Cajun History

Sugar and the Sugar Region of Louisiana – Part 5


Sugar and the Sugar Region of Louisiana by T. B. Thorpe
Originally published November 1853 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine


In the final installment of “Sugar and the Sugar Region of Louisiana”, the author continues on sugar production in 1850s Louisiana.



The interior of a sugar house can be properly divided into the “cooler room,” the “purgery,” the place for the kettles, and the mill.  These differently named places and things are all connected together, so that the cane juice from the mill runs through provided gutters into the receiver that supplies the kettles; the cane juice, by the power of heat brought to the point of crystallization, is thrown into the “coolers,” from which coolers it is removed into the “purgery,” where it is, as sugar, placed in hogsheads, and allowed to drain of its molasses, or imperfectly crystallized cane juice; from the “purgery” it comes out the article of commerce and domestic use so familiar to all.

The “coolers” are troughs from ten to twelve feet in length, a foot and a half deep, and four feet wide.  They are arranged in lines parallel to each other, yet wide enough apart to admit of a laborer going between them.  These coolers hold, when conveniently full, from a hogshead to a hogshead and a half of sugar.

The “purgery” consists of a long room, generally one of the wings of the sugar house, at the bottom of which, in the place of a floor, is a hydraulic cement cistern, about four feet deep.  Over this cistern are laid strong timbers, on which the hogsheads rest when they are being filled from the coolers.  At the bottom of the hogsheads are holes, out of which the molasses drains into the cistern.

The mill used in grinding sugar cane consists generally of three iron rollers, of two feet and a half in diameter and five feet in length.  They are placed about five-sixteenths of an inch apart, and are capable of sustaining an immense outward pressure as the cane passes between them.  A stalk of sugar cane is heavy and compact, and has a great deal of strong vegetable conformation about it, but let it pass between the rollers of the mill, and it comes out crushed into fragments—literally ground into dust and ribbons.  This mill is placed at some considerable height from the ground, so that the expressed cane juice, as it flows from it, will readily run down to the kettles.

Attached to the mill is an ingenious contrivance known as the “carrier.”  This consists of a never-ending band, about three feet wide, made of chains and cross bars of wood, that runs upon rollers, and is used to bring the cane from the outside of the building up and into the mill.  The carrier generally reaches a considerable length beyond the walls of the sugar house, and, as the grinding goes on, is fed with cane by the women and children appointed for that purpose.  The primitive method of supplying the mill with cane was for the negroes to “carry” it by armfuls, which is still the general custom in Cuba and in the West India Islands.  But on the introduction of steam, power was easily obtained, and machinery was soon brought to relieve the laborer of this then most unpleasant duty.  Now the cane is placed upon the carrier, at a long distance from the mill; it is arranged in parallel lines, as upon a table, and moves quietly to its place of destination.  The steam engine, that is the motive power of this machinery, is too familiar to need a notice from us.

A “set of kettles” consists of five deep evaporating cast or wrought iron kettles, arranged in solid masonry, so that they set in a line, with their tops all upon the same level.  Underneath these kettles is a furnace, the mouth of which is outside of the building.  The furnace is so arranged that the flame from the burning wood passes, in its progress to the chimney, under each kettle.  Sugar makers have given to these several kettles distinct names, as follows:  the batterie, the sirop, the flambeau, the propre, the grande.  Each of these boilers enlarges progressively, from the batterie to the grande.

As the sugar cane juice flows from the mill, it runs into a large wooden reservoir, that connects by a cock with the grande. At the commencement of making sugar, every kettle is filled with juice, the fire in the mean time has been lighted, and it soon gives out an intense heat.  The concentration of flame is under the batterie, for this kettle is situated directly over the mouth of the furnace.  As soon as the juice begins to boil, there rises to the top a vast amount of woody fiber, and other foreign substances, not before observable, and the attendants commence, with a large wooden sword, to sweep off the scum of the kettles, from the batterie toward the grande. In this way, the whole line is purified.  As might be presumed, evaporating takes place most rapidly at the batterie; consequently, while the dirt that gathers on the top of the foaming kettles is swept by the sword to the right, the ladle is used to bring the concentrating juice to the left, so as to keep every kettle full.  Directly over the boiling kettles is what is termed the steam chimney, through which passes the vapor that rises from the rapidly evaporating cane juice.  As can be readily perceived, the concentrating of the saccharine liquid by heat, requires that the several kettles should be constantly replenished, and it is done as follows:  the mill fills the reservoir, the reservoir the grande, the grande the propre, and so on, the liquor passing from one kettle to another, until the batterie receives the concentrated juice of three or four charges of the grande, after it had passed necessarily through all the named vessels of the entire “set,” and had been “tempered” and “skimmed” as much as the process would permit.

