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Background

 
Spanish colonial governor Pedro Menendez de Avilés  brought sugarcane to St. Augustine in 1565, but commercial production of sugarcane in Florida did not begin until 1767 in the New Smyrna Colony established by Andrew Turnbull.  The American Revolution disrupted the sugar industry in Florida, attempts following the end of the Revolutionary War to develop commercial operations failed in the 1800s because of unsuitable soils and inclement weather. This failure to launch sugarcane in central Florida moved pioneers further south during the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Finally, in the 1920s the sugarcane industry was established around the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee .

The British only owned Florida for 20 years between 1763 and 1783, it was during this time that Florida’s first major sugarcane operations were established.  Between 1763 and 1836, most of the sugar mill sites were established in Volusia and Flagler Counties.  Florida’s new owners were optimistic about turning the territory into a productive colony and the possibilities for building great profitable plantations along the St. Johns River .  Colonial authorities handed out large grants of land to British subjects willing to try their hand at planting.  In 1764, the British Parliament set aside £500 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.

In what was known as the Second Spanish Period , Florida again became part of Spain in 1783 until 1821 when the territory became part of the United States as a result of the Adams-Onís Treaty .  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 sugarcane and extract the sugar.

Their enthusiasm notwithstanding, these early cane growers faced a major problem; freezing.  When sugar cane freezes, its ability to produce crystallized sugar is diminished.  North Florida cane growers consequently faced 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 money in the venture. Plantations continued to produce smaller amounts of sugar cane for home and local use, but large-scale cultivation of sugarcane in East Florida was for the most part abandoned after the Second Seminole War .  Cultivation in Western Florida was abandoned after the   Civil War .

It was not until 1886 some 21 years after the end of the Civil War that Hamilton Disston would construct a central sugar factory and resume large scale sugar planting in Florida.  It would take almost another 20 years after the  Disston Sugar Mill  shut down in 1901 that a couple of short lived sugar ventures signaled the rebirth of the Florida sugar industry.  

  • On November 12, 1919 the Pennsylvania Sugar Company was registered to do business in Florida and began planting sugarcane along the Miami Canal in Pennsuco, not too far from what today is Hialeah.  In May 1923 it completed construction of a sugar mill relocated from Texas.  The mill operated for only two years because of limited availability of sugarcane to process due to continuous flooding in the cane fields.  The mill was sold in 1927 to the Southern Sugar Company and relocated to Clewiston.
 
  • In early 1921 the Moorehaven Corporation acquired the Moorehaven Syrup Company and its 425 acres of sugarcane fields and established a sugar mill in the upper Everglades which went bankrupt due to high expenses and poor water control in the cane fields.      

Today's Florida sugar industry began in earnest ca. 1920 when Englishman  Frederick Edward Bryant , who with his brother Harold J. and William Greenwood started Palm Beach Farms Company which developed the subdivision that became the cities of Lake Worth and Greenacres , formed the Florida Sugar and Food Products Company together with G. T. Anderson at Canal Point .  They bought about 800 acres of land and in 1921 began construction of the first commercial sugar house in the Everglades, producing the first raw sugar in 1923.  Because of financial difficlulties due to high start-up costs and problems with flooding in the cane fields, the Florida Sugar and Food Products Company was reorganized as the Florida Sugar Company.  

In 1925 Sweedish immigrant Bror G. Dahlberg, head of Celotex Co. of Chicago was interested in using bagasse for manufacturing wallboard. Dahlberg established the Southern Sugar Company when he bought 15,000 acres of land along the Southwest lakeshore of Lake Okeechobee and absorbed the faltering Florida Sugar Company.  Dahlberg increased the land he controlled to 130,000 acres, moved the Canal Point mill to Clewiston and acquired and moved the Pennsylvania Sugar Company mill creating the Clewiston Sugar House which was inaugurated January 14,1929.  In the fall of 1930 Southern Sugar Company went into receivership due to a decline in sugar prices, crop losses due to flooding and its inability to raise new capital due to the stock market crash .  On April 29, 1931 General Motors co-founder and Vicepresident  Charles Stewart Mott  (68%) and Clarence & William Bitting (10%) acquired Southern Sugar Company for $900,000 plus the assumption of certain debts in a court auction sale and renamed it US Sugar Corporation .  In the 1930s with Clarence Bitting as President (1931-1945), US Sugar plantations accounted for 96% of Florida sugarcane production.

