Farm History –  John Roger Simon Sorghum Festival

The annual sorghum festival takes place on John Roger Simon’s historic, well-preserved 5th-generation French homestead on Carey’s Run-Pond Creek Road outside West Portsmouth, Ohio.

Family History. Jean Baptiste Narjoz, John’s great-great grandfather, immigrated to the U.S. from Alaincourt, France in the mid-1800’s and established for himself a simple one-room cabin on the banks of Pond Creek. Once he was secure, he sent letters back to his wife and six children, begging them to join him. Meanwhile his wife was sending Jean letters too, begging him to return home. When the family realized Jean was determined to stay in the new country, they arranged for the oldest daughter, Mary Elise Narjoz, to join him to help him make a living on the land. Jean was never to see his wife or other children again.

Eventually, Mary Elise Narjoz married a local French man named John Francis Simon. In 1864, the household of three – Jean, Mary Elise & John – directed the construction of a two-story residence right behind Jean’s original cabin. Here Mary Elise and John raised their children, including August Simon, John’s grandfather. The Narjoz/Simon household was enterprising and hard-working. They established a grist mill, using a millstone Jean brought with him from France to grind corn and wheat. That millstone can still be seen on the property today! Over the generations the Simon descendants built a corn crib, barn, wheelbarrow factory, commercial sawmill, grist mill, and retail store on the farm.

August Simon raised his children in the same house as his father, John. One of his sons was Edward Lewis Simon, who married Clara Walsh. They had two children: John Roger and his sister Kathleen. Clara’s father, John Walsh, ran a sawmill in nearby Otway that cut railroad ties.

John Simon’s Story. When John was a teenager, he worked in the family sawmill, but his passion was music. He loved listening to his mother play the piano, and when he was young, she encouraged him to pick up a musical instrument of his own to play. He chose the five-string banjo and excelled playing it. Eventually John learned to play all the stringed instruments used in traditional music, including fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and dulcimer.

John earned a PhD in music, became an educator, and eventually taught classes at Shawnee State University on Country and Appalachian music, Appalachian religious traditions, Appalachian sociology, and more. John wanted his students to gain an understanding and appreciation for the richness of Appalachian culture. Toward this purpose he organized field trips deep into Appalachian America so that students could have meaningful first-hand encounters. In 2008, he wrote a book about Cowboy Copas, a local singer, and the golden age of country music. In 2014, he co-authored a book with Cleda Slye Willoughby, called “My Brother, Roy” about Portsmouth area native, Roy Rogers.

Sorghum Production Begins. Sorghum production began on the farm in 1982 when John bought the evaporator pan and press from an aging producer, Elbert Hackworth, who lived just down the road from the farm. Elbert was an important mentor to John throughout the years. It is thanks to Elbert’s tutelage that the Sorghum Festival began in the first place, and that today sorghum syrup making is a legacy that can continue to be passed down.

Making sorghum on the farm has always been a community affair, with friends and neighbors helping with every step of the process, from cuitting cane in the field to pouring off the final product. Roles and responsibilities include planting the sorghum, helping with the harvest, running the cane press, skimming the boiling sap on the evaporator pan, adding wood to keep the fire hot, (but not too hot), and finally bottling the finished syrup when John confirms it is “just right.”

John Roger Simon has spent his entire life building pride in Appalachian culture, and the nonprofit Arc of Appalachia is proud to continue the legacy of his work. Simon, now 86, says “Sorghum-making is a sensory experience, especially for our younger visitors. The smell of sweet sorghum steam rolling off the evaporator pan is a memory children will never, never forget.”

The two-story Simon home. Pictured left to right are Julius Simon, Malinda Simon, John Frances Simon (John’s great-grandfather), Theodore “Chuff” Pierron, Mary Elise Narjoz Simon (John’s great-grandmother), Josephine Simon, August Frances Simon (John’s grandfather), and Leona Simon Haley.

Aerial of the John Roger Simon Farm by Brian Prose

Elbert Hackworth, the neighbor who taught John Roger Simon how to make sorghum syrup and supplied him the equipment..

John Simon, right, at the Sorghum Festival. Photo by Gary Hurn.