The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Honey Converter

By Mel Tharp © 1987

Issue: September, 1987

Sandford Holly never married. It was not that Sandford did not have ample opportunity as a young man. He came from a good family, and he never knew the pangs of hunger, nor did he suffer from a paucity of material wealth. It was simply that he never subscribed to the tenet that two could live as cheap as one.

Sandford ran a boarding house in Calhoun, the county seat of McLean County, Kentucky. Most of his guests were people down on their luck or elderly people forced from indigence to subsist on Sandford's meager fare.

Meager fare was the order of the day at Sandford's. The menus were planned on a tight fisted budget. In order to see that his meals were prepared according to his specifications, Sandford did the cooking himself, and presided over each meal like an ancient king ruling his court.

Sandford did his shopping from the backdoors of cut–rate grocery stores, purchasing stale bread, wilted vegetables, and maybe a bone which could be the stock for a pot of watery soup. If there was meat, he meant to get the most from it by slicing it and serving it himself. It was said that Sandford could slice meat so thin the slices had only one side.

Molasses was a "treat" at Sandford's table. The local sweet feed mill used a heavy, sulfurous, black strap molasses for mixing dairy supplements. Sandford always purchased this staple by the barrel. This grade of molasses is generally considered unfit for human consumption. But Sandford's guests were a vigorous lot and Sandford went to great ends to cater to the welfare of his boarders. He took great pains to see that they didn't overeat. It was bandied about that Sandford had almost broken one boarder from eating, but unfortunately, the man had starved to death before the final objective could be accomplished.

If the food at Sandford's was bad, the social activities also left much to be desired. A worn checkerboard and a few dog–eared copies of Liberty and American Agriculturist were about all one might expect to find for reading matter in Sandford's parlor. Visitors were rare, so it was only natural that it should cause quite a stir on that bleak January evening when a red and black Essex roadster pulled up and parked in front of the house.

Sandford didn't miss much in the way of coming and going at his house. He saw a young, well–dressed man get out of the car and start up the walk toward the front door. He knew a live fish when he saw one. No flat weekly rates for this one. This one would be a la carte.

That evening at supper, the boarders enjoyed a sumptuous repast of fried bologna and canned pork and beans. Considering the normal fare, this must have seemed like dining in regal splendor. The newcomer too added spiritual uplifting to the occasion by keeping up a running conversation with boarders and proprietor alike. "This food is savory," he commented. "It reminds me of a quaint little inn where I used to stay in San Francisco."

Abe Waite, a cynical old reprobate, who had been a guest at Sandford's for longer than he cared to remember, was prompted to remark, "It reminds me of the dungeon of a quaint little jail where I spent some time in Juarez, Mexico." Sandford made a mental note to reduce old man Waite's rations after the stranger's departure.

The next morning, after breakfast of fried mush, topped off with some of Sandford's stockyard sorghum, the stranger announced that he would be checking out, and asked for his tab.

Sandford wasted no time in presenting his guest with a list of the itemized damages. Bed–$1.00, Food–$2.00, Use of parlor–25¢, Use of the sanitary facilities–10¢, Pitcher of cold water–5¢, Parking space for car–10¢, Tourist tax–50¢. Total $4.00.

The stranger accepted the bill cheerfully and made as if to reach for his wallet. Then, as if in afterthought, he paused and cleared his throat. "There is one more thing," he said. "I wonder if I might trouble you for the brand of molasses you serve. I believe this grade of molasses might convert to an excellent honey. This of course falls in with my line of work."

"Do you mean to say that you can turn molasses into honey?," Sandford questioned. "I never heard of such thing!"

"Well, I must say, it's relatively a new process," the stranger admitted. "Essentially it's the process whereby through chemical reaction, known as catalysis, the invert sugars in molasses are broken down and are altered so as to transmogrify the molecular structure, and thus, create that delightful substance we know as honey. I was just recently awarded my patent. Of course, only the finest grades of molasses such as yours are suitable for this conversion.

Sandford's mind was doing a series of rapid calculations. If this low–grade molasses could be converted into pure honey, a considerable profit could be realized. Perhaps this young man could be induced to demonstrate his invention in return for his nights lodging. Who could know? Maybe even a partnership could be formed. Well, it was certainly worth approaching the gentleman about the matter.

The stranger did not reply readily to Sandford's offer of a free night's lodging in return for having a barrel of molasses converted to honey. He shuffled his feet and stared at the floor as if pondering a great decision.

Sandford was desperate now. He could not afford to let this business opportunity slip through his fingers. He would raise the ante. After all, what was there to lose? The man would have to produce honey from molasses or the deal would be invalid. "Oh, I'll make it worth your time," he pleaded. "In addition to a night's lodging, I'll pay you five dollars for your trouble, in advance of course."

The stranger agreed although somewhat reluctantly. "I'd like to help you Mr. Holly," he said. "I will, however, need to run some definite tests before I can determine if your molasses will convert. May I see your barrel?"

The stranger was shown the basement where a barrel of molasses was setting on two sawhorses. "Do you have a brace and bit?" he asked, explaining that he would need to drill a hole in the underside of the barrel in order to place the attachment for his testing equipment. Sandford produced the drill and the hole was quickly bored.

The molasses poured from the hole in a thick stream. "Stick your finger in the hole," the stranger ordered. "I'll go get my testing equipment out of the car. Don't let any of that lovely nectar escape!"

The minutes added up and still the stranger didn't return. An hour passed, and Sandford still stood in the damp basement with his finger shoved into the barrel. His feet were chilled and his hand cramped from the pressure of holding back the viscous molasses.

He started having a gut feeling that the stranger was not all that he seemed to be. He was tempted to call for help, but the thought of letting one of his boarders see him in this predicament was unthinkable. No one must ever know about this ignominious incident. If only he could find a bucket. Perhaps he could let go long enough to find something to catch the drippings. Perhaps this would give him time to get someone to help him roll the barrel over.

Suddenly, he heard footsteps at the head of the stairs leading down to the basement. He looked up to see Abe Waite leering down at him. "Well," the old man crackled, "I do believe the goose hangs high. What do we have here?"

Sandford felt a heaviness of heart. Abe Waite was the last person on earth he would have wanted to catch him in this dilemma. Perhaps he could bluff his way out. "This barrel sprung a leak, Abe," he explained. "Find me a bucket and help me roll it over so the hole will be on top."

Abe was in no hurry to comply. He walked around the barrel sizing up the situation. Noticing the brace and bit laying on the floor, he remarked, "I must say it sure sprang a mighty neat hole. If I didn't know better, I would swear that hole was drilled. By the way, that stranger left about an hour ago. He had a right happy look on his face. He said to give his regards to the innkeeper."

The charade was over. Sandford was obliged to confess the entire matter to the old man. Abe agreed to keep quiet in return for certain concessions. No one ever learned the full details of those concessions, but it was rumored that the quality of the food at Sandford's Boarding House improved perceptibly, at least, for the remaining length of Abe Waite's tenure there.