Keeping the tradition alive

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Robert McLelland tests the temperature of his latest syrup batch.

Robert McLelland tests the temperature of his latest syrup batch.

Passing by Robert McLelland’s house on Heath River Falls Road, one wouldn’t likely realize that in the back yard, its owner is passing down priceless knowledge about making homemade syrup to a new generation.

That’s exactly what McLelland was busy doing Friday morning, as he taught two young men the process of making the syrup.

Matt Hickman and Dustin Thames are a part of Crossover Ministries, a faith-based recovery program in Opp, and said they had spent most of this week with McLelland, and learned a valuable new skill set that most people their age don’t possess.

“We’re just helping him out here, but we’re also learning how to do it,” Hickman said about making syrup.

McLelland said he has been making his own syrup for three or four years now. He bottles it just feet from the back door of his home and says he does different things with the final product.

“I sell some of it, but I give away a whole lot of it,” he said with a chuckle.

McLelland said he gets sugar cane from people from all over who simply drop it off at his house. The varying kinds of sugar cane he acquires determines how good his final product will be.

“It takes about four hours to boil after we juice the cane,” he said. “With about 40 gallons of juice, you can expect between six or seven gallons of syrup. It varies with every species of cane.”

Hickman said he has learned several key details from McLelland’s process that makes his syrup better than most.

“I’ve learned that, when it’s boiling, the purity is a lot better going through a cast iron kettle like this one,” he said.

But making syrup is not all Hickman and Thames have learned during their time with McLelland.

Thanks to his “country store museum,” also located just behind his home, both men have gotten a first-hand look into the past.

“This is probably one of the biggest treasures around here, or even in Alabama,” Hickman said.

McLelland’s museum is packed with antiques and relics dating back to the early 1800s, and he said it’s open to the public.

“I guess I’ve had this around probably 10 or 12 years,” he said. “People can just stop by and I’ll open it up and let them look around. I get a lot of church groups, but individuals can come by too.”

Does McLelland charge a fee for access into his historical treasure chest?

“Nah,” he said, shaking his head.

Some of McLelland’s treasures include a reconstructed dentist office from the 1830s.

“It belonged to a man named Spivey from Troy,” he said. “I don’t recall his first name. A while back his granddaughter, who was 85, found out I had his stuff and she brought me his typewriter, so I now have his whole office.”

McLelland said he will be back at work, making his syrup, on Monday, but will be without his volunteer help.

“Crossover Ministries is a fine thing,” McLelland said. “These fellas have been great.”