Louisiana Sugar Plantations

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It is generally recognized that the first sugar cane was grown in India. However, Chinese historians claim that sugar has been made in China for several thousand years. The Arabs also claim credit for sugar in early Christian times. In these locales, the weather conditions are similar for the proper growth of cane and the formation of sugar in the stalk. Sugar cane is a member of the grass family and grows best in a warm, humid climate. South Louisiana is well acclimated for the cultivation of cane. The plant consists of roots, stalk, and leaves. While the roots bring up moisture and nourishment, the leaf takes in carbon dioxide from the air and forms it into sugar that is stored in the stalk.

While a report to Paris by Bienville mentioned the planting of sugar cane near New Orleans, it appears that the first significant quantity of cane was planted by the Jesuits in 1742. The first sugar mill was built in 1758, but this and other early mills produced an inferior product. Finally, in 1795 Jean Étienne de Boré perfected a method to granulate sugar on a profitable scale. Sugar has been an essential part of the Louisiana economy ever since. Its cultivation spawned a distinctive culture, that of the plantation, with a life and architecture of its own. The great mansions along the Mississippi River and some more modest plantation homes on the bayous were built by sugar.

Sugar agriculture was a cycle of planting, hoeing, plowing, and cutting. Planting usually took place in September with harvest not occurring until the next year. Seed cane saved from the previous season was planted in furrows laid open by large plows. The cane was then covered with a layer of soil and by July the stalks stood five or six feet high. October was the month that cutting gangs armed with large knives leveled the cane. Planters were at the mercy of the weather during harvesting, being caught between the desire to wait and obtain maximum yield while avoiding a damaging frost. Occasional hurricanes would also be disastrous to sugar growers. Cutting the cane was a system of four strokes of the blade to each stalk: the first two stripped the leaves, another cut it at the ground, while a final chop took off the top. Mule carts were used to transport the cane to the sugarhouse. Cutting, hauling, and sugar making went on simultaneously.

In the early years each plantation had, by necessity, its own sugar mill. This and the sugarhouse were the industrial nerve center of the plantation. There the juice was ground from the cane between great iron rollers. Impurities were strained from the raw juice which then passed through a series of open kettles until it was cooked to crystallization and placed into pans for cooling and granulation. The sugar was then scooped into “hogsheads” and stored for several days while molasses drained through holes in the containers for that purpose. (Hogsheads were casks of varying capacities generally considered to hold about 1150 pounds of sugar and used for storage and shipment.)

Technological advances appeared rapidly between 1820 and 1860. With the introduction of steam powered mills in the 1820s, the doubling of the labor supply from 1828 to 1844, and the invention of the vacuum process for manufacturing sugar in the 1840s, the number of mills peaked in the 1850s at about 1500. The vacuum pan process permitted boiling or cooking the raw juice at a lower temperature. Part of the sugar making was still carried out by the open kettle process, but the vacuum pan method improved both the quality and quantity of the sugar by reducing the amount of molasses by-product.

The grinding season, as it was called, brought eighteen hour workdays from October to January. The fires under the boilers never went out. Laborers, the majority of which were slaves, worked in shifts with no man getting more than six hours of rest. Owners boosted morale with generous portions of food, whiskey, tobacco, and coffee. The constant expansion of the sugar industry created a constant need for additional workers, and by the onset of the Civil War, Louisiana had more than 300,000 slaves.

The beginning of the Civil War ended an era for Louisiana sugar planting. Prices fell, credit grew scarcer, and during the war years Northern forces destroyed everything that might be of use to the South. Many planters simply abandoned sugar planting and began cultivating other crops while others gave up and moved to Cuba or Brazil. Due to the turbulence, the number of sugar-producing plantations decreased from twelve hundred in 1861 to seventy-five, three years later. After the war, the sugar industry was forced to make a new beginning.

The recovery took almost two decades. Supplemented by a diversity of crops and a reorganized labor supply, sugar again became king. Ultimately the cane industry regained its economic strength. Following the war many large plantations still existed, with ex-slaves working the fields and each plantation having its own mill just as before. Nevertheless, the days of the individual, independent plantation were numbered. Large factories, greater efficiency, and better sugar recovery methods were indicators of progress. Throughout the 1890s and early 1900s sugar production remained fairly steady.

Increased capacities and consolidation had reduced the number of plantations and factories. This increased capacity, together with an ability to transport the cane by railroad, enabled many successful growers to increase their plantings from hundreds to thousands of acres of cane. The “central factory” concept, popularized by Leon Godchaux, also contributed to the expansion of the industry.

In 1912 a decline began in the Louisiana sugar industry, lasting until the 1930s. Further consolidation took place. During World War I many planters harvested only their best cane for grinding due to the high price of sugar, using stunted cane for planting. A severe drought and an attack of the dreaded mosaic disease caused production to plummet from a high of 290,000 tons in 1922 to 88,000 tons in 1927. Also, in 1927 plantations along the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers were inundated by the great flood. New cane varieties resistant to mosaic disease and higher levees reversed this decline, but fortunes plunged again due to the Great Depression. This resulted in further consolidation. During the last fifty years the sugar industry has risen again, but instead of many small plantations a few large corporations perform the bulk of sugar cultivation.

Through the years many technological advances have been made in the sugar industry around the world. Louisiana has made some of the most significant and valuable contributions such as the use of steam turbines to drive the sugar mills, the invention of the vacuum boiling process, and the transformation of bagasse into Celotex.

Early plantation factory owners depended on the great Corliss steam engines, which had great flywheels eighteen to twenty feet in diameter. However, as new machines and techniques were introduced, more power was needed. In 1936, a young engineer returned to the Lula Sugar Factory to assist his father in its operations. This young engineer, Charles C. Savoie, was successful in replacing the Corliss engine with steam turbines at the Lula Factory.

The manufacturing of sugar produces several by-products. One is low-grade molasses which is mixed with cattle feed or used in the production of alcohol. Another is bagasse, which is the fibrous mass remaining after the juices have been extracted. Prior to 1920 bagasse was a waste product burned as a fuel. In the early 1920s the Celotex Corporation began making a wallboard using bagasse at their plant in Marrero.

The sugar industry is one of the world’s oldest process industries. In Louisiana, the sugar industry has existed for over two centuries and over the years has been put to the test. Today, three landmarks of the industry remain: the cane fields, occasional sugarhouses, and the great, proud mansions along the rivers and bayous.