“Mr. Syrup Man”
Mr. Willie Reeves has been easing the sweet tooth, and adding the crowning touch to buttered biscuits around Evergreen, Shiloh, Union Gin, and Mt. Tabor, as well as Bernice and other outlying points for a long time now.
He does this with a sweet, thick concoction called ribbon cane syrup. Beginning at the age of 17 to make syrup, he has operated a syrup mill continuously for sixty years! Due to ill health he has now retired, and one of his sons, Joe Reeves, is now operating the family’s sugar cane syrup mill. Although Mr. Willie helps, Joe is now the official cook.
What began for Mr. Willie as a means of livelihood, now has grown into a hobby through the years. In the beginning of his early farming life, Mr. Willie’s farming philosophy was to raise many things, so that if one failed, he could fall back on others. So he raised corn, cattle, hogs, cotton, and sugar cane. He also raised turnips, another item for which he is locally famous. From Mr. Willie’s farm throughout the years have come big sweet turnips and good thick syrup.
“What is the secret of your good turnips?” we asked. He told us he prepared his ground good in the summer, and worked in the fertilize. Then when he planted in late summer or early fall, they grew off fast, and were sweet, not bitter or strong.
“Do you grow your own cane?” we asked. “I sure do,” he affirmed. “I used to plant two acres every year, but now it is less than an acre.” The patch of sugar cane, and the big patch of turnips are now Mr. Willie’s farming operations.
The Life of Willie Reeves As A Young Man
Willie Reeves was born July 14, 1897, the son of William and Lelah Shaw Reeves. They lived in the old Joseph Shaw house, east of Shiloh. As a boy he went often to old Shiloh town which was in walking distance.
We asked him what he remembered of old Shiloh. “Well, I remember a cotton gin.” he said. “And two stores. Tim Barham had one, and also Joe Buckley with Annie Buckley Smith keeping it. A post office was there, too.”
In 1914 on October 4, he married Lois Lee, daughter of Jim and Lula Moore Lee. From this union were born 11 children, nine of them living today. Mr. Willie says since then he has only lived in two houses.
Marrying at a very early age, and responsibilities of supporting his family and establishing himself as a farmer, Willie Reeves soon became a mature, independent young man. The very first business deals he remembers were trading butter and eggs at a Shiloh store. He kept the butter fresh in the well. Later he went trading in a two wheel jumper (an unfamiliar vehicle to us). In 1916 he bought his first mule.
The next 14 years were big cotton producing years for Mr. Willie and his wife, Lois, and he worked hard to make a living on the farm for their now growing family. He said he had a Model T, and later a Model A car in those years, going to Dubach and Bernice for supplies. He ginned his cotton at Shiloh, Bernice and Dubach.
The Reeves farm is located near Middlefork, not too far from the road that crosses over into Lincoln Parish, and on to Dubach. Evergreen church which has played such a vital part in his life in nearby.
“How was the depression with your farming?” we asked Mr. Sugar Cane Man. He told us he made it without any help, and we silently applauded him for his proud, independent spirit. Once, he recalled, he went over for some commodities, things looking bad at home. He got in line, he said, and everyone pushed and pushed. He decided before he got to the line he did not want commodities, so he gave his place to the next fellow and went home. He told us he made it without any help.
And so he did. The nine children who grew up in these years and worked with their parents going to nearby schools were J. W. (Red), Prentice, Pansy, Hubert, Violet, Joe, Daisy, Rosebud and Charles. The two who died young as infants were buried at Shiloh.
Through The Years – The Syrup Mill
The syrup that first sold for fifty cents a gallon, now brings $7.00 per gallon, but then the now hard to get standard syrup buckets cost thirty-five to forty cents apiece. We reflected on the fact that containers for so many products have changed, but the old syrup bucket remains the same. So does the character of the man. Willie Reeves, who has made syrup for 60 years.
The production end of the syrup has swindled through the years Mr. Willie says says he began with 200 to 500 gallons a year and in some years his production reached 800 to 900 gallons. Now he merely makes 150 to 200 gallons and divides it between family and friends.
For several years now it has been a hobby, along with giving his grandchildren a chance to know the taste of cool, sweet sugar cane juice.
