If you’re not from the deep south, the word “sorghum” may be completely foreign to you. It’s cheap, plentiful and often is referred to as sorghum molasses because of it’s texture. At John Simon’s farm located at 8721 Pond Creek-Carey’s Run Road in Portsmouth, it is the center of an annual event – John Simon’s Sorghum Festival.
When you enter the farm you hear what sounds like an old engine on it’s last days, clunking and chugging. It’s the sorghum press, and the guy who makes it run is Mark Hoffer.
“It’s a 1918 Fairbanks-Morris,” Hoffer said. “Just a little bit of maintenance now and then, keep it oiled up and it chugs right along.”
At the helm of the operation is ex-Marine, Master Sergeant Kenny White. He is taking the stalks of sorghum cane and pushing it through the press.
“I’ve been doing this about five or six years I guess,” White said as he put his press on idle. “I learned how to do this right here. Yesterday (Friday) we ran a load that wasn’t quite this big and it took about 2 1/2 hours.”
On the other end of the line is Robert Hall.
“We cut this cane the day before, stack it on this wagon. Then we run it through here and squash the juice out of it,” Hall said. “Then we circulate it down to the pan and build a fire under it and boil all the impurities and chlorophyll out of the sap and cook it until it’s condensed sugar.”
Simon is a walking encyclopedia on many things and sorghum is one of those things.
“You can use sorghum for anything that calls for sugar,” Simon told the Daily Times. “It’s a substitute for sugar. In the middle 1800s there wasn’t any granulated sugar. Every farm had a sorghum batch and then there would be one maker and they’d bring their cane in and the farmer would process it and they would pay him or give him a percentage of the syrup.”
The Sorghum Festival is a favorite event of people from southern Ohio.
“We’ve been doing this for 35 years,” Simon told the Daily Times. “I was fortunate enough to grow up in the community.”
Simon said Elbert Hackworth sort of started it all because he had been making sorghum there since 1915.
“Through trial and error and his help we’re making it, and I’m lucky enough to have these men come in,” Simon said. “There’s all kinds of people that come here and work and they just do it because they want to be a part of it.”
Vendors are set up in several rows. Among them is wood craftsman Tom Hayslip.
“Most of it is called Intarsia,” Hayslip said. “It’s wood puzzle – wood art.”
Intarsia is a form of wood inlaying that is similar to marquetry.
“I buy books that have the blueprints and the books have pictures and prints in them and copy it off of them,” Hayslip said.
Becky Blankenship, known as “the bag lady,” is creative and produces a lof of items, all with her personal touch.
“Mostly purses, doll clothes and wall hangings,” Blankenship said. “I sell these year round at craft shows. I just came from the South Shore Quilt Show last week.”
When it comes to homemade fudge it’s hard to hold a candle to Beth Hartsaw.
“We have fudge, brittle, caramel corn, turtles, pretty much anything that you want, we’ll make, just give us a call,” Hartsaw said. “We’re online on Facebook at goodiesandcraftsgalore. My husband makes woodcrafts. He has wooden bowls and Christmas ornaments and ink pens and things.”
The air is crisp, a light fog hovers over the farm and vendors have had to resort to light coats and jackets. It’s another fall day in southern Ohio and nothing says “southern Ohio” like John Simon’s Sorghum Festival which runs through Sunday.
Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.