Sweating for Sweetness

July 27, 2011

I’ve never equated Florida with agriculture, but as I’ve learned on several occasions now, I’m dead wrong about that.  And one crop in particular — sugar cane — has a dramatic history in this state.

A Sweet History: Sugar Mills in Florida

In the early 1800s people moved into Florida to try their hand at running sugar mills.  Florida was no cooler back then than it is now, so sweating away in a sugar mill wasn’t exactly pleasant.  And with all the effort they put into this endeavour, the end result for most of them climaxed with brutal attacks by Indians, leaving the mills, and the owners’ fortunes, in ruins.

New Smyrna Beach Ruins

Sugar Mill Ruins in New Smyrna Beach, also know as the Curger and DePeyster Sugar Mill,  is one such reminder of sugar cane’s history in Florida. Its final fate was decided during the Seminole Wars and only crumbling coquina walls remain today.

Sugar Mill Ruins in New Smyrna Beach, FL

Ruins, including a rusted sugar cane boiling vat

What remains...

Rusted boiling vats

How to Make Sugar

According to information panels placed at the site, the three-step process included:

Step 1:  Crush the sugar cane (by a motorized cane crusher).

Step 2:  Stir in vats and then transfer to cooling troughs.
(illustration on information display board at the New Smyrna Beach ruins)
Step 3: Store extracted cane sugar in barrels.
(illustration on information display board at the New Smyrna Beach ruins)
Sounds simple, but I’m sure it was anything but. 
I’ve wandered around three such ruins within 25 miles of my home now — each one bringing with it its own tale, but each one meeting its cruel demise in the same way.  A tragedy any way you look at it.

Florida Archaeology Month

March 30, 2011

In honor of March being Florida Archaeology Month, I sought out archaeological sites to visit close to home. According to the Florida Public Archaeology Network website, there are over 29 such sites between Jacksonville and New Smyrna Beach alone! I chose the two closest to my neighborhood and headed out.

Dunlawton Plantation Sugar Mill Ruins (Port Orange)

The Dunlawton Plantation Sugar Mill Ruins site is described as “coquina and brick ruins of an 1830s sugar mill complex and assortment of sugar mill processing equipment.” After a short drive to its location, I entered the gates and found myself surrounded by a beautiful botanical garden.  To my surprise, the ruins were largely intact and amazingly preserved. 

According to a sign near the ruins,

In the late twentieth century, archaeologists began studying the factory site systemically. They discovered foundations, buried floors, machine objects, and discarded items of everyday life.” 

Kettles where extracted cane juice gradually thickened before being ladled into wooden cooling troughs.

Area where the Purgery stood. Crystallized sugar was packed in barrels and stored in the damp rooms for several weeks.


Samuel Butts Youth Archaeological Park (Daytona Beach)

I may never have known about the Samuel Butts Youth Archaeological Park if Florida Archaeology Month didn’t exist. 

I was stunned by the beauty of this park. And it’s all thanks to Daytona resident and amateur archaeologist Samuel Butts. Mr. Butts  found “copious spear points, bone tools and pottery fragments of the Timucuan Indians as well as skeletal material from a mastodon that roamed Central Florida during the Ice Ages” at this site.  He also found remains of a 1920s general store, complete with groceries, which had burned to the ground. Mr. Butts decided to make the 29-acre area a park, with panels interpreting the  prehistoric and historic sites in an effort to educate others.

Panel interpreting site where prehistoric shell tools and broken pottery were found.

Panel on the finding of a 1920s General Store which burned to the ground.

The pond was excavated in 2001. Butts found a "bone bed" over 10,000 years old containing the remains of prehistoric animals.


Thanks to the Florida Public Archaeology Network website, I have now found more explorations for my year ahead.  It looks like I will never run out of things to do here in Florida!