Cold snaps come and cold snaps go in south Louisiana, most of them without leaving any legacy greater than a head cold. But one of our most recognized products might not have been developed without a hard freeze in 1911.
Or maybe it was 1910. There’s a bit of a mystery about that.
Here’s how the story’s been handed down over the generations.
Charles Sidney Steen opened a blacksmith shop in the Vermilion Parish community of Perry’s Bridge in 1890, and did pretty well with it.
In fact, he did well enough that he was able to open a bigger shop in Abbeville in 1898, and, over time, to also build a saw mill, a corn mill and a cotton gin, and to plant a sugar crop on the side.
According to family legends, it was in 1911 that an early hard freeze left 600 tons of Steen’s sugar crop freezing in the field. The nearest refinery was miles away and the only transportation to it was by railroad.
Charles Sidney would have to cut his cane and haul it by wagon to a railroad switch, where each farmer was allowed to load only about three tons a day. That wasn’t going to help him at all.
But he was an innovative fellow, and, rather than let his cane turn sour in the field, he bought a small syrup mill from a local hardware store and tried to boil his cane juice before it was ruined.
That first batch was apparently pretty bad. It is described in a Steen family history as “three barrels of putrid, thick, sour syrup.”
But Charles Sydney kept trying. He planted more sugar cane the next year and this time, with the cooperation of the elements, he ground the cane crop at the right stage and produced a much more appetizing product. Other farmers liked his work and began to haul their cane to Steen’s mill, taking home a barrel or two of the sweet syrup in return.
It wasn’t too long before the mill could hardly keep up with the demand for Steen’s Pure Blue Ribbon Cane Syrup - and there’s still a steady demand today for the syrup in the bright yellow can, not only in Abbeville but also in places Charles Sydney probably never thought about.
The mystery about the date of the freeze?
The sign on the door at the Steen syrup mill in Abbeville says that it was established in 1910, not 1911.
Charles Steen, Charles Sydney’s great-grandson, told me some years ago that he didn’t have a clue about the date of the freeze.
The best he could figure is that the freeze was in 1911 but that it may have been the 1910 crop that was still in the field.
A look at old weather records makes me think that the freeze was in 1911. I don’t have records for Abbeville, but the coldest day recorded in Lafayette in November of 1910 was 32 degrees on Nov. 29. But the next year, 1911, the temperature was a cane-freezing 10 degrees colder, 22 degrees on Nov. 30.
That still doesn’t completely eliminate 1910. On December 7 of that year, it was a crisp 24 degrees in Lafayette, which also is cold enough to make a sugar farmer think about saving his crop.
Jim Bradshaw can be reached at email@example.com. C’est Vrai means It’s True.