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95-Year-Old Looks Back on Farming

by Kim MacMillan

Published: Friday, January 7, 2022

No matter where life has taken Alice Plasterer Stickler in her 95-plus years, she has always held close to her heart the memories of her family's farm in rural Huntington County. Born June 20, 1926 as the older of two children of Eiffel and Inez (Burgett) Plasterer, she and her brother Bill grew up helping on her grandfather's farm, which was located just west of S.R. 5 on Division Road a few miles south of the city of Huntington.

The farm, which was in the Plasterer family for four generations, was last owned by her brother's middle son, Bob.

She vividly described the farm which her grandfather and grandmother Plasterer purchased in the late 1890s as ultimately having 80 acres by acquiring four smaller farms and combining them. The family raised crops including wheat, oats, soybeans, corn, sorghum and hay, and had dairy cattle (first Jerseys and later Holsteins), a variety of poultry, hogs and work horses.

The Plasterer farm became a treasure trove of interesting and useful old farm equipment as the generations passed. Ed Plasterer, Stickler's nephew and Bill's youngest son, shared that his father and grandfather owned at least eight steam engines, three threshing machines and a 1927 International Harvester dump truck, as well as tractors, wagons and other farm implements.

On July 17, 1976, Eiffel and the family hosted a Bicentennial Farm Day, which attracted several thousand visitors who witnessed demonstrations of how farming was done in earlier times. Antique equipment was on display and there were volunteers sawing lumber, threshing, and other yesteryear farming activities.

"Dad had me in the sorghum mill showing how we made molasses," remembered Stickler.

The Plasterer Sorghum Mill was founded in 1899 by her grandparents. Stickler shared many details about harvesting sorghum to process in their mill, where her family not only converted their own canes into syrup, but also did custom sorghum production for others. They made sorghum molasses there until 1988, the year that her mother died and the year before her father passed. The Plasterers also had a stone grist wheel for grinding cornmeal and flour and a saw mill.

Her brother was a savant when it came to welding and fixing things, and he ran a custom shop at the farm. She talked about his genius with a torch."

"Bill did what they said couldn't be done and soldered stainless steel to make a pan for boiling the sorghum. It fit down inside the original wooden pan as a liner," Stickler said.

Not to be confused with blackstrap molasses, which is made from processing sugar cane, sorghum stalks may also be crushed to produce juice, which is reduced to make sorghum molasses. The thick, dark-brown natural sweetener can be used in the same ways as sugar-cane molasses, honey or maple syrup.

According to the National Sweet Sorghum Producers & Processors Assn., sorghum is more nutrient-rich than most other sugars and is a good source of iron, calcium and potassium. Sorghum grain is also gluten-free and high in fiber and protein. Eiffel was interested in organic food production well before it was the popular, healthy-living catch phrase it is today. So, they used organic methods to produce their sorghum from the very beginning.

Stickler remembers that her father stressed that sorghum should be grown in the least productive soil on the farm and that it should not be fertilized as it grew. She said that if the soil was too rich it negatively affected the taste of the sorghum.

She outlined the process of harvesting the sorghum by hand. They stripped the leaves off the stalks and cut the grain head off the top while the sorghum canes were standing in the field. Then, the stalks were cut off near the ground with a corn knife and each laid aside for another person to come along and pick them up to bundle together if they were going to be stored for later processing. Or the stalks were thrown on a wagon to take directly to the mill for pressing.

"We fed the grain heads to the cattle. The cows liked them; it was good feed. Or we hung them up to dry for next year's seed or Dad even ground the grain into sorghum meal to use in cooking."

Once in the mill the stalks were loaded onto a platform. From there they were hand fed fat-end first a few at a time into a pressing machine which extracted the juice. The collected juice was run through a filter as it funneled into a holding tank. She said that they filtered the juice at least twice during the processing.

Then the juice was boiled in a large rectangular pan until it reduced to thick syrup. Stickler said that originally they used a wood and coal fire to heat the liquid, but then her father developed a way to use steam for cooking using a 1927 Kitten Model No. 219 steam engine which had been manufactured in the town of Ferdinand in southern Indiana. The steam was carried through a series of pipes laid in the stainless steel pan to heat the liquid and the amount of heat could be fine-tuned more easily than using a wood fire.

"From a little kid, Dad was crazy about steam engines, so any time he could use steam he was going to do it," Stickler said.

