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Sweet Cane: The Architecture of the Sugar Works of East Florida

Sweet Cane: The Architecture of the Sugar Works of East Florida

by Lucy B. Wayne

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A look at the antebellum history and architecture of the little-known sugar industry of East Florida.   From the late eighteenth century to early 1836, the heart of the Florida sugar industry was concentrated in East Florida, between the St. Johns River and the Atlantic Ocean. Producing the sweetest sugar, molasses, and rum, at least 22 sugar


A look at the antebellum history and architecture of the little-known sugar industry of East Florida.   From the late eighteenth century to early 1836, the heart of the Florida sugar industry was concentrated in East Florida, between the St. Johns River and the Atlantic Ocean. Producing the sweetest sugar, molasses, and rum, at least 22 sugar plantations dotted the coastline by the 1830s. This industry brought prosperity to the region—employing farm hands, slaves, architects, stone masons, riverboats and their crews, shop keepers, and merchant traders. But by January 1836, Native American attacks of the Second Seminole War, intending to rid the Florida frontier of settlers, devastated the whole sugar industry.   Although sugar works again sprang up in other Florida regions just prior to the Civil War, the competition from Louisiana and the Caribbean blocked a resurgence of sugar production for the area. The sugar industry would never regain its importance in East Florida—only two of the original sugar works were ever rebuilt. Today, remains of this once thriving industry are visible in a few parks. Some are accessible but others lie hidden, slowly disintegrating and almost forgotten. Archaeological, historical, and architectural research in the last decade has returned these works to their once prominent place in Florida’s history, revealing the beauty, efficiency of design, as well as early industrial engineering. Equally important is what can be learned of the lives of those associated with the sugar works and the early plantation days along the East Florida frontier.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“The value of Sweet Cane is twofold. First, it documents an important and little-known phase of Florida’s history, drawing from recent historical and archaeological research currently available only in professional journals and reports. Secondly, the text, illustrations, and bibliography provide documentation of the sites that is useful to the scholar and of interest to the general public. Anyone interested in historic tourism and in visiting the ruins will enjoy using the text not only to interpret a particular site, but also to trace the development of the industry from one site to another.”—Herschel Shepard, FAIA Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Florida

“This informative volume details the little-known story of the extensive but brief boom and bust sugar enterprise on the Florida frontier some two hundred years ago.”—Patricia C. Griffin


“This book will be a key resource to build anthropological studies of plantation social life. As an architectural study, Sweet Caneis a contribution to the history of Florida’s landscape that the scholar can employ for understanding the built environment and regional economic change and the tourist can enjoy for site visits.”—Florida Historical Quarterly

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Sweet Cane

The Architecture of the Sugar Works of East Florida
By Lucy B. Wayne


Copyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5592-0

Chapter One


[A] source of wealth opened. -Charles Vignoles, Observations upon the Floridas (1823)

Today the remains of the late-eighteenth- to early-nineteenth-century sugar plantations of East Florida lie in the parks and forests of the region (Figure 1). Although a few are accessible to the public with interpretative exhibits, others lie hidden, slowly disintegrating and almost forgotten. This study is intended to help explain the plantation ruins in order to provide a better understanding of their history and architecture.

Sugar Production in Florida

Sugar has been a Florida agricultural product on at least a limited basis since the early years of the first European settlements. From the late eighteenth century to 1835, the heart of the sugar industry was concentrated in what was known as East Florida, particularly today's Volusia County.

By the 1830s, at least 22 plantations, described as "the most valuable plantations in Florida" (Mahon 1985:102), were in operation in this region, "so that the economic development of this short stretch of the upper East coast exceeded that of any other part of the territory" (Boyd 1951:59). But, by the end of January 1836, "the whole industry was destroyed" during the initial attacks of the Second Seminole War (Mahon 1985:102). Sugar and the sugar works that produced it would never regain their importance in East Florida. Only two of the sugar works would even be rebuilt.