In 1918 Frank W. Heiser and other farmers in the Fellsmere, FL area began experimenting with sugarcane.  By 1931 Heiser organized the Fellsmere Sugar Co. which had enough sugarcane seed to plant its 1,000 acres of land and enough financial backing to build a sugar mill. The mill was built in 1932 by men associated with the Punta Alegre Sugar Company in Cuba, it processed 2 million pounds of high grade raw sugar in its first season in 1933.  Heiser built the first granulated sugar refinery in Florida in 1935, under the Florida Crystals brand, 5.5 million pounds of refined sugar were sold in 1936.  In 1937 Heiser reorganized the Fellsmere Sugar Co. as a cooperative known as the Fellsmere Sugar Producers Association and in 1943 sold it to Puerto Rican sugar producer Jose Adalberto Roig Guzmán, son of Antonio Roig Torrellas owner of Central Roig .  In 1958,  Okeelanta Sugar Refinery, Inc. purchased Fellsmere Sugar Producers Association and during its first harvest season in 1959 processed sugarcane from approximately 7,300 acres.  In 1964 the South Porto Rico Sugar Company  acquired the Okeelanta Sugar Refinery, Inc. and in 1965 closed the Fellsmere sugar mill after 33 years of operation.   Gulf+Western  acquired the South Porto Rico Sugar Company  in 1967 and all of its properties in Fellsmere, Gulf+Western  then proceeded to shut down the remaining farming operations in Fellsmere and in 1978 sold the land to Sun-Ag Inc.

In 1946 the Okeelanta Growers and Processors Cooperative bought the machinery of the old Playa Grande Sugar Mill in Vieques, Puerto Rico and established the third sugar mill in the Everglades when it was moved to the town of South Bay ready for the 1947 grinding season.  Members of the cooperative included Pedro Juan Serrallés Galiano whose family owned Central Mercedita in Ponce, Puerto Rico.  Due to financial difficulties, in 1949 the Columbia Bank for Cooperatives of Clumbia, SC foreclosed and a court appointed receiver operated the plantation and mill until 1952 when all the foreclosed property was sold to the Okeelanta Sugar Refinery, Inc., incorporated July 2, 1952 and associated with sugar interests in Cuba of Garcia-Diaz & Co.  In 1964 Okeelanta Sugar Refinery, Inc. was sold to the South Porto Rico Sugar Co.  which in 1967 was acquired by Gulf+Western .  In 1984  Gulf+Western sold the Okeelanta Sugar Refinery, Inc. including 90,000 acres of land and the sugar mill to Okeelanta Corporation whose principal shareholders were and are the Fanjul Brothers  who also own Osceola Farms sugar mill in Belle Glades.

Okeelanta Corporation was incorprated in 1984 and operates as a subsidiary of Florida Crystals Corporation.  It owns 67,000 acres of land and the Okeelanta Sugar Mill.   Florida Crystals Corporation , a subsudiary of Flo-Sun Inc., together with the  Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida formed ASR Group in 1998 to refine their raw sugar.
 
The sugar industry in Florida saw great expansion as a result of the 1959 Cuban revolution and 1961 embargo when sugar from the island was no longer available and a number of experienced sugarmen left Cuba eager to start over.  At the time of the Cuban revolution there were only some 55,000 acres planted with sugarcane yielding about 150,000 tons of raw sugar annually processed at the three heretofore mentioned sugar mills; US Sugar Mill, Okeelanta Sugar Mill and Fellsmere Sugar Producers Association. ​ In the 3 years following the revolution, land used to grow sugarcane grew to 140,000 acres producing approximately 400,000 tons of raw sugar.  This boom resulted in several new sugar mills, to wit;

  • Florida Sugar Corporation - Belle Glades.  Was established in 1961 with also with a mill brought from Louisiana.  It was headed by David M. Keiser who was Chairman of the Cuban American Sugar Corporation and President of the New York Philharmonic Symphony Society from 1956 to 1963 and board chairman from 1963 to 1970.  It was acquired by the Talisman Sugar Company and shut down in 1971.

