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As It Was: Family Substitutes Sorghum Molasses for Scarce Sugar

Sugar was scarce and expensive in the pioneer West, arriving overland or being brought on ships and then freighted on pack animals or wagons to small towns.  There was wild honey to be found, but not enough for everyone.

Consequently, William and Hester Pence took to making sorghum molasses as a substitute for cane sugar.

The Pences came to Southern Oregon in the 1870s, reaching Redding, Calif., by train and the Illinois Valley by wagon.  There, with their eight children, they built mining ditches for a Chinese contractor, then moved to the Applegate Valley to work in the larger mines.  Finally, they bought a place of their own three miles up Elk Creek near Trail, Ore.

It was on this farm that Pence planted a field of sorghum for a cash crop.  In the late fall, they stripped the leaves from the corn-like canes, ran the canes through a crusher, then boiled down the juice and placed it in a 16-foot-long copper pan over a fire pit.

They were able to extract about 100 pounds of sorghum molasses a day which brought a good price from their neighbors and local markets.


Sources: Vernon, Janet C., and Susan C. Vernon. Rob Roy Cameron and Dorothy Viola Hansen Cameron: A Family History. authors, 2001, pp. 4-5; Horsman, Reginald. Feast or Famine: Food and Drink in American Westward Expansion. University of Missouri Press, 2008, p. 4.

Alice Mullaly is a graduate of Oregon State and Stanford University, and taught mathematics for 42 years in high schools in Nyack, New York; Mill Valley, California; and Hedrick Junior High School in Medford. Alice has been an Southern Oregon Historical Society volunteer for nearly 30 years, the source of many of her “As It Was” stories.