In the period between the end of the Second Seminole War in 1842 and the Civil War in 1861, a second group of sugar plantations was built in Central Florida and along the lower Florida gulf Coast. But competition from the massive sugar plantations of Louisiana and the Caribbean limited the success of this particular crop in Florida in those years leading up to the Civil War. The war itself, combined with emancipation of the slaves vital to sugar growth and production, effectively ended the sugar industry in Florida until the late nineteenth century brought sugar to the everglades, along with modern processing factories. Today sugar production remains a major agricultural industry in South Florida.

The East Florida sugar Plantations

The history and architecture of the East Florida plantations are little known outside the immediate area. I had lived in Florida for 15 years and had been a professional archaeologist for 10 years before I realized that these sites even existed or learned their history. In 1991, I was introduced to this industry at Dunlawton sugar works in Port orange (Wayne et al. 1991). Several years later I was involved in a project at Oswald's Three Chimneys site (Wayne et al. 1999) which gave me insight on the earliest period of sugar in Florida. Two years after that, I helped develop structural evaluations and stabilization plans for eight of the East Florida sugar works, including Dunlawton and Three Chimneys (Wayne et al. 2001). That exposure to the variety and range of sites in this relatively compact geographic area formed the idea for this study.

It was clear to me that the sites themselves present a fascinating remnant of what was once an important regional industry, as well as examples of masonry construction and early industrial engineering. This study is an effort to open the door on these fascinating ruins and tell their stories as reflected in their architecture. It is above all an architectural history. It is not a regional history or a socioeconomic history, nor is it an attempt to look at the new World sugar industry as a whole.

Although these sugar works were part of plantations, I am not looking at the plantations as a whole, or the houses of the owners and the slave labor force-primarily because we have very little information about the other components of most of these sites. It is the masonry sugar works that have lasted and are visible today.

My goal is to provide sufficient information on the sugar industry and the historic events that affected that industry in East Florida so that those interested in these structures will better understand what they see and what the structures represent. As architectural historian Camille Wells says: "[h]istoric architecture is one aspect of the past that we can still see, touch, experience ... and part of what attracts us to old buildings is their insistence on communicating, in some outmoded dialect we do not entirely understand, the energy and purpose, the achievements and hopes, the disappointments and hardships of those who made and used them" (Wells 1995:3).

The Setting

All of the sugar works discussed in this book are now in public ownership, although two are not currently accessible to the general public. All eight sites are in what was once known as East Florida, with seven in Volusia County and one in adjacent southern Flagler County (Figure 1). Historically, East Florida was defined during the British Period (1763 to 1783) as the area East of the Apalachicola river in the Florida Panhandle, extending north to the St. Marys river and East to the Atlantic ocean (Gordon 2002:164). In reality, there was little settlement in the central area between the Apalachicola river and the St. Johns river until after the second Seminole War ended in 1842. Between the initial colonization of Florida in the First Spanish Period until after 1842, the majority of the settlement of East Florida was between the St. Johns River on the west, the Atlantic ocean on the East, Cape Canaveral on the south, and the northern border of the territory on the St. Marys river. Volusia and Flagler counties lie squarely within this region, with both counties extending from the St. Johns river to the Atlantic ocean.

All of the sites share certain geographic characteristics. Each property has access to water transportation (griffin 1999:5), a vital resource in a land without railroads and with an extremely poor road system. Seven of the sites are on the estuarine rivers draining into the Atlantic ocean in what is known as the Halifax region, while the eighth (spring garden) is on the St. Johns river, which ultimately flows into the Atlantic. With the exception of spring garden, the sites were also located along the King's road, one of Florida's original roads that ran from south of New Smyrna beach north to the St. Marys River, connecting the coastal areas of Florida and Georgia. While the King's road would not have provided the dependable and fast transportation offered by water, it did provide an alternative, as well as access between neighboring plantations.

