Carrying on Traditions Ortona Cane Grinding Festival

Posted 1/16/20

While locals and returning snowbirds are likely familiar with Ortona Indian Mound Park, a state historical site that was once home to extinct Caloosahatchee Indian tribes, it is also the location of …

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Carrying on Traditions Ortona Cane Grinding Festival


While locals and returning snowbirds are likely familiar with Ortona Indian Mound Park, a state historical site that was once home to extinct Caloosahatchee Indian tribes, it is also the location of the annual Ortona Cane Grinding Festival that is held on the first Saturday of February each year. 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.

The Ortona Cane Grinding Festival has been a tradition for 41 years and was started by Marvin Williams, Vance Storter and a few other members of the Ortona Community. It was originally held on the Williams Family Farm. 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 on 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.

Local history buff, Hank Owsley, who has been a cane farmer who has been making cane syrup since before I was born, says, “Making sugar cane syrup is an ol’ tradition that goes far back, to the earliest pioneers. 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.

Owsley says, “After gathering loads of stalks, they must then be stripped, crushed, and squeezed to extract the lovey sugar cane juice- which makes a tasty and refreshing drink when poured over ice,” he goes on, “The juice is collected into a huge cauldron, heated to a boil, and the left over 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.”

Owsley says he loves watching everyone who attends a cane grinding. He describes 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!” exclaims 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!”

This year the Ortona Cane Grinding Festival will be held on February 1, 2020 from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at the Ortona Indian Mound Park in Ortona. There will be music, dancing, chicken dinners with all the fixings for $10.00 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 can call 863-612-6951 for more information.

(Caloosa Belle/Dale Conyers) James Belcher and Larry Lucky working the grinder.
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