Parker Homestead’s Fall Festival a trip back in time
Step back in Arkansas Delta history with a visit to the Parker Homestead Fall Festival, held October 14-15 and 21-22.
Phil and Teressa Parker originally moved a log home called Clark’s Cabin to their land 6 miles south of Harrisburg in 1984. In 1990, they opened the homestead, where folks could visit and learn what life was like during pioneer times. Four generations have contributed to the creation of this 19th century reproduction farmstead.
“When we open for the festival, everything is up and running,” says Cy Parker, son of Phil and Teressa. “Families who come out will see the blacksmith, broom maker, butter churning, quilting, wool spinning, the magician, a Civil War camp, a working printing press, sorghum making. … There’s kettle corn popping, rope making, a farm life museum, a working crosscut saw and bees for honey and wax.”
Parker Homestead offers lots of period examples of how life was like long ago. But it’s still also a working farm that grows sweet sorghum — the sort that’s still processed to make sorghum molasses. There’s also an apiary that produces the farm’s honey.
Under a shed on the property, you’ll find a working grist mill. During the festival, visitors can see how corn was processed into cornmeal. Back in the day, locals would band together to buy grist mills, so they could together produce their own cornmeal and corn flour, which was used for cornbread, for baking and as a general starch.
One of the most sought-after photo opportunities at the site is Robert’s Chapel. This steep-roofed log cabin, the oldest building on the homestead, was built in 1850 and moved to the site in 1993. Its stained-glass windows were donated by John E. Roberts of Jonesboro, and the chapel is named in his honor. The quaint structure is often used as a backdrop for wedding photos.
While the Fall Festival is by far the biggest event held at the homestead, there are other opportunities to visit.
“The last two weeks of September are for local school field trips,” Cy shares. “We also host the Holidays Wine Tasting, a Valentine’s Day Dinner, as well as Whiskey and Water in the spring. Outside of that, the Homestead is used for weddings, family reunions and birthday parties.”
There are also three restored, rustic cabins available to rent through Airbnb throughout the year.
The festival is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. both Sundays. It’s $10 for adults and $8 for kids. For more information, call 870-530-3122 or visit facebook.com/parkerhomesteadharrisburg.
How sorghum is made, the old-fashioned way
Phil Parker demonstrates how sorghum syrup is created during the Fall Festival at Parker Homestead each year.
“Sorghum looks a lot like regular cane, but instead of being hollow, it’s full of juice,” he tells folks who come to watch the process. “To extract the juice from the cane, a farmer would take his sorghum to a sorghum maker. He’d do it on the thirds; he’d keep a third, and that’s what he’d use to trade for other products.”
Since sorghum is so thick and fibrous, it takes a lot of effort to extract the juice. A long pole called a single tree is attached to a screw mechanism atop a cast-iron sorghum mill press. Its end is pulled behind a mule, who walks in a circle around the press to provide torque to the machine. While the mule is turning the mill, the sorghum is fed into the press, and the juice is caught in a bucket under the contraption. The juice is poured in a pan heated over coals. As the fire beneath heats the pan, the water in the juice evaporates.
“When it starts out, it’s about 80% water and 20% sugar,” Parker continues. “As it boils, the sugar bubbles up. It takes about two hours for the juice to move from one end, where it’s mostly water, to the other, where the syrup comes out finished, about 80% sugar and 20% water.” The resulting syrup has no preservatives and is completely shelf-stable.
“In the pioneer days, instead of white sugar, sorghum was used because it could be grown and processed in the region,” Parker shares. “If you needed 10 gallons of syrup to last all year, you would plant enough sorghum to take to the sorghum maker in town. You had to plan ahead and make sure you had enough sorghum planted. It takes about 100 gallons of juice to make 10 gallons of syrup, so you’d need to know to plant an acre and a half of sorghum cane.”