Early in the heating process bitter green foam had to be skimmed off the liquid. Later the foam turned white and then darkened to golden brown as the liquid cooked down. Stickler said once the syrup starting forming bubbles inside of bubbles it was ready to take off the heat. The volume of sorghum liquid reduced by about 10 to 1 during the process and this usually took about three or four hours, so they could do two pans in a day with cleaning in between. The finished syrup was dipped into containers by hand; later Eiffel installed valves to drain the syrup out into large cans to cool rather than having to ladle it out.

The leftover pulp from pressing the stalks was called "pummies" and that was collected in a wagon or a dump truck and fed to their cattle.

"The cattle loved it. The pulp was sweet. Any time we would be making sorghum they could smell it and they would be up at the gate waiting," shared Stickler with a smile.

Processing of sorghum was done in the fall after harvest. She recalled that she started helping in the sorghum mill when she was in high school in 1944. Since that was during World War II, they were processing a large volume since there were sugar shortages and sorghum was in high demand. Because her parents lived in town at the time, she would go out to the farm after school with her father's sister, Mayretha, who worked in town. When Stickler arrived at the farm, she would relieve someone else from duty in the mill, then she stayed overnight at the farm and go back to town with her aunt who would drop her at school the next day.

A 1948 graduate of DePauw University like her father and aunt before her, Stickler earned a liberal arts degree majoring in mathematics and minoring in chemistry. Her young professional and married life took her to Chicago, Ill. and several locations in Wisconsin, Texas and California. After her first husband, Bob Jacobs, died, she returned to Huntington County in 1976 and picked up right where she left off helping on the farm.

Although her father, Eiffel, spent 25 years teaching physics and chemistry at Huntington High School, he was also an integral part of running the family farm his entire life. Eiffel was born in the farm house on Division Road. In 1946, when Stickler was 20 years old, her parents moved their family back to the farm from the city of Huntington after her father's mother died. Later, her brother Bill and his wife Evelyn raised their family of three boys and two girls there.

Stickler says she doesn't remember her grandfather, William L. Plasterer, since he died before she was born, but she does remember her grandmother, Elizabeth Rebecca (Dill) Plasterer, quite well. She said her grandparents had a truck garden on the farm as well as the Jersey cows. To make money her grandmother operated a market on Warren Street in Huntington where she sold produce, butter, cottage cheese and baked goods.

Stickler said she remembers when she was very young standing on a stool and pressing a big-seeded raisin into the middle of each of the sugar cookies her grandmother was making. Following is a recipe from her grandmother for cookies which used the sorghum molasses.

Grandma Plasterer's Old-Fashioned Sorghum Cookies

2 cups sorghum molasses

1 cup sour milk

½ cup shortening (solid)

5 cups flour

1½ Tablespoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

Spices to taste

Heat first three ingredients until warm. Dissolve the soda in warm mixture. Gradually add flour, with baking powder and spices, to make a stiff batter. Chill overnight. Roll cookie dough and cut as desired. Use as little flour as possible when working dough. Bake at 325 degrees F. for about 15 minutes until set firm, but not hard.

As an aside to his work farming and teaching, some science fans may remember Eiffel as the "bubble man" since he used his knowledge of chemistry and surface tension to work and entertain with bubbles. He created one bubble that lasted in a square Mason jar for one day short of a year and performed hundreds of public shows, in later years assisted by Stickler.

His bubble demos gained national and international acclaim and they appeared on a number of television shows hosted by big names including David Letterman, Dick Cavett and Tom Snyder. After her father's passing, Stickler took on the bubble shows and still does performances on occasion, most recently entertaining the pre-schoolers at her church in May of 2021. In 2021, she was named an honorary lifetime member by the International Assn. of Bubble Artistes.

Stickler's tenacious farm-girl roots and strong desire to be involved in the community have served her well. She survived COVID, which required a hospital stay after she contracted it in early January 2021 about two weeks before her scheduled first vaccine. She recovered in time to get her vaccination series and went on with her busy life.

She is active in Trinity United Methodist Church and Daughters of the American Revolution as well as music, reading, gardening, bird feeding, and visiting with family and friends. She still plays Trinity UMC's bell tower chimes regularly and in past years was also a member of their choir and hand bell group. And, this fall she helped in the gift shop at the Forks of the Wabash historic site west of Huntington during tours for school children.

Over the years her interests have been wide-spread. She previously maintained and showed antique and classic cars, including a 1929 Ford Model A which was her father's, a 1965 Oldsmobile Jetstar 88 convertible in which she and her second husband Delvia Stickler appeared in the Indianapolis 500 Parade, and a 1929 Oakland Motor Co. car she owned with her brother. She also participated in Eastern Star and the Huntington Theater Guild.

Beyond all of her public service, one thing is for sure—her insights into farm life over the last nine and a half decades are invaluable.

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