Cajun History

Sugar and the Sugar Region of Louisiana – Part 3


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


In the third installment of “Sugar and the Sugar Region of Louisiana”, the author writes about the planting and cultivating of sugar cane in the mid- 1800s.  As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Though instead of manual labor, most of the work in the sugar cane field is done by tractor now.



The ground once cleared of “trash,” it is now ready for the plow.  A sugar-cane field is sometimes a mile or more in extent, and but for the constant succession of side and cross-ditches, the furrows would run entirely across the field.  As it is, they are frequently very long, and made with great precision by the skillful plowman.  The field well tilled and harrowed, the furrows are run from six to ten feet apart, according to the notions of the planter.  In the furrow, the cane preserved in the “matlays” is laid in two or three parallel lines, and well lapped, so that there will be little danger of not having a “good stand,” for it must be remembered that from every joint of the matured cane there comes, if the eye be uninjured, a plant.

The “seed-cane” once deposited in its place, it is covered with earth from three to four inches deep, according to the season; if it is early, and cold may be expected, it is better protected than when the genial sun of spring has already commenced its vivifying influences.


Nine months from the time that it is planted are required in Louisiana to ripen the cane.  Upon its first appearance, it gives indication of strength; there is a dark green about the leaf and a fibrous texture that instantly shows its nature.  As it advances in strength, the most careful cultivation is required to keep it free from the weeds that grow so luxuriantly in the surrounding and recently-disturbed soil.  Gradually, the once dark and charred fields at a distance, begin to assume a glow of green, and as the cane advances the plow and hoe are used in throwing soil upon the roots to protect them from the heat and drought of the midsummer months, while the leaves are still too delicate to afford a shade.

Difficult, indeed, would it be to give an idea of the labor necessary to complete the crops.  The rain and the drought, the cold and the heat, all have to be guarded against.  From the time the cane is put in the ground it is the source of constant anxiety.  At first slow of growth, the rich soil in which it is hidden, turned up by the plow, revels with rank and quick-growing weeds and grasses, which if not subdued by the most patient industry, would soon choke up and destroy the just planted cane.  It is therefore by a repetition of plowing and hoeing from day to day that the tender plant is absolutely nursed;–if it is cold, the earth is placed over the roots to keep them warm; if it rains, and the falling torrent has beaten down the sod, the plow is at hand to break up its compactness; if the water stands in the furrows, they are deepened, that it may run off.  At least every two weeks, for nearly half the year, every part of the cane-field is wrought over until it possesses a garden-like neatness that commands the admiration of the person most indifferent to agricultural pursuits.  As the season advances, the cane slowly but surely increases in size, and steadily enlarges its leaves, and increases their number, until they cast their own shade about their roots, and thus absorb the whole effects of the life-fostering sun that had previously awakened into existence so many troublesome and noxious weeds; and thus the hand of man becomes daily less and less necessary for the protection of the cane.  Soon it takes entire possession of the surrounding earth, and flourishes without a rival in the field.

But before this is accomplished who but the interested husbandman can judge of the anxious hours that have been caused by each change of the season, or the varied temperature of the fleeting day!  All that was favorable or unfavorable has been noticed, and amid the multiplicity of his cares he feels that—

“The planter’s labor in a round revolves;
Ends with the year, and with the year begins.”

But unseen influences are ever at work in the earth and the air to aid him in his pursuits, and at the close of each year he finds, that Providence has rewarded his industry, and that his storehouses are full.

The “growing crop” in Louisiana consists of three kinds of cane:  the first is technically called “plant cane,” and is that which springs directly from the “seed cane;” the second is called “rattoon,” which is the growth from the roots of the previous year’s plant cane; the third is called “stubble,” which is the growth from the roots of the rattoon cane.  In Cuba and the other West India Islands there are but two kinds of growing cane, the plant and the rattoon, for the latter named never becomes “stubble,” by degenerating, as in Louisiana.

In going through a cane-field, you can readily discover the different growths.  The plant cane is tall and vigorous, and has all the appearance of a new vegetation; the rattoon is more compact in its appearance, the stalk is smaller than that of the plant, there is an evident deterioration; still the joints are juicy, and perhaps what they lose in size, they may, in a great degree, make up in the superior strength of their saccharine secretions.  The stubble is still smaller, and the stand only indifferently good; it seems to the unsophisticated as if a blight had passed over it.  This rapid deterioration of the growth of the cane from the plant to the rattoon, will explain why it is necessary, in Louisiana, that one-fifth of the crop be returned to the soil for reproduction, and gives a startling idea of the superior remuneration of the climate of Cuba and the neighboring West India Islands; for in these islands the plant growing almost spontaneously, it is only necessary to manufacture the sugar from the cane juice, the care of cultivation, and providing of seed, being unimportant items.  Taking the sugar crop of Louisiana to be three hundred and fifty thousand hogsheads, and each hogshead weighing one thousand pounds, it will be seen that sugar cane is returned to the ground as seed, that would produce the enormous amount of seventy thousand hogsheads of sugar; and this is lost to the State by the disadvantages of climate alone, for the soil of Louisiana is superior to any other portion of the world.  But for this necessity of replanting, Louisiana would stand unrivaled in the production of sugar.  It may be asserted, without fear of contradiction, that only American industry and American ingenuity could have made, under the circumstances, the production of sugar in Louisiana an interest of vast commercial importance.

