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sugar cane
Sugar cane tassels sparkle in the sun above tall stalks. Although sugar production was once a thriving business in Texas, few farmers grow the crop today—most sugar is imported. Photo courtesy of the Cooperative Extension Service, Texas A&M University.

Making Sugar in Nineteenth-Century Texas

In this section:

harvesting sugar
Harvesting and loading sugar at Masterson Plantation. Photograph courtesy of the Brazoria County Historical Museum.

The alluvial soils of this Gulf Coast Plain were a source of great wealth for the sugar planters.

Map of Brazoria County, showing early plantations
Map of Brazoria County, with locations of four early sugar plantations, including Lake Jackson.
loading sugar cane
Loading sugar cane into wagons at Sugarland, Brazoria County. Date unknown. Photograph courtesy of Brazoria County Historical Museum.
Indian Church sugar mill
Indian Church sugar mill in Belize. The cane crushers are still in place along with the flywheel and engine that powered the mill. Photo courtesy of Don McCormick.
Sugar Mill excavatgions
Sugar mill excavations looking west. The large ruin in the background is part of the original Jackson period cane crusher foundation. The bricks in the foreground are part of the convict period boiler foundations.
cane crusher
On the right is the base of the foundation for the cane crushers. On the left are two fragments of the gears that turned the crushers. In the center are the bands that held together the horse-powered treadmill.
fragments of copper sieve
Fragments of the copper sieve that was placed just below the cane crushers. The sieve prevented fragments of the cane plant from getting into and contaminating the cane juice.
train of kettles drawing
A train of kettles from an 1857 drawing by Henry Olcott. Of the five iron kettles, the largest was La Grande (shown in this drawing as a vat) and the smallest was La Batterie. The fire was under La Batterie; the heat from the fire was drawn under the other kettles and then up the flue chimney. The kettles were completely enclosed by a brick foundation and plastered to contain the heat.
layout of the Jackson Mill
Plan of the Jackson period sugar mill and convict mill, drawn after excavations were completed. Archeologists noted differences over time, including changes in the area of the kettles. The arrangement of kettles was the same but the flue chimney was completely sealed off in the convict mill. The convict period added a foundation for the new boilers to heat the kettles and raised the floors.
example of convict construction
An example of convict construction at Lake Jackson, showing the poor quality masonry work. Note the sagging line of bricks in the foundation.
flue chimney
This photo shows how the flue chimney was blocked by a convict wall. The large metal bar is identical to the bars in the firebox at the Osceola Mill. It has been "tossed" because it was no longer needed.
excavated mill
In the lower part of this photo, the lime well from the Jackson period and the Jackson floor are visible. To the right is a doorway between the mill proper and the purgery that was sealed during the convict period. Convicts built the wall in the center on top of the Jackson wall; metal bars were used to stabilize the addition. The original kettle settings had to be torn apart to place steam coils around the kettles when the "steam train" method for heating the kettles was implemented. The firebox was removed, and the flue chimney blocked by a wall.

The Lake Jackson mill may be the only mill in Texas with preserved evidence of the steam train technology available for archeological study.


The first refineries in Texas were sugar mills that turned the juice of sugar cane into granulated sugar. Sugar cane is not native to the Americas. Its origin lies in Southeast Asia. Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane to the island of Santo Domingo on his second voyage, and from there it spread to North, Central, and South America.

When Moses Austin visited the Spanish Governor in San Antonio, Texas, in 1820, he expressed his hope of bringing 300 families to Texas to raise cotton and sugar. The Governor knew that sugar cane would grow in Texas—a small sugar mill already had been established at Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo in San Antonio sometime before 1755. Although Moses Austin received his impresario grant, he died soon after his return to Missouri, leaving his son, Stephen, to assume his father's mission. Stephen F. Austin traveled to Texas to choose the best land to raise sugar cane: the land near the Brazos and Colorado Rivers. The alluvial soils of this Gulf Coast Plain were a source of great wealth for the sugar planters. The Brazos and San Bernard rivers, Oyster Creek, and numerous meandering bayous, provided transportation.

By 1828, the first sugar mill in Austin's Colony had been established and by 1850, there were 45 large plantations producing millions of pounds of sugar a year. African-American slaves provided most of the labor. The Civil War devastated the sugar economy in Texas. After the war, Texas planters began to revive the sugar industry using convict labor. The Imperial Sugar Company began with the 1875 partnership of Edward H. Cunningham and Colonel Littleberry A. Ellis. To operate their sugar lands, they leased the entire Texas prison population and sublet those laborers they did not need. In the 1890s, Colonel Cunningham built a mill and installed the machinery needed to refine sugar. In 1905, it became Cunningham Sugar Company and in 1917, the Imperial Sugar Company.

Sugar production in Texas peaked in the 1880s and declined afterwards as the trend toward consolidation of sugar mills developed. The industry took a bigger blow in 1910 when a new law prohibited the leasing of any convicts; thus the sugar mills lost the majority of their work force. Sugar cane is no longer grown