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Sorghum Festival has sweet spot for Appalachian heritage

Ken Murray and his grandson, Oliver Murray, 6, prepare Maggie the Mule to begin turning the sorghum mill during the Tilson Mountain Sorghum Festival in Unicoi County on Oct. 15, 2022.

UNICOI COUNTY, Tennessee — After taking over a farm in the Tilson Mountain area of Unicoi County in 2007, Ken Murray decided that he wanted also to continue some of the Appalachian traditions employed by his family on the property since the mid-1800s. One of those traditions is milling sorghum and making syrup.

Preceding that endeavor, however, Murray was tapping maple trees on the property and making maple syrup. Attending the Maple Syrup Festival and Pancake Breakfast at Tipton Haynes State Historic Site, he met Oscar Wagoner of Johnson City. Murray calls Wagoner the “Guru of Syrup.”

Together with Wagoner, Everett Tipton and others, Murray started milling sorghum on the property and making syrup during what they are unofficially calling the Tilson Mountain Sorghum Festival. “It’s really just getting together with friends to celebrate,” Murray said.

Sorghum syrup has a long history in Appalachia and other regions as an alternative to sugar and molasses. The syrup is made from the sorghum plant’s green juice, which is extracted from the long sorghum stalks during a milling process. Excess water is steamed off through a long heating process that results in a dark syrup with a consistency similar to that of molasses.

After using a lawnmower to turn the sorghum mill the first year, Murray decided it would be better, and more traditional, to use a mule. He acquired a white mule named Maggie as a permanent farm resident and miller of sorghum. She also provides a gentle ride for grandchildren. Sorghum is used as a table syrup and in things like barbecue sauce and salad dressings. It makes for a great ingredient in holiday baked goodies, such as cookies.

View the full photo and video gallery by Lee Bidgood here. Sorghum cookie recipe: Servings: Two dozen Ingredients:

  • 1 cup sugar (half raw, half white)

  • 1 egg

  • ¾ cup unsalted butter

  • ¼ cup sorghum syrup

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon

  • ½ tsp ground ginger

  • ½ tsp ground cloves

  • ½ tsp salt


  • Mix butter and sugar until creamy. Beat in the egg and sorghum. Mix well.

  • Mix together dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Add gradually to creamed ingredients and beat until mixed. Cover and refrigerate dough for at least one hour.

  • Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Use baking sheets lined with parchment paper. For best results, use baking stone. Use 2 rounded tablespoons for each cookie. (For more and slightly smaller cookies, use a teaspoon.) Sprinkle or roll raw sugar on the tops of cookies.

  • Bake 10-12 minutes.


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