  • South Florida Sugar Company, Inc. - Incorporated February 27, 1961 by the owners of a large Puerto Rican mill and refinery who moved a mill from Puerto Rico to Florida.  By the close of the 1964 harvest season it was acquired by the Talisman Sugar Corporation. 

  • Osceola Farms Co. - Pahokee.  Started as a 4,000 acre sugarcane plantation acquired by Alfonso Fanjul Sr.  and Czarnikow-Rionda for $640,000 in 1960.  In 1961 they acquired the machinery of a 2,500 ton sugar mill in Louisiana, brought and installed it at the plantation and began processing its own sugarcane. 

  • Bryant Sugar Mill - Bryant.  Opened by US Sugar in 1962 was shut down in 2007 and its operations consolidated with the US Sugar Mill in Clewiston.

  • Sugarcane Growers Cooperative of Florida - Belle Glades.  Established in 1960 is a cooperation of 45 grower members who owned approximately 70,000 acres dedicated to growing sugarcane.  One of the members was Czarnikow-Rionda who provided 15% of the financing and secured a management contract to run the mill and supply 120,000 tons of sugarcane from its cane fields.  The first grinding season at the Glades Sugar House was 1962.

  • Talisman Sugar Corporation - South Bay.  Was established in 1962 when 4 major investors headed by Fernando de la Riva and 11 otherCuban expatriates backed by by Henry Ford II paid $21.8 million for 16,800 acres of muckland.  By 1963 Talisman was struggling financially and was rescued by former US Ambassador to Peru and Brazil  William D. Pawley.   The St. Joe Company acquired Talisman from Pawley in 1972 and operated it until 1999 when it contracted with the US Government to sell the mill and land for $133.5 million as part of the Everglades Restoration Project .

  • Glades County Sugar Growers Cooperative Association - Moore Haven.  Was incorporated August 18, 1961 to build and operate a sugar mill which began producing sugar in 1962.  It started when Cuban immigrants Julio C. Iglesias, former president of Shell Oil Co. in Cuba and Dr. Carlos Sales Humara acquired 280,000 acres of land, 150,000 to grow sugarcane.  The association consisted of about 55 members with Iglesias and Sales having a 25% controlling interest.  The mill was purchased by Gulf+Western and closed in 1977.

  • Atlantic Sugar Association - Belle Glades.  A farmers cooperative mill established in 1963 with Francisco Pons as administrator and backed by Allis-Chalmers and the Columbia Bank for Cooperatives.  On September 9, 2005 Atlantic Sugar Association, Inc. merged into Atlantic Holding LLC and its operations became part of the Okeelanta Corporation.

Today, Palm Beach , Glades , Hendry and Martin counties surrounding   Lake Okeechobee , are at the center of the sugar industry.  Growing from approximately 55,000 acres used to grow sugarcane prior to the Cuban embargo of 1961, currently land used to grow sugarcane is about 400,000 acres producing about 1.4 million metric tons of su gar annually.​  The main sugar producers in Florida and their corporate owned sugar mills are:

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Sugarcane grown on land owned by the sugar mills account for approximately 65% of the 13 million or so tons of sugarcane processed every year in the four mills, approximately 25% is grown by farmers belonging to the Sugarcane Growers Cooperative of Florida and the remaining 10% or so is grown by independent farmers and sold to either one of the four sugar mills.  Today, approximately 50% of the sugar consumed in the US is cane sugar, sugar mills in Florida produce between 40-50% of all the cane sugar produced in the USA.

Pictured for this project, each one with its own page, are the remains of eleven 19th Century sugar factories and the remains of the initial settlement that started it all.  Existing in the Tomoka State Park but not accesible to visitors due to its remote location and therefor not pictured, are the Mc Hardy ruins.   Robert McHardy who was the son-in-law of John Bunch (see Dunlawton Sugar Mill) received a 1,000 acre land grant in 1808 requested by his wife but processed in his name after her death in 1808.  The ruins include the plantation house and the sugar works.  Also pictured below are the four sugar mill currently in operation.

The location of the 19th Century sugar factories and 20th Century sugar mills, active and closed, can be identified in this Google Map .