He has had two other mills before he got the one he presently uses with both of the first two horse drawn. At first he used wood for fuel, now it is Butane gas. He now uses heavy, thick copper pans, that have been patched as they are 100 years old.
For sixty years the Willie Reeves sugar cane has been ground, the juice cooked out and thick syrup made. Hundreds plus hundreds of gallons of this syrup has been consumed on home-made biscuits laden with butter. For sixty years the family has gathered around the cooking pans in the fall, watching the bubbling juice turn to syrup and seen the bright buckets filled. Visitors have come to watch and sample the juice. From copper pan to copper pan, from year to year, the Reeves syrup making goes on.
The Rest Of The Story
Regular worship of God and securing education for his children have been a vital part of the life of Mr. Willie throughout the years. His motto, he says, has been To Trust In God to Provide. One of the joys of his life is his friends in Evergreen community. He rejoices in Evergreen Baptist Church, and his pastor of many years, Bro. Gray Nolan. Mr. Willie say there is no place like Evergreen!
“How was church in the past?” we asked Mr. Willie. He said he remembered in the early days that preachers rode horses and mules to Evergreen. Many times he says he gave his last dollar, not knowing where the next was coming from, but when the preacher returned, he’d have another.
One of the early preachers he remembers was Brother Hilary Ward, who could hear him a mile away. Moreover, his sermons lasted two hours. In summer times they often had a brush arbor.
Another memory he has is of the going home after church. You could hear wagons squeaking, chains rattling as people went home, often midnight when they got there. Other preachers he remembers were named Thompson, Canterberry, Diff Smith, Clete Smith and Jim Smith.
Mr. Willie has been a deacon of Evergreen church for 45 years.
When we asked him about nearby schools, he told us he was the first to drive a bus from Evergreen to Union Gin School but only for a short time. He helped to set up Union Gin, digging the well that still exists today with the lattice work shed. He was also one of the trustees for this school.
He told us Evergreen school went out when Union Gin was organized, but his children first went to Evergreen. Was it first school or church we asked. He said the first building on the site was a church, then a school house was built which people used for a place to worship. After Union Gin school opened it became Evergreen Church.
Along with his reputation as Mr. Reeves is widely known for his fishing ability. He not only knows his Middlefork near home, but has fished in Cornie and D’Arbonne and moreover still fishes!
Another sport he enjoys is wild turkey hunting, which he has done annually the past ten years with his son, “Red”. Last year, hunting in Madison Parish he killed a turkey weighing 22 pounds, one of the finest ever killed, with long spurs, and a beard 11 inches long. Adorning his home are several trophies of his deer hunt and turkey wings.
An old friend, Frank Bollier, told us a snake story on Mr. Willie which was confirmed, Mr. Willie’s son, Hubert says, the story has given them many laughs.
While walking through the woods, Mr. Willie and his son spied a rattlesnake down in a shallow well. Mr. Willie, knowing a trick of looping a cord at the end of a long pole to catch a snake’s head, fished up the rattlesnake. Still holding the snake helpless, he laid him on the tailgate of his truck to pull out the fangs. It was a hot day and the extra tire on the back of the truck bed had a bulge. About that time the tire decided to blow out with a big bang. It blew the twisting snake up in Mr. Willie’s face, knocking him backwards. “Did the snake blow up?” were Mr. Willie’s first words, and words that triggered laughs for years afterwards.
The snake had twelve rattlers. He died that night.
Besides all the things to remember that we have mentioned, Willie and Lois Reeves had the wonderful occasion of celebrating their Golden Wedding Anniversary October 4, 1964. Then sorrow came to the family when Lois Lee Reeves died March 8, 1967.
Mr. Willie Reeves, the Syrup Maker, has enjoyed his retirement years. To lighten his burden of age and illnesses are his nine children and the joyous acquaintance of his 26 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren.
A Salute to Mr. Syrup Man!
Edna Matthews Liggin will always be remembered as the official historian of Union Parish and the Book Mobile Lady. She began writing the Uncle Lige column in The Gazette in 1939. Over the years she wrote many articles about the Union Parish history, the people there and her bottle collection. In her retired years she enjoyed visiting the older people in the Union Parish community.