Raising Cane

Sugar is almost as ubiquitous in Florida history as it is in the American diet. For centuries, settlers have taken advantage of Florida’s favorable climate to grow sugar cane for home use or commercial profit.

Sugar cane has been cultivated in Asia since ancient times, but its use in the West was limited until about the 18th century. Honey was the sweetener of choice in Europe before that time. When Europeans began colonizing the Americas during the Age of Discovery, sugar cane was one of the plants they brought to cultivate.

Sugar cane workers collecting sugar cane in a field located near Clewiston (circa 1980s).

Sugar cane workers collecting sugar cane in a field located near Clewiston (circa 1980s).

Florida’s first major sugar cane operations arrived while the British had possession of the territory in the 1700s. Florida’s new owners were optimistic about the possibilities for building great profitable plantations along the St. Johns River, and colonial authorities handed out large grants of land to British subjects willing to try their hand at planting.

Denys Rolle and Dr. Andrew Turnbull were among the British planters who attempted to grow sugar cane on their Florida estates. Remains of Turnbull’s operation at New Smyrna are still visible today.

Remains of a warehouse at Andrew Turnbull's plantation at New Smyrna Beach (1953).

Remains of a warehouse at Andrew Turnbull’s plantation at New Smyrna Beach (1953).

The United States took possession of Florida in 1821. As planters from Virginia and the Carolinas began moving into North Florida, they were anxious to cultivate new and profitable crops that would solidify their fortunes and those of the new territory. Settlers such as future Florida Governor Thomas Brown, William Wirt, William Nuttall, John and Robert Gamble, and William Bailey invested large sums of money in the equipment necessary to grow cane plants and extract the sugar.

Cane-grinding machine powered by a mule. The mule walked around in a circle, activating a pair of rollers. The cane stalks would be fed into the rollers, where it would be crushed and purged out the other side. The juice contained in the stalks was collected and diverted into a vat or barrel (photo circa 1890s).

Cane-grinding machine powered by a mule. The mule walked around in a circle, activating a pair of rollers. The cane stalks would be fed into the rollers, where it would be crushed and purged out the other side. The juice contained in the stalks was collected and diverted into a vat or barrel (photo circa 1890s).

Their enthusiasm notwithstanding, these early cane growers faced a major problem. The longer sugar cane stays in the ground, the better the sugar it produces. The plant is, however, highly susceptible to freezing. When sugar cane freezes, its ability to produce crystallized sugar is diminished. North Florida cane growers consequently faced something of a guessing game when deciding the right time to harvest their sugar crops. Over time, the risks associated with growing cane became too great for most planters to invest much money in the venture. Many plantations continued to produce smaller amounts of sugar cane for home and local use, but large-scale cultivation of sugar cane was for the most part abandoned by 1840.

Watercolor by James Calvert Smith of cane grinding process (date unknown).

Watercolor by James Calvert Smith of cane grinding process (date unknown).

Although sugar cane failed as a major cash crop in the 19th century, its presence in Florida pioneer culture at that time was constant and critical. Even if a freeze were to stunt the growth of a cane crop, the plants could still be processed to extract the cane juice, which could then be made into molasses, rum, or cane syrup. These products became staples in the average Florida household.

The act of cutting the cane and extracting the juice was in itself a vital part of local culture, especially in sparsely populated areas. These tasks required a great deal of labor, best accomplished by a community effort. Consequently, many families would hold “cane grindings,” which combined the work of cane processing with the excitement of a communal celebration. The cane would be stripped and fed into a simple machine that crushed it, squeezing out the juice, which was channeled into a waiting vat or barrel. The juice would then be boiled into the various sugar products. There was usually a large meal involved, and sometimes singing and dancing. In a time when homesteads were typically miles apart, this was one of the best ways to get families (expecially the young people) together for a good time. There’s no way to know how many Florida marriages began with a simple “How do you do” at an old-fashioned cane grinding.

Group gathered for a cane grinding at the home of William J. Owens of Columbia County (circa 1890s).

Group gathered for a cane grinding at the home of William J. Owens of Columbia County (circa 1890s).

Sugar cane began to come back into the picture as a commercial enterprise around the turn of the twentieth century. As settlers ventured farther south along the Florida peninsula, they finally encountered areas that either rarely or never suffered from frost. These conditions would best serve large-scale sugar cane production. Developers prepared the terrain for cultivation by diverting rivers and draining large tracts of land, including parts of the Everglades. By the 1920s, the sugar industry was up and running in earnest. The industry received a boost in the 1960s when the federal government banned the importation of Cuban sugar, which had previously been a significant source of the product for the U.S. Today, sugar cane is a multi-billion dollar industry in Florida, producing about 2 million tons of raw sugar annually.

Sugar cane processing plant near Clewiston (circa 1980s).

Sugar cane processing plant near Clewiston (circa 1980s).

Have you ever been to a cane grinding? Do you remember sugar cane growing somewhere near where you grew up? Tell us about it on Facebook or in the comments section below. Also, search the Florida Photographic Collection to find more photos of sugar cane production.

Dr. Andrew Turnbull and the Origins of New Smyrna Beach

The British only owned Florida for a brief moment (1763-1783), but during that time they did take a stab at turning the territory into a productive colony.  In 1764, the British Parliament set aside £500 (British pounds sterling) as a bounty for cultivating silk, cotton, and indigo in East Florida, and authorized generous land grants for citizens who stepped forward to develop these industries.

A General Map of the Southern British Colonies (1776). Note the separation of East and West Florida.

A General Map of the Southern British Colonies (1776). Note the separation of East and West Florida.

