to join together and play what their skill levels allow.
"It's the perfect thing for people of all ages," she said. Workers at the farm included University of Florida students and former researchers at the school. UF archaeology students Edward Tennant and Susan Mulder worked the blacksmith shop, a task they initially started as a school project on the metals left in the ground from such work.
The project is complete, Mulder said, so "we're kind of done with our experiment and we're just out here having fun."
But work at the farm isn't always enjoyable. George Chapel, who works as a farm hand at the center, showed a mark down his cheek caused by an ornery cow butting him in the head. He said he's also been bitten by a rat and gored by a boar in the last year.
Chapel, a former coastal researcher at UF, said his current job made him appreciate the difficulty of farm life. As recently as the 1940s, he said, his grandfather's farm in Mandarin had no electricity and chores were done the same way as they're being done on the living-history farm. "It's how hard it was not too long ago," he said. Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or

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