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Sweet Sorghum – the Old-Fashioned Way

Rediscovering Lost River Cave


Sweet Sorghum – the Old-Fashioned Way

For generations, Kentucky farmers have grown sweet sorghum, a grain crop imported to the U.S. from Africa in 1853. Sharing the country’s top producer honors with Tennessee, the Commonwealth boasts an $8 to $10 million sweet sorghum industry, according to Morris Bitzer, recently retired grain crop research Extension specialist for the University of Kentucky and current executive secretary of the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association.

Dubbed “the guru of sorghum” by former UK colleague Haven Miller, Bitzer cites the product’s versatility as a seasoning ingredient and sugar substitute rich in iron, calcium, and potassium, and high in antioxidants.

But none of that matters a whit to festival-bound folks looking for a good time and a taste of old-fashioned sorghum. Come fall, they’re sure to strike sweet pay dirt at sorghum festivals across the state.

The grand-pappy of them all began on a county high school football field back in 1970. By ’71, the Morgan County Sorghum Festival had moved downtown to Main Street in West Liberty. And this year, over the September 24 weekend, an estimated 25,000 sorghum seekers will gather in this county seat set in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains to watch cane traditionally pressed into sweet syrup and to sop hot homemade biscuits in the fresh-made thick, rich, amber-hued liquid. Oh, my!

Leaving ultra high-tech equipment on his 330-acre Jeffersonville farm, Danny Townsend, the largest sweet sorghum producer in the state, will be there with his mule-drawn mill and wood-fired furnace, showing ’em how it used to be done.

“Taking the press to festivals is a good way to promote sorghum,” says Townsend, who sells his syrup as Appalachian Sweet Sorghum. “Besides, people like to see the mules, and Grandpa can tell the grandkids, ‘This is the way we used to do it down on the farm.’”

Dorothy Wheeler, the festival’s publicity rep, remembers well. “My dad and granddad grew sorghum and pressed it by horse power,” she says. “The novelty of seeing the juice squeezed out by a mule team is always a big drawing card.”

The whole labor-intensive process, from pressing to cooking off, takes a while. A gallon of the juice yields only about a pint of the syrup that’s known to many as sorghum molasses, or just molasses. True molasses is a byproduct of the sugar industry, says Bitzer, whereas sorghum—which is sweeter than molasses, but not as sweet as sugar or honey—is the syrup produced when extracted sorghum juice is boiled down.

Whatever you call it, kids in West Liberty with sorghum suckers will be riding a train around Old Mill Park, and little souvenir jugs of the stuff will be everywhere.

Sorghum celebrations have cropped up in other parts of the state as well—Gladie Historic Site in Slade, Renfro Valley, Grayson, and Springfield.

Hawesville growers plant a demonstration plot of sweet sorghum at its county fairgrounds, where the annual Hancock County Sorghum Festival is enjoying its fourth revival year. Starring a horse-drawn mill and sorghum goodies, the family event features pioneer and Native American living-history demonstrations that include an oxen-drawn covered wagon and a working blacksmith.

“There are no carnival rides,” explains Diane Perkins, Hancock County Extension agent. “The festival is based on rural living and ag products that were made years ago and are still used.”

Without a doubt, sorghum’s keeping the good ol’ days alive and sweet in the Bluegrass State.

DESTINATIONS

Find Your Favorite Sorghum Festival

Appalachian Harvest Festival
Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, October 1-3, (800) 765-7464, www.renfrovalley.com. This celebration of mountain folkways includes a mule-drawn sorghum press, antique farm machinery and steam engines, country talent show, and traditional craft demonstrations; $5 per day entrance.

Carter County Sorghum Festival
Grayson, October 1-3, (606) 474-4003. Held on the James Campbell Farm near Grayson, this annual family-run event features a cane grinder powered by a team of Belgian horses, apple butter making, a Sunday gospel sing, bluegrass, and country music. It began 31 years ago when the Campbell family set up a cane mill on U.S. 60 around Labor Day and made sorghum till it snowed!

Hancock County Sorghum Festival
Hawesville, September 25-26, (270) 927-8137, www.hancockcounty-ky.com/sour.html. Once known as the “sorghum capital of the world,” Hancock County revived its yearly festival in 2001 to honor its cane heritage. The celebration includes an antique tractor pull and show, quilt show, traditional crafts demos, and live music.

Morgan County Sorghum Festival
West Liberty, September 24-26, (606) 743-3330, www.cityofwestliberty.com/sorghumfestival.htm. Craft booths, live music, good food, and one of the main attractions is the mule-drawn cane mill, which is set up at Old Mill Park on Riverside Drive.

Sorghum & Old Crafts Days
Gladie Historic Site, Slade, October 8-9, (606) 663-8100. Look for a horse-drawn cane press, fresh ground cornmeal, antique farm machinery, and a home-cooked beans and greens dinner held in the Red River Gorge.