At the batterie stands the “sugar maker,” the important functionary, for the time being, of the sugar plantation.  His commands, be he as black as midnight, are attended to with a unquestioning punctuality that shows how much is dependent upon his skill.  We have gone through the details of the labor necessary to perfect the crop, and given a vague idea of the immense amount expended, and the care and exhaustion of the mind suffered, to reach the culminating point; and now every thing is in the hands of the sugar maker; upon his experience and knowledge depends, in a great degree, the commercial value of the crop.

No tyro can fathom the mysterious wisdom of the sugar maker’s mind.  He looks into the batterie, but sees more than is accorded to the vision of the uninitiated.  The dark tumbling mass of liquid sweet, appeals to his judgment in every throe it heaves from its bosom; a large and ominous bubble will perhaps fill him with dismay; if the mass settles down into quietude, he will yell frantically to the old Argus at the furnace, to “throw in more wood;” perhaps the liquid will then dance and frolic, and whiten and coquette, and then comes over the face of the sugar maker a grim smile of satisfaction, as he, with his wooden spatula, beats down and breaks the bubbles, that might otherwise rise too high.  Now also the sugar maker observes the syrup as it cools upon his ladle, and also sees if it will string into threads, for the critical moment is approaching, the “strike” is at hand.

We forgot to say that at the head of the sugar kettles, there was a square box that communicates by movable troughs with all the coolers.  The moment the contents of the batterie indicate that it must soon be thrown off, which cooler is to receive it is decided upon, and arrangements are made accordingly.

The sugar maker, now armed with an immense ladle, fastened on the end of a long handle, holds it suspended over the batterie; the sugar maker’s assistant, likewise prepared, holds his ladle over the sirop, or second kettle.  The moment the strike is ready, the sugar maker’s object is to get the liquid as quickly as possible out of the batterie. Over he throws it into the adjoining box, and as it lessens in the heated kettle, it boils more and more furiously; he ladles on nevertheless, with insane zeal, until his assistant, seeing what remains in the batterie would be destroyed by the glowing heat, tumbles over the displaced quantity from the sirop, which is in turn replenished from the flambeau, the flambeau from the propre, the propre from the grande, and the grande from the juice boxes or receivers connected with the mill, and then the work goes on to complete another “strike.”

The hot liquor from the batterie has, in the mean time, pursued its way along the troughs, and distributed itself over the cooler, where, presenting a large surface to the surrounding air, you can see it crystallizing under your gaze, and taking upon itself the familiar form of brown or muscovado sugar.

At stated times the coolers are emptied of their contents; stout negroes are appointed to do what is termed, “potting the sugar,” which means, carrying it to the hogsheads, which are, as we have already stated, setting upon timbers over the purgery.  The contents of the coolers form a mass, more or less a mixture of sugar and molasses.  If you strike a spade into the centre of a well filled cooler, and remove a portion of its contents, you will see the opening gradually fill up with a rich fluid, that seems to exude from every part of the wounded mass; this fluid is denominated the bleedings, and contains, no doubt, much of the imperfectly crystallized sugar, that never finds its way into the molasses.  The sugar thrown into the hogsheads, settles down, and becomes thoroughly cool.  If the weather in which it has been made was favorable, and the cane was thoroughly ripe, very little drainage, comparatively, takes place; but if the cane were green, the sugar maker, inexperienced, or the plant the least touched with frost, these sad truths can be learned by the increasing volume of molasses that is found in the cisterns of the purgery, and the planter, in the bitterness of his heart, finds out that he is making an immense amount of molasses, when his energies have been directed only to produce a crop of sugar.