Climate was another important factor shared by these properties (griffin 1999:6). In all cases, the plantations are buffered from storms by either the barrier islands or an inland location. Florida is blessed with a humid, temperate climate that alternates between a cool dry season and a warm wet season. This variation, along with normally abundant yearly rainfall, supports lush vegetation growth. Damaging frosts are infrequent, particularly in the coastal region, due to the moderating effect of the ocean. This allows for a lengthy growing season and, in some cases, multiple harvests (Chen and Gerber 1990:11-12). As topographical engineer Charles Vignoles said of Florida in 1823: "the great length of summer, or period of absolute elevation of the thermometer above the freezing point, allows the cane to ripen much higher than that in Louisiana" (Vignoles 1823:96-97).

Soils are another factor in the successful development of these properties. Florida's upland soils are primarily sands with relatively low levels of nutrients (Myers and Ewel 1990:3). However, in moderately to poorly drained areas, the damp soils become mixed with organic materials which provide the nutrients otherwise lacking. In addition, these sand-humus mixtures are easy to cultivate (griffin 1999:5). Vignoles claimed that "the recent successful trials that have been made upon it [sugar], have determined the curious fact that it will grow in almost any of the soils of Florida, south of the mouth of the St. Johns river" (Vignoles 1823:96-97).

A final factor that may have influenced development of the plantations in this region is the relative lack of settlement prior to the British Period of 1763 to 1783. in the period preceding modern agricultural methods and fertilizers, the tendency of planters to repeatedly plant the same cash crops depleted soil fertility. The previous lack of settlement meant that these areas had not been cultivated, and thus retained whatever natural fertility was available.

Organization of the Study

In writing this book, I have attempted to correlate the historic, archaeological, and architectural information that is available on the eight sites that form the focus of the study. Based on my own experience at these sites, I believe that the variations in the architecture of these structures reflect five factors: (1) technological advances in sugar production, (2) the influence of the Caribbean and Georgia sugar plantations, (3) the increased value of sugar as a product in this region, (4) the incorporation of formal architectural details into what was essentially industrial buildings, and (5) adaptations to the local environment and resources.

During the period in which these plantations flourished, there was a shift from a very basic level of sugar production based on human or animal power, to more sophisticated operations using water, wind (in the Caribbean), and steam. As the sophistication of the means of production increased, the size and complexity of the sugar works themselves developed. The increase in size also reflects the growing value of the products-sugar, molasses, and sometimes rum. The greater wealth of the planters-or simply the larger investment-led them to use more expensive, permanent materials (brick and stone), as well as stylistic touches such as quoin blocks on the corners and scored stucco coatings, which graphically displayed their vision of success, wealth, and power. And one cannot discount the influence of the older Caribbean and Georgian sugar works.

Finally, all structures reflect adaptation to their environment to some extent. These adaptations at the sugar works range from the specific source of power used (animal, water, steam) to the materials of which they are constructed-in this case, often the local stone known as coquina.

In order to understand these various architectural changes and influences, it is necessary to understand the history of the sites, the nature of sugar cultivation and production, and the changes that occurred in that production through time. It is also necessary to place these sites in the context of the local plantation economy.

Part 1 of this study will discuss the nature of sugar plantations as industrial sites, and describe sugar growth and the production of sugar, molasses, and rum. It will also discuss the development of this plantation industry in East Florida and its subsequent demise. Part 2 will highlight the eight specific plantations and sugar works remains, which reflect the early, adaptive, and fully evolved forms of the sugar works.

All of the sites in this book are eligible for the national register of historic Places in multiple categories: history, technology, architecture, and archaeology. Three are listed on the register at the present time, and one has been submitted for listing. Table 1 provides a list of the sites with their location, ownership, and national register status.

Two of the sites, Oswald-Yonge's Three Chimneys and the sugar train of the McHardy property, reflect the earliest simple form of sugar works, prior to the introduction of steam or water power. One of Dunlawton's two sugar trains may also have its origin in this period. Dummett, the final form of McHardy and Rees spring garden is from the middle, adaptive period, when new systems were introduced and the structures became more substantial. The remaining sites, Bulow, Addison-Macrae, Cruger-DePeyster, and the final form of Dunlawton, represent the full development of the process, as well as the use of stylistic architectural features-particularly masonry details. These fully developed sugar works are also the most closely related to their Caribbean predecessors and similar sites in south-eastern Georgia.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, a number of the properties in this study were developed by people related through blood or marriage to the owners of similar properties; it was, after all, a small population and very much a frontier throughout the sugar period. In all cases, a strong Caribbean connection was present, not only due to the shared products and processing system, but also from engineers, operators, and builders with Caribbean roots. Planter Thomas Spalding of southeast Georgia also claimed that it was through sugar production in Georgia that the Florida plantations got their start (Floyd 1937:92). Given the proximity of the two areas, as well as familial ties in some cases, it is likely that the Georgia sugar works did influence the final forms in East Florida.

