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Memory Lane | Cane Grinding, Syrup Boiling, and Barn Dancing Fun

Michele LeBlanc steps back in time to learn the Southern tradition of the cane grind at the Johnson-Welter Heritage Farm's 2023 event.

Once upon a time in Bulloch County, a local family set out to preserve the rich tradition of cane grinding, syrup boiling, and barn/square dancing.

Dave and Carrie Welter, who live on the Johnson-Welter Heritage Farm off Highway 80/25 along Woodrum Road, take great care to make each year's ‘Grind’ a memorable experience. They invite family, neighbors, and friends to their historic farm for fellowship around the syrup pot.

And they were gracious enough to invite ME to their 2023 event. It definitely did not disappoint!

The Welter Family’s invitation read: “Come, Enjoy, Participate, Help and Make Memories.”

            A portion of the Johnson Welter Family Farm

That's what we did!! About 120 multi-generational guests were in attendance: family, friends, classmates from Carrie’s graduating class (1960), and 30 Woodrum neighbors. Carrie said, “The least and the greatest of people were there.” 

The education on cane grinding and syrup making, telling old stories, and children playing made this day a wonderful celebration. You could feel the ‘JOY and FUN’ all around.

The Heritage Farm

Here’s a bit of history about the farm itself. After purchasing the land in 1930, Paul H. and Minnie B. Johnson moved their family into a tenant home on the property while the family house was being built (with an indoor bathroom). Paul H. Johnson, Carrie’s Daddy, ran the farm, and Carrie's Mother, Minnie, ran the local store. Together, they had 7 children, with Carrie being the youngest.

Carrie shared, “I hold many fond memories of climbing trees, collecting eggs from the chickens, playing in the train depot and the large Mule Barn that stands on the farm today.”

Daddy-Paul H. Johnson. Carrie Welter

At the turn of the last century, Bulloch County was the number one producer of Sea Island cotton in the world. This explains the old railroad car where Carrie collected eggs as a child, as well as the historical train depot and large Mule Barn. Local farmers used mules to haul their cotton harvest to the train depot.

When Carrie's mother Minnie passed away, the farm was divided between her and her four siblings. Carrie's portion contains the family's house, a little train depot, and other historical buildings. Dave, her husband, not only shares her appreciation for her family's heritage but has a passion and great talent for historical restoration. 

As you enter the farm grounds today, you can still visualize what it looked like “back in the day.”

“A wall of purposely planted pecan trees are visible except for one that was out of place due to the depot building when the train came around the tree, thus out of line,” said Carrie. 

Farm. Lori Grice

There was one wonderful walnut tree on the property when the farm was purchased in 1930, and now they have 25-30 beautiful trees. The Welters call it ‘Walnut Grove.’ The pecan trees are one of the prettiest sights, with the Homestead on the left and the Mule Barn on the right.

Now, Dave and Carrie have a family of their own: son Davin and daughter Andrea and two grandsons, Hudson and Wyatt. The farm features special memorials to family members who have passed on.

In front of the rustic barn were two beautiful gray granite benches engraved with ‘Memory of Father, Paul Hines Johnson' and ‘Memory of Mother, Minnie Brock Johnson.’ Carrie said, “Daddy loved that Barn, and it was the ideal place to put the benches.” The rustic Barn has displays of the original tools and was perfect for the Barn Dancing.

Memory Bench- Paul Hines Johnson. Michele LeBlanc
Memory Bench-Minnie Brock Johnson. Carrie Welter

Three of Carrie’s sisters are deceased, as well. In memory of the 3 sisters, they have a LIVING Memorial for Carol Johnson Brack, Betty Pauline Johnson Bunch and Leone Johnson Johnson. Carrie said, “In their memory we built three planters around memorial trees on the property.” 

Bringing the Cane Grind back to life

The Welters have put many years of sweat equity into the farm to get it restored to their liking.

They dedicated the restored Mule Barn to Carrie’s father in the fall of 2008 and began holding an annual barn dance there. While renovating the Barn, a worker found parts of the Johnsons’ old cane mill.

Grinder . Lori Grice

If you’re not familiar, the grinding gears are on the interior, powered from the top, to slow the motion of the mules or the tractor. 

Sugar cane is grown in the fields and ground or crushed by the mill to extract the juice. The juice is then collected in buckets and filtered before being boiled in large iron pots to make cane syrup. Historically, cane syrup was the only way Southerners were able to sweeten many of their dishes and recipes.

If you spent your growing-up life in Bulloch County or have taken a stroll past the ‘Syrup Hut’ at the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair, you probably know the unmistakable smell of boiling cane juice already!

The discovery of the mill parts led to the Welters’ next project. In 2012, Dave resurrected the cane grinder and began construction of  a syrup shed to go with it, located behind the Mule Barn. 

Cane for the Grinder. Lori Grice

Carrying on the farm’s legacy

Today, the Welters grow their own sugar cane and are actively involved in the community. The 100-year-old orchard provides high quality pecans and black walnuts to local markets. They offer the farm for weddings, photoshoots, field trips, and family outings.

Dave and Carrie Welter have carried on this tradition for many years, both for the sake of maintaining that tradition and for sharing it. Carrie says, “I want people to feel welcome to enjoy the scenery and greenspace. God has blessed us with this beautiful property and these wonderful buildings, and we want to share them.” 

Pavilion view before lunch. Lori Grice

And this year’s grind did just that. With the syrup boiling and music filling the barn, we enjoyed fellowship and history mingled into one wonderful fall day. One of the farm’s original workers' sister-in-law, Catrina Ellis Hampton, knew all about cane boiling and taught the Welters all they needed to know. Sadly, Catrina died of COVID in the fall of 2020, but the syrup shed bears a plaque dedicating it to the memory of her re-establishing the cane boil on the property.

Now Steve and Tracye Gordon of Glennville run the boils for the Welters and have been their vendor for 2 years.

Steve Gordon

With the sound of the BELL, we knew it was time to enjoy a fabulous home-cooked lunch at the Pavilion. Delicious BBQ pork, chicken, potato salad, Brunswick stew, baked beans, and more were all on the menu. 

The desserts were amazing from cobblers and pound cakes to chocolate everything, including squares, cakes, fudge, and Birthday cake for a friend’s friend. 

Near the Pavilion is also a beautiful garden called the ‘Cozy Corner.’ “It was created by the Pavilion for folks to enjoy,” added Carrie. The Gardenias, Camellias, and Azaleas there are top notch!  

Carrie (Johnson) Welter graduated from Statesboro High School in 1960. Several members of her graduating class and old-time school friends were present that day. Everyone circled around the porch swing to reminisce and celebrate “the good ol’ days.' 

SHS graduates 1960-Lynn Collins Skinner,Carrie Johnson Welter,Dennis Allen,Jack Williamson

The laughter, the storytelling, and the joy of old friendship echoed in the wind. They drew a small crowd. I could only imagine the old memories of the original farm gatherings with John and Minnie Johnson back in the day. Carrie said they were simply but gratefully celebrating God’s Creation with these past remembrances!

The Johnson-Welter Heritage Farm is now protected under state conservation easement and can NOT be developed. The Welters are passionate about keeping their piece of history alive for generations ahead.

Both for ‘Tradition’ and for ‘Sharing’ - A Very Happy Union!

Dave & Carrie Welter on the farm

Carrie has written a book about her Grandmother, Lavonia Johnson, and stories of her life. She has held it close to her heart with her Mother Minnie helping contribute. If you want to know more, contact her at [email protected].