Cane Grinding Festival carries on traditions

ORTONA — While locals and returning snowbirds probably are familiar with Ortona Indian Mound Park, a state historical site that was once home to Calusa Indian tribes, it is also the location of the annual Ortona Cane Grinding Festival, which takes place on the first Saturday of February each year.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
Sugar cane juice is collected as the stalks are crushed.

The park is pretty interesting to visit on its own, filled with wildlife and history of the village that once thrived there, but the Cane Grinding Festival is a truly unique and interesting Old Florida tradition that makes visiting this park even more dynamic. With various booths filled with foods and fun souvenirs and gifts, the Ortona Cane Grinding Festival allows visitors to peer into how Florida’s earliest pioneers began to process sugar cane.

Cane syrup is versatile
“Making sugar cane syrup is an ol’ tradition that goes far back, to the earliest pioneers,” said local history buff Hank Owsley, a cane farmer who has been making syrup for decades. “Sugar was hard to come by, so cane syrup became our staple. We poured it over everything — pancakes, grits and biscuits — and we even used it to cure bacon and make sausage.” Making cane syrup is still a custom throughout rural parts of Florida. Even now, cane syrup is the perfect sweetener to make sauces, baked goods and even candy.

“After gathering loads of stalks, they must then be stripped, crushed and squeezed to extract the lovely sugar cane juice — which makes a tasty and refreshing drink when poured over ice,” explained Mr. Owsley. “The juice is collected into a huge cauldron, heated to a boil, and the leftover stalks are often used to feed livestock. The cane juice is boiled for hours, and impurities are skimmed from the top, until it becomes a thick syrup.”

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
The grinding begins as stalks are fed through the grinder and crushed, as the sugar cane juice is collected to be boiled into delicious cane syrup.

Mr. Owsley said he loves watching everyone who attends a cane grinding. He described it all behind his wrinkled, weathered smile: The syrup makers wipe the sweat from their brows, stirring and skimming, working over the hot fires. Festival goers stand by, mouths watering, as they listen to local bands play, or watch the clogging groups dancing on stage. Everyone anxiously awaits their chance to taste the delicious, molasses-like, caramel flavored, golden liquid. “It’s always best just after bottling, while it’s still hot, spread on hot biscuits with butter. You can gobble up the hours of hard work in a matter of seconds!” exclaimed Mr. Owsley. “Us old-timers sit around talking about old family recipes. Everyone chimes in about the best techniques, sharing some family secrets used to make the best cane syrup, and it goes on to whose family has been making it longer. It’s a really great time for friends old and new to gather and socialize!”

A four-decade tradition
The Ortona Cane Grinding Festival has been a tradition for 41 years. The festival started in order to raise money for the Ortona Volunteer Fire Department, but the needs of the community have changed over the years and this traditional event may have faded away if it weren’t for the Williams family. They, with the support of Ortona Community Association, have taken in the task of carrying on the timeless tradition of the Ortona Cane Grinding Festival, and all proceeds will be used to help support the community.

This year the Ortona Cane Grinding Festival will be held on Feb. 1, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Ortona Indian Mound Park near Moore Haven. There will be music, dancing, chicken dinners with all the fixings for $10 each, a pet costume contest, corn hole tournament, cake decorating and more fun for the whole family. Entry to the park is free, but donations are greatly appreciated. Any vendors interested in selling their products at the Ortona Cane Grinding Festival should call 863-612-6951 for more information.

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