Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Price of Sugar

Friday was a beautiful day and perfect for part two of my swim in the history of this little beach town sixty-eight miles south of St Augustine, Florida, America’s oldest settlement. Last month the Scriblets pages included my impressions of the New Smyrna Beach Historical Museum, a small but richly endowed re-creation of the city’s past. While visiting the museum I learned about the ruins of an old sugar mill only a couple of miles away and made a note to visit the site. What a find that turned out to be.

On his second voyage to the New World Christopher Columbus carried sugarcane from Europe, introducing it to the island just south of Florida, which they called Hispaniola and we call the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Not long after that it was shipped to Florida for cultivation. Sugar is a work heavy crop and the need for labor is a big reason slavery became important on Florida plantations. To produce just one ton of sugar a plantation had to grow and crush seven tons of sugarcane. The labor involved required large work crews.

From the latter years of the eighteenth century until 1835, Florida’s sugar industry was concentrated in east Florida, on land between the St Johns River and the Atlantic. By the 1830s there were no fewer than twenty-two sugar plantations along the coastline producing sugar, molasses, and rum. The sugar industry brought prosperity to the region, employing the skills of farmhands, architects, stonemasons, riverboat crews, shopkeepers, and traders. Of course, African slaves provided the backbreaking labor, and that too was another form of economy. It all ended with the outbreak of the Second Seminole War in 1835. The Indians were revolting against US policies that would remove them from their homelands to land in the Oklahoma territories. They had a devastating effect on the plantations.

In 1830, Henry Cruger and William dePeyster purchased 600 acres to build a sugar mill. The land had originally been part of the Turnbull grant which led to the planting of a 1,255 strong Smyrnéa colony. Using the land as collateral, Cruger and dePeyster secured a $10,000 loan for the purchase of steam equipment from a New York foundry. But their venture was ill-timed. After only five years the sugar mill was destroyed by the warring Seminole Indians. Today the beautiful arched walls remain to give a glimpse of early American industry and the struggles two pioneering businessmen faced.

The ruins in New Smyrna are surrounded by lush green that includes oak, palmetto and tangerine trees. One historical marker on the site explains, “The mill had little time to produce sugar or repay investors before it was wrecked by the Seminoles. In December 1835, the Indians ran off the overseer, burned the complex, and destroyed other plantations throughout the region. Helping the Indians stage the raids were Cruger-dePeyster slaves.”


  1. In my beach condo I have a picture of the New Smyrna Beach Sugar Mill that we took and framed. That is a wonderful old site in this little beach town.

  2. To tour such a place as a writer is to gather material (background or otherwise). Not that one may necessarily write about slaves and sugar cane and attacks by Indians, but sometimes the material gathered is a feeling, a sense of place, descriptions of the natural world.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America