Dr. Andrew Turnbull, a Scotsman and a physician, convinced a number of his wealthy friends in Britain to take advantage of these offers and start a new colony in East Florida.  Turnbull planned to employ a number of Greeks from Asia Minor as laborers for his new venture.  He chose a Greek labor force because he felt they would be more accustomed to the warm climate they would encounter in Florida, and because he believed he would be able to convince a good number of them to leave the Ottoman Empire, where labor conditions were tough. Turnbull’s knowledge of the eastern Mediterranean was considerable. He had spent a number of years as a British consul in the Ottoman Empire, and had married the daughter of a Greek merchant at Smyrna in Greece.

Portrait of Dr. Andrew Turnbull, founder of the New Smyrna colony (circa 1850s-60s)

Portrait of Dr. Andrew Turnbull, founder of the New Smyrna colony (circa 1850s-60s)

In 1766 and 1767, Turnbull and two of his business associates, Sir William Duncan and Sir Richard Temple, acquired  land grants of 20,000 acres each, which Turnbull was to select from unclaimed lands in East Florida. After a brief stay in St. Augustine, Turnbull sailed southward along the Atlantic coast past what we now call Ormond and Daytona beaches, and entered Mosquito Inlet, where he encountered an attractive region dotted with large magnolia, live oak, and bay trees. The Scotsman was delighted with what he saw, and decided to make this the site of his new colony. He named it New Smyrna in honor of his wife’s birthplace and the homeland of his future Greek labor force.

East Florida Governor James Grant, who received Turnbull upon his arrival at St. Augustine. This protrait was painted circa 1850 by Allen Ramsey.

East Florida Governor James Grant, who received Turnbull upon his arrival at St. Augustine. This portrait was painted circa 1850 by Allen Ramsey.

Turnbull crossed the Atlantic once again to secure more land and the assistance of the government in setting up the new colony. The British government took a considerable interest in New Smyrna, providing money for transporting laborers and developing infrastructure. In the spring of 1767, Turnbull sailed into the Mediterranean to hire workers for his new enterprise. He encountered unexpected resistance from the Ottomans over his plan to hire away Greek workers, so he made stops in southern Italy and Minorca to pick up more. By the time Turnbull finally sailed for East Florida, he had about 1,500 workers under contract, mostly Minorcans. These settlers would be indentured servants. In return for their passage to New Smyrna, the laborers would be required to work for a period of years, and then they would be entitled either to a plot of land in East Florida or passage back to their home country.

Remains of a building from Andrew Turnbull's New Smyrna colony. The structure was built of coquina cement around 1768 and was used as a warehouse. The building was built on top of a large Native American shell mound (photo 1953).

Remains of a building from Andrew Turnbull’s New Smyrna colony. The structure was built of coquina cement around 1768 and was used as a warehouse. The building was built on top of a large Native American shell mound (photo 1953).

By the end of the summer in 1768, Turnbull and his workers were settled in at New Smyrna, and the process of clearing the land and preparing it for cultivation was underway. The work was difficult, and a number of workers died from disease and as a result of raids by Native Americans in the area. The New Smyrna venture did eventually produce good crops, however, and for a few years all appeared to be working in good order. Turnbull’s relationship with his laborers deteriorated as the years went by, on account of poor working conditions and the harsh practices of his overseers. In 1777, the laborers marched northward to St. Augustine to complain to Governor Patrick Tonyn, who provided them with shelter.

East Florida Governor Patrick Tonyn, who gave refuge to discontented workers from New Smyrna after they marched to St. Augustine in 1777 (circa 1774-1784).

East Florida Governor Patrick Tonyn, who gave refuge to discontented workers from New Smyrna after they marched to St. Augustine in 1777 (circa 1774-1784).

The colonists decided to stay in St. Augustine, which brought an end to the plantation at New Smyrna. Shortly afterward in 1783, the Spanish retook Florida as part of the Treaty of Paris, and Andrew Turnbull moved to Charleston, South Carolina. The New Smyrna venture had ended, but the colonists continued to live in East Florida, mostly along the Atlantic coast of northeastern Florida. The Florida Photographic Collection contains several photos depicting Minorcan foodways and other traditions that have lived on into our own era, living legacies of the New Smyrna Minorcans’ journey across the Atlantic over two centuries ago.

Minorcan cheese pastries called fromajardis - baked at St. Augustine (January 1959).

Minorcan cheese pastries called fromajardis – baked at St. Augustine (January 1959).

Margaret Triay prepares vinegar sausage with datil peppers, a traditional Minorcan specialty (1983).

Margaret Triay prepares vinegar sausage with datil peppers, a traditional Minorcan specialty (1983).

A Minorcan dance group from St. Augustine (October 1983).

A Minorcan dance group from St. Augustine (October 1983). They are standing in front of a statue dedicated to the memory of Father Pedro Camps [Campos?], who accompanied the Minorcans to Florida.

Theresa Griffin displaying an example of Minorcan crochet and needlework at Elkton, Florida (January 1985).

Theresa Griffin displaying an example of Minorcan crochet and needlework at Elkton, Florida (January 1985).

Search Florida Memory for more images depicting Minorcan traditions still alive and well in Florida!

A New and Accurate Map of East and West Florida

On this date in 1763, King George III of England issued a royal proclamation that, among other things, divided Florida into two provinces, East and West, separated by the Apalachicola/Chattahoochee Rivers.

The British controlled Florida from 1763-1783, when, following the American Revolution, the Treaty of Paris in 1783 returned Florida to Spanish control until it became a territory of the United States in 1821.

A New and Accurate Map of East and West Florida (1763)

A New and Accurate Map of East and West Florida (ca. 1763)