Washington County Sorghum Festival
Springfield, October 1-3, (606) 336-3810, www.springfieldky.org/festivals.shtml. This event was named one of 2004’s “Top 25 Kentucky Downtown Festivals,” and draws 20,000 sorghum lovers annually for an antique car show, clogging, line dancing, and “country ham ’n’ eggs and sorghum ’n’ biscuits” breakfasts.

Katherine Tandy Brown is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.
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Rediscovering Lost River Cave

Lost River Cave in Bowling Green has been found.

It was only a few years ago that this natural phenomenon looked as if it would be lost forever. It had become a dumping ground for tires, refrigerators, couches, and even a few old cars.

But thanks to a group called Friends of Lost River, the cave and valley have been rediscovered and have quickly become one of the state’s fastest growing tourist attractions.

Last year the historic venue had some 47,000 visitors who enjoyed the boat ride back into the cave, walked the scenic valley seeing the butterfly habitat, or experienced one of the several galas during the year on the huge dance floor located in the mouth of the cave.

Today Lost River sits well within Bowling Green’s city limits and has become once again a tourist hot spot.

There is evidence the cave and valley were occupied by human life as far back as 6,000 B.C. Warren County’s first flour mill was built just above the cave in 1825 on what is today U.S. 31-W highway, and from 1861 to 1863 Union and Confederate soldiers occupied the area, as many as 40,000 at one time. Jesse James and his gang even made an appearance in the cave in 1868 after robbing a bank in nearby Russellville.

What really put the cave on the map was the construction of the dance floor in 1933. The cave was promoted as an Underground Club, and its natural air conditioning made it a very popular spot for fun-seekers and entertainers alike. In 1953 Billboard Magazine even advertised it as “the country’s only air-conditioned night club.” A number of well-known bands, including the NBC Orchestra, played on the bandstand in the cave’s opening, and singer Dinah Shore sang there before becoming an international star.

An admission and gift shop sits near the parking entrance of Lost River, and last year a 143-foot bridge was erected to allow visitors easier access to the cave and valley below.

Rho Lansden, director of the attraction, says the bridge’s addition has been a real boon to visitors, particularly senior citizens.

“Before the bridge, it was a real problem getting people up and down the steep winding path,” Lansden says. “Now folks who couldn’t make the climb have a smooth, gradual stroll to the cave and valley.”

Lost River Valley serves as a natural drainage basin for 72 square miles and occasionally falls victim to flooding every few years.

Water flows underground and resurfaces in pools at four different spots throughout the valley. These pools are referred to as blue holes because of the bluish tint cast on the water by the sun filtering through the trees. As the water emerges from the blue holes, it flows some 300 yards on the surface only to disappear again into the mouth of the cave.

In the late 1930s, an L & N Railroad employee measured one of the blue holes and found it to be “at least 437 feet deep.” This feat caused Ripley’s Believe It or Not to feature Lost River as the “shortest, deepest river in the world.”

Lost River is very kid-friendly. From its gift shop, to panning for gemstones, the butterfly house, trees and flowers, nature trails, and boat ride, it can keep children and adults entertained for several hours.

DESTINATIONS

Lost River Cave & Valley
U.S. 31-West, Cave Mill Road, Bowling Green
(866) 274-2283 or (270) 393-0077
www.lostrivercave.com
Ages 13 and older $11.50, 5-12 $8.50, 1-4 $1.50; free for active military. Features cave boat ride, gift shop, nature trails, bridge, and butterfly house. Open year-round.

OTHER CAVE TOURS OF CENTRAL KENTUCKY

Crystal Onyx Cave
Cave City
(270) 773-2359
www.mammothcave.com/Caves/CrystalOnyx/crysonyx.htm
Ages 13 and older $8.50, 5-12 $5.50.
Open year-round, except January.

Diamond Caverns
Park City
(270) 749-2233
www.diamondcaverns.com
Ages 13 and older $12.72, 4-12 $6.36, free for active military. Open year-round.

Hidden River Cave
Horse Cave
(270) 786-1466
www.cavern.org
Ages 13 and older $10, 6-12 $5.
Open year-round.

Kentucky Caverns
Horse Cave, located at Kentucky Down Under
(800) 762-2869
www.kycaverns.com
Ages 15 and older, $18.75, 5-14 $10.50. Prices include entire park. Open year-round.

Mammoth Cave National Park
I-65 exits 48 at Park City or 53 at Cave City and follow signs.
(270) 758-2328 or (800) 967-2283
www.nps.gov/maca/home.htm
Call or go online for various tour pricing.
Open year-round.

Onyx Cave
Cave City
(270) 773-3530
www.mammothcave.com/guntown
Ages 12 and older, $6, 5-11, $3.
Open March through November.

Gary P. West is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.

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