To remedy the defects of sugar making, has called into action the first order of minds, and consumed an almost unlimited amount of money.  There are no less than eight different methods of sugar making by machinery, carried on in Louisiana, the object of each of which seems to be, to procure the product without the adulteration or mixture with any foreign substance.  The method of sugar making that we have described is the simplest and the most primitive, it is really, simply boiling the juice of the cane down, until all the water in it is evaporated, and then letting it cool into sugar.  But it is noticeable, that the manner is necessarily very imperfect.  The moment that the cane juice has been brought by heat to the point of granulation, it should instantly be transferred to the coolers.  The most expert sugar maker can not always judge of the exact moment when he should strike, and under all circumstances he must commence “throwing off,” with the full assurance that the syrup will be unequally done, for that which is taken from the batterie in the commencement of the strike, must be less affected with heat, than that which is taken at its end.  Some of the syrup will be at the crystallizing point, some of it burnt, and some in its raw state.  Here, then, we find the causes of the brown color of the sugar, and why molasses also is produced.

Chemists and machinists have exhausted their skill, to find out the way to turn cane juice into pure sugar, unalloyed with any other substance.  They have endeavored to avoid burning the sugar by evaporating the juice with steam, and by the use of vacuum pans, so that the heat used could be scientifically regulated, the great desideratum being to work up the cane juice into sugar of a pure quality, without loss by imperfect crystallization, as exhibited in inferior sugar and in the production of molasses.

The importance of this can hardly be realized by any one but the producer.  A slight difference in the color of sugar, or in the size of the crystals, will make thousands of dollars difference in the value of a large crop.  Sugar that sells for sixty dollars the hogshead, entails no more expense upon the planter than that which brings him in half that sum; consequently, the “high-priced” sugar costs for freight and packing, just half as much as the inferior article; while the advance of a cent on a pound upon a crop of sugar, may cause a princely return to the planter for his year’s labor; or the deduction of a cent on a pound, a trivial sum, when divided among the consumers, may be to the planter the cause of his pecuniary ruin.

With the inducements held out to improve the quality of sugar, it is no wonder that so much money is expended in the purchase of costly machinery.  Still, the old-fashioned “open kettle” method that we have endeavored to describe, maintains its popularity, in spite of the evident waste that attends it.  Machinery of the proper kind is difficult to obtain, and the almost human sensibility it displays in its liability to be deranged, causes disappointment and frequent loss, and satisfies the planter that complicated machinery can only be used with advantage in connection with an enormous outlay of capital, and with appliances not always at his command.  The great mass of labor that is expended in making sugar is performed by negroes; and only the simplest and most physical methods are with safety intrusted to their care.

As the manufacturing of the crop progresses, the waving cane in the fields continues to ripen, the increasing cold stops the circulation of the sap, and checking the growth of the plant, the juices are perceptibly enriched in a night.  Often, indeed, on favorable days, you can break the cane; and as the juice flows down the stalk, you can see it granulate before your eyes, without the aid of any evaporation except such as comes from the surrounding air.  The influence of cold in enriching the sap of plants is observable not only in the cane, but in the sugar-maple-trees of the North; for, with them a warm “unseasonable” day ruins the sap, and turns it into a nausceous, valueless fluid; but let the wind chop round to the north, and even while the sap flows it will change, and become rich and valuable for the wants of man.  To the planter, in the “grinding season,” the fear of the frost and of excessive heat, keeps him in a state of constant anxiety.  A warm sun is destructive; a freeze, ruinous.

As soon as the perfected sugar begins to accumulate in the purgery, the “sugar broker,” armed with a huge auger, makes his appearance on the plantation, and is always welcomed as a guest, if not always popular as a business man.  The sugar broker is the antipodes of the planter:  one has an interest in high prices, the other in low prices; one is domestic, the other foreign; one is always in haste, the other has unappreciated quantities of spare time.  The sugar broker carries with him a mysterious face, and affect to know something about the markets that can not be divulged without agitating the commercial world; he also insinuates to the planter that he has information about the unusual amount of the “coming crop,” that renders it very important that the producer should “take advantage of the present ruling prices.”  The sugar broker is also a singular evidence of the natural incapacity some people have of discovering light-colored sugars; for with the broker they are always dark, if he is purchasing; and he never can see a light-colored sugar except when he has it to sell.  The sugar broker generally brings the news of the day to the residents of the plantation, and becomes very popular, if he can make himself agreeable at all.  A little experience makes you acquainted with the sugar broker; he is peculiar; and if it were not for the fact that he wields such an important influence in the sale of the crop, every body would be amused at his awkward manner of riding, his “on ‘Change” look, his city habits, and his bustling manners, which contrast so strangely with the quiet demeanor of the planter.

The novelty of sugar making in time passes away, and the whole affair assumes a business sameness.  Each person, by experience, becomes familiar with his duty, and things go on with tolerable smoothness.  The “planter’s family” has moved permanently back to the mansion; and the ladies seldom visit the sugar house, except to accompany visitors, or for the purpose of healthful exercise.  The mules are now pretty well “worked down,” in hauling the cane from the fields; the negroes are calculating when will come “the finish,” and as January approaches the weather becomes unsettled, the rains fall, and the roads are “cut up.”  And the “last load” of cane, as it is carried to the mill, is greeted with satisfaction; and already hope pictures new pleasures that are to be enjoyed in the time consumed in the production of the “next crop.”


At the close of the year’s labor are the holidays, which extend from Christmas to New Year.  The negroes now enjoy uninterrupted repose; or, rather, have the liberty of indulging their caprices, so long as they are harmless to themselves and others, free from constraint.  It is the season of enjoyment and festivity, and the time for settling up their outstanding accounts with each other, and the master and mistress of the plantation.  The long running account for chickens, eggs, and vegetables, is liquidated by the good housewife; and the master pays for innumerable things, which have been provided by the slave, without interfering with his accustomed labors.  Now it is that crates of cheap crockery and bales of gayly-colored handkerchiefs find a ready sale; and the peddlers that infest “the coast” reap a rich harvest, by selling at large profits ribbons and nick-nacks, that have no other recommendation than the possession of staring colors in the most glaring contrasts.  Balls become the order of the day, and the business of the night; and the humble Paganini of the quarters is called into requisition, and elevated into a person of temporary, but still extraordinary importance—because he is master of the violin; while the negroes—

“Responsive to the sound, head, feet and frame
Move awkwardly harmonious:  hand in hand
Now lock’d, the gay troop circularly wheels,
And frisks and capers with intemperate joy.
Halts the vast circle, all clap hands and sing;
While those distinguished for heels and air,
Bound in the centre, and fantastic twine.
Meanwhile, some stripling from the choral ring,
Trips forth, and, not ungallantly, bestows,
On her who nimblest hath the green sward beat,
And whose flush’d beauties have enthralled his soul,
A silver token of his fond applause.”

The planter and his family have too their trysting time.  The mother and her comely daughters hie to the city of New Orleans, in pursuit of the innocent amusements of the season; and the “Crescent City,” at these times, shows a perceptible filling up of joyous, familiar, and Southern-looking faces.  The fashionable dry goods and jewelry stores, the Opera, and the “society balls” all feel the genial influence of these holiday times, and it only gradually disappears as the summer heat sets in, and drive residents of the country back to their rural homes.


The State of Louisiana produces over three hundred and fifty thousand hogsheads of sugar, of one thousand pounds each, about half of the amount of sugar consumed by the people of the entire Union.  By referring to the map, it will be seen, that but a small portion of the cane-producing lands of the State is under cultivation.  There can not be a doubt that the time will come, when the importation of foreign sugars into the United States should cease, and that the immense amount of money now sent abroad for this necessary of life, will be distributed among our own people.

Gradually the sugar made in Louisiana passes into “second hands;” the greater portion of it finds its way to New Orleans, from which mart it is distributed over the Northern and Eastern States.  But vast quantities are annually sent direct from the plantations, to supply the increasing demand of the “giant West,” and long before the spring has come, the contents of the cane fields of Louisiana are widely scattered over the “broad Union,” and enter largely into almost every article of consumption that forms a prominent or insignificant object of the social board; it sparkles upon the bridal cake; assumes a thousand forms in the confectioner’s window; neutralizes the acidity or bitterness of medicine; gives life to the fragrant coffee and tea; destroys the unpurified taste of preserved meats; and retains for years the delicate flavor of our choicest fruits; turn, indeed, which way you will, you perceive the ameliorating influence of sugar upon the economy of life, and thanks to the genius and enterprises of the Louisiana planter, it is raised upon our own soil, and at a price that brings it within the command of the rich and poor alike.