In the latter part of June, or by the middle of July, the cane has attained a strength and luxuriance that enables it to “take care of itself.”  The rapidly spreading leaves cast a dark shade upon the ground, that effectually prevents the growth of weeds, and, to use the expressive language of the agriculturist, the crop is “laid by.”


Now commence new and more heterogeneous labors.  The mules, worked down by plowing, are turned loose to rest and recover their strength, to meet the heavy work of hauling in the fall, the perfected crop to the sugar house.  The negroes are divided into “gangs,” some to be employed in gathering “fodder,” some to secure the crop of corn, now ripe and ready for the granary, some to manufacture bricks, while the sturdier hands are busily employed in cutting wood.

The amount of fuel consumed in the production of sugar is enormous.  Three cords are on an average necessary for the manufacture of a hogshead of sugar, of the usual weight of one thousand pounds.  Ten years ago, five cords were necessary for the manufacture of a hogshead, but the improvements in the “setting of kettles” has lessened the number of cords needed nearly one half.  This wood will readily sell to the steamboats throughout the sugar region of Louisiana for three dollars per cord, consequently each thousand hogsheads of sugar costs nine thousand dollars in its manufacture for wood alone.

As may be imagined, the primitive forests are rapidly disappearing before this consumption, and already many large plantations are lessened in value, because they have little or no timber left upon them.  In Cuba, the bégasse, or the remains of the cane after it has been ground in the mill, is quite sufficient as fuel to make the crop; but in Louisiana this vegetable matter is destroyed.  The bégasse is a spongy fibrous mass, composed of the crushed pith and outside covering of the sugar cane.  It absorbs water from the atmosphere, and is very difficult to dry.  Various ingenious expedients have been resorted to, to make this vast refuse of the crop, as in Cuba, useful for the purposes of fuel, but none, we believe, have been successful.  In Cuba and the West India Islands, the dry weather continues for months without the exception of a single wet day; consequently, the bégasse is thrown out in the open air, and under a tropical sun soon becomes as dry as tinder, and burns under the sugar kettles with a vehemence that defies competition.  In Louisiana, the climate is damp, and in the fall showery, and the bégasse, in the open air, so far from drying, absolutely becomes more incombustible from wet, than when it is first brought from the mill.  The necessity of economy in fuel is every where acknowledged, and ingenious men are endeavoring to invent machinery for rapidly drying the bégasse by artificial means, so as to render it fit for immediate use; but up to the present time this grand object has not been accomplished, and the bégasse still remains a mass of vegetable matter, not only of no use to the planter, but absolutely causing considerable expense in order to get it out of the way.

The various buildings necessary upon every plantation for the manufacture of cane juice into sugar, differ in costliness according to the means of the planter, and the demands of the estates on which they are needed.   Generally they are placed midway between the river and the forests in the rear of the plantation.  This is done to divide up as much as possible the distance that must be traversed in hauling the wood from “the swamps,” the cane from the fields, and the crop to the river for shipment.  Within the last few years the improvements introduced in the appearance of the sugar house are very apparent.  Some of them now have, on the outside, quite an imposing appearance.

The introduction of steam engines not only changed the architectural appearance of the sugar house, but, no doubt, saved the sugar crop to the State as an important staple.  Under the operation of grinding with horses, portions of the crop are lost, from the imperfect manner in which the cane is ground, and also for want of expedition, for the process is so slow, that before a large crop could be ground, a portion of the cane would be found in the field injured by the frost.  There are nearly fifteen hundred sugar plantations in Louisiana, one-third of which have “horse-mills,” but it is considered profitable to go to the expense of steam, when the produce of the plantation is one hundred hogsheads or upward.

On every plantation the sugar house is one of the most prominent objects.  It would be impossible to give a correct idea of the immense amount of money lavished upon these adjuncts to the sugar estate, not only for things acknowledged to be useful and positively necessary, but more particularly for apparatus to be used in the manufacture of the crop.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars annually find their way to the coffers of the Northern artisan, in return for his skillful labor in endeavors to improve upon the machinery used in the crystallization of sugar, and so willing are the spirited planters to beautify and adorn their sugar houses, that mills and engines are now erected, that in elaborate workmanship seem rather for ornament than for use.  The cheapest sugar house that can be erected, costs at least twelve thousand dollars.  Twice that sum will build the house and purchase the machinery for the best class of plantations, that make the common brown or muscavado sugar: such a house as we intend particularly to describe.

Many of the largest plantations in the State are properly “refineries,” for they have the means, not only for producing white or refined sugar directly from the cane juice, but occupy a portion of the year in “working over” the brown sugars made on other plantations.  Eminent among these large estates is one in the parish of St. James, and the particulars relating to it will not prove, perhaps, uninteresting to the reader.