Fall is my favorite season to visit Dollywood. I love the cooler weather and the Smoky Mountains backdrop as the leaves change color. Dollywood’s annual Harvest Festival kicks off, and the park is decorated with magnificent pumpkins and seasonal décor and is a feast for your eyes. Dozens of artisans from across the nation are invited to share their craft, and guests can stroll around and watch them at work.
They are turning flax to linen, crafting felt hats, twisting cornhusks into dolls, marbling paper and making fiddles, chairs, ornaments and much more. It’s fascinating to walk through the park and see experts at work, each happy to chat and tell you what they do and how they learned.
A few years ago, I attended Dollywood’s Harvest Festival for the first time and saw a horse helping grind some type of stalk that looked like corn. I learned they were making sorghum. Being from New England, I had never heard of it, although it is a sweetening staple in much of the South.
I bought a jar of the thick, dark syrup and found it to be somewhat like molasses. A spoonful stirred into my coffee added a rich sweetness with a unique flavor, and I made a gingerbread using the sorghum in place of molasses with a delicious result. I was hooked!
Sorghum is a versatile crop that is considered environmentally friendly. There are different types bred for different uses. Grain Sorghum is typically ground into flour and often used as a gluten-free substitute for wheat flour. Forage Sorghum is typically used for feeding livestock, while easy-to-grow biomass sorghum is used for bio energy and accounts for about one-third of all sorghum produced.
The type you’ll find at Dollywood is Sweet Sorghum, which is harvested for the syrup. The tall stalks can grow a dozen feet high or more and are fairly drought-resistant. The finished product is used in a variety of products ranging from cereals and sauces to spirits, and it is considered a healthy sweetener. It’s a good source of vitamin B6, magnesium and potassium.
If you visit Dollywood during the Harvest Festival, you might find members of the Guenther family demonstrating how Sorghum is made and selling fresh pure sorghum. The Guenther Family has been producing sorghum since the 1960s, and today three generations work together at Muddy Pond Sorghum. On my last visit, you could see Bryon cleaning sorghum stalks grown on their Monterey, Tennessee farm free of leaves and seeds, and then run them through a cane mill. The mill is run by a couple of horses named Fern and Fona, who drives a pole around the mill by walking in circles. At Muddy Mill Farm, visitors might expect to see a tractor used to help press the juice from the cane. The syrup runs into a bucket, which is strained and cooked down for many hours with a watchful eye to keep skimming the top to produce a sweet result. The timing is crucial; the sorghum cannot be undercooked nor overcooked, or it can become rancid. It takes approximately 10 gallons of sorghum juice to make one gallon of syrup!
Sorghum is just one of the jarred condiments you’ll find at Dollywood. Jams and jellies including southern varieties such as plum jam make tasty gifts and souvenirs. Apple and pumpkin butter are just wonderful smeared on toast or pancakes, and Dollywood makes their own.
You’ll find condiments in a number of Dollywood’s shops, but Taste Traders offers a huge selection. Stop in to browse sorghum, jams, jellies and butters, BBQ sauces, beef jerky, coffee and more. There is always someone offering free samples that can help you put together the perfect gift to take home. Pick up some sorghum on your next visit to drizzle it on biscuits or sweet potatoes, bake it into bread and pancakes, stir it in your coffee or try sorghum recipes on the Muddy Pond website, which will leave your house smelling like your own Harvest Festival!