Chapter Two

Plantations as industrial Complexes

It makes good sense to view the plantations as a synthesis of field and factory. -Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985)

Since the sites in this book are parts of plantations, it is appropriate to examine how a plantation differs from a farm. Traditionally, the southern plantation system has been viewed as an outgrowth of the mercantilism of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in which the industrialized world markets such as England and the northern United states demanded raw materials. In exchange for these raw materials, the plantations were supplied with manufactured products (Zierdan 1986:33). Sugar and its by-products, molasses and rum, were integral products in this system and were particularly tied to the infamous triangular slave trade between New England, Africa, and the sugar plantations of the Caribbean-and, for a short period, Florida. In this triangle, sugar, and particularly molasses, were sent north via the same New England shipping companies that sailed to Africa to acquire slaves who were then sold to the sugar planters.

Defining a Plantation

In 1955, geographer Merle Prunty identified six distinguishing characteristics of the plantation system: (1) a landholding larger than a family farm; (2) division of management (the owner) and labor; (3) specialized crop production; (4) location in a region with a plantation tradition; (5) spatial organization that reflected centralized control of the cultivation power; and (6) a relatively large input of cultivation power per acre (Prunty 1955:460). A "plantation" is not defined solely by the labor system, as that is only one element of the whole. According to Prunty, all six elements are necessary to characterize a holding as a plantation (Prunty 1955:460). It should be noted that Prunty did not emphasize production of a staple crop; rather, the important criterion was production of a specialized crop or crops destined for cash sale (Orser 1984:1). The human labor involved could be slaves, indentured servants, free labor, or some combination of the three. In return for their efforts, the labor may have been provided with wages, a portion of the crop, housing, food, clothing, or other goods and services (Adams 1987:9).

The southern plantation system can also be characterized as a system with wide variations in size, products, labor systems, location, degree of diversification, and markets. However, certain factors remained consistent. First, the plantation was always, in a sense, a frontier institution, functioning as a relatively self-sufficient system on the periphery of the world market. Second, there was almost always an identifiable element of status differentiation, both within individual plantations and between plantations in the same region. Third, the settlement pattern reflected centralized control over the means of production, whether this was the workers themselves in the antebellum plantations, or the tools, animals, machines, and seeds in the later tenant farm system. At the individual plantation level, this settlement pattern was also affected by seasonality of production, nature of resource processing, environmental requirements of the specific products, transportation methods, storage requirements, defense needs, and any specialized functions within the system (Adams 1987:9-10).

Archaeologist Theresa singleton has pointed out that "A plantation system embraces all the connecting and supporting institutions associated with the plantation settlement. Only within this purview is it possible to understand any one aspect of plantation history, culture, or society" (singleton 1985:2). All of the plantations discussed in this study included dwellings for the owners, overseers, and slaves; associated outbuildings and agricultural structures; roads; and other land modifications such as ditches and landings. They also usually produced multiple crops, some of which were equally important as market products (i.e., rice, indigo, and cotton). While singleton is correct in her statement that in order to fully understand a plantation one must look at the entire system, as well as its interrelationship with the region and the world market, the scope of this study will be limited to the industrial aspect of these plantations-the sugar works. Thus the emphasis will be on the process and the architecture, rather than the plantations as a whole.


Excerpted from Sweet Cane by Lucy B. Wayne Copyright © 2010 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Lucy B Wayne is Vice President/Archaeological and Architectural Historian Principal at SouthArc Inc., Gainesville, Florida. Wayne contributed to Carolina’s Historic Landscapes, published in 1997.

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