When Sugar Was Made In Allentown

[Originally published August 8, 1908 in the Allentown Messenger]


Owing to the high prices of all commodities which prevailed in this country at the close of the Civil War, economy made it necessary for the mass of people to use various substitutes for coffee, molasses, and other articles of daily consumption. For this purpose many of the many farmers went into cultivation of sorghum, a species of sugar cane, from which a fair quantity of molasses and sugar could be obtained.


In order to meet the growing demand for this article in this vicinity, two of our townsmen, Daniel L. Savidge and the late George Robbins, in the autumn of 1865, established a plant in the basement of a deserted building which was known as the “steam sawmill,” located at the rear of the premises now occupied by Gilbert Giberson, on [32 N.] Main street [also known as the Upper Tavern].  To this place the farmers brought their cane to be worked up. This, after the process of crushing and of boiling the juice, yielded a large percentage of sorghum molasses.


Some of the farmers went into cane culture quite extensively, making the total output over 1,000 gallons of molasses for several successive seasons. The article was also largely used by many people of the town, it being on sale at the different stores.


Messrs. Robbins & Savidge remained at the old mill for about three years, when they removed to a new building they erected on a lot near where the present creamery stands [across the creek and behind Cafferty’s mill, where a patch of sugar cane still grows]. Before leaving their original quarters the proprietors gave a grand molasses candy party, to which the public was invited. The affair was held in a large room on the upper floor. Friend Savidge has always had a vivid recollection of this event, as during some skylarking which was indulged in his hair received a liberal application of molasses at the hands of some of his fair guests.


It frequently became necessary in carrying on operations to work nights in order to dispose of the large quantity of juice that had accumulated. Stories are still current among our older residents of the jolly times spent there on these occasions. It seemed to be a favorite resort of certain ones who met there to watch operations, spin yarns and occasionally indulge in a feast of roasted potatoes or apples. Again something more substantial would be provided, consisting of roasted chicken or muskrat.


One evening Mr. Robbins asked “Joe” Parent, one of the frequenters of the place, if he could go out and find a chicken to eat. Joe replied he thought he could, and immediately proceeded to Mr. Robbins’ own hen roost and secured a fine fowl for roasting. It is related that one large poultry raiser several times unwittingly partook of one of his own fowls before discovering what had been going on. One of our citizens in speaking lately of those days said that chicken pilfering in sorghum time was carried on to a surprising extent, and that he himself had once assisted in a raid on a Church street hennery.


Among the well-known farmers of this vicinity who cultivated cane were Edward Potts, James Havens, George Hendrickson, W. C. Hutchinson, Harrison Wright, Tilton Woodward, J. Wesley Jones, George Imlay, Samuel Chamberlain, J. H. Pratt, Enoch Brown and Milnor Arnold.


During the year 1876, prices in general having begun to drop back to their normal rates, the demand for sorghum began to fall off and the cultivation of cane no longer became a necessity. It was owing to this that Mssrs. Robbins & Savidge after the close of the season that year decided to discontinue the business that had proved so helpful to the farmers and that had been so successfully conducted by them for a period of eleven years.


[The steam sawmill referred to above was a saw mill and sash and door factory that was built by John Bower, leading builder in Allentown during the 1830’s and 1840’s. It was he who did the carpenter work on the Presbyterian Church in 1837.]