About a quarter mile down a dirt path near McDaniel stands a patch of tall, lean stalks, its leaves billowing in the light October breeze. John Matthews, a few feet shorter than the 10-inch stalks, eyes the leaves, then takes the shaft of an old golf club and, in one fell swoop, lops them off, the green leafy material falling silently to the ground.
Seconds later Matthews has exchanged his club for a machete and, again, in a quick motion of the hand, drops the stalk to the ground, first one, then another and another before gathering them and putting them in the back of his pickup truck for the short ride back to McDaniel School.
There the stalks will be turned into a steaming batch of what will become syrup.
It’s a process he’ll repeat again Thursday as he harvests his quarter-arce of sorghum in preparation for Saturday’s big event — the 15th annual Sorghum Festival, held each year at McDaniel, just about 10 miles from Clinton down Boykin Bridge Road.
Pulling a cap, aptly stitched with the words “Sorghum Man,” from his head, Matthews eyes the steaming mixture. “In a few hours, this will be a beautiful golden color. It’s amazing to watch.”
He grins a knowing smile, having been a part of cooking — and growing — the sorghum year after year for the past 15.
Matthews does it, he says, as a way of keeping a nearly lost art alive, a tradition he wants others to know about and pass on to their children and all those that will come after.
“This festival is a way to keep alive one of the arts that is slowly disappearing. Even though sorghum is making a come back if you look in magazines like “Southern Living,” where they are using it to make sauces, cookies, and stuff, you just never know how long it’ll be popular. So we keep holding this festival and showing people a true art that once was a staple for folks.”
Matthews repeats a story he tells every year just before the festival of visiting his son John Matthews III in Charlottesville, Va. one weekend and father and son attending a sorghum festival being sponsored by a local FFA chapter.
“We read about it in the paper, and my son and I went up and watched them. I jokingly told him that we could do that, and that’s really how we got started.”
He grows about a quarter acre of the sorghum — the Topper 76-6 variety out of Mississippi — and his son takes a week of vacation leading up to the festival — always held the third Saturday in October — to help harvest the crop and get it ready for cooking.
It really is a family affair, the Matthews men attest. Annie Matthews helps her husband, as do son John’s family.
“It’s a lot of work, it really is, but it’s also a lot of fun,” the elder Matthews stresses, “and, it’s sort of a responsibility to keep this from dying away.”
Although Matthews grew up after the Depression, he has heard all the stories of sorghum’s value to families during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and he doesn’t want those times lost on younger generations.
“Sorghum was a way of life for many families during those years,” he recalls being told. “Just about every farm family would have a patch of sorghum. It was a staple, particularly during the winter. The families would cut their cane and then a man would come around and squeeze the juice out and cook the syrup.
“Along with the meats they raised right there at their homes, families would live off of flour, biscuits and that syrup. It was simply a way of life.”
It’s a way of life he said he’ll keep introducing to visitors as long as they’ll keep coming to the festival, all in a hope that word will spread about an art he doesn’t want to see simply die away.
“People have often said I’m crazy to do this. Sorghum is a labor intensive commodity. It truly is a lot of work. I’ve known people who wanted to grow it, but after a year or so, they’d give it up. The work involved is simply manual labor, there’s no way around it.”
But for Matthews and his family, the labor is worth it, as long as the festival draws crowds to McDaniel.
The event has grown larger each year, with some 2,000 people expected to meander the grounds around the old McDaniel School, the general store and post office and the shed where the sorghum will be cooked Saturday.
In addition to the sorghum-tasting, there will be 15 vendors on hand, selling their wares, and food aplenty — everything from funnel cakes to fried apple pies, hot dogs and barbecue. And there will be exhibits — an amazing train collection in the school, as well as what Matthews calls an “extreme collection” of miniature churches, and, of course, the ever-popular antique tractors.
Entertainment will include Charlie Carlisle and the Marksmen.
“You never know how many people will show up,” Matthews said. “A lot depends on the weather, but I’d guess from start to finish, we’re likely to see a couple thousand folks. I sure hope we do.”
Gates open at 9 a.m. and the events continue until 4 p.m.
Matthews will be cooking up the sorghum starting real early, around 7 a.m., he said, with the syrup ready for tasting about five or six hours later.
“We enjoy doing this,” Matthews said, stirring up steam as he scoops excess off the cooking sorghum. “I just think it’s important to do, and, what’s more, it’s a great thing for our family, and it’ll be great fun for other families, too. We just invite everyone to come on out and enjoy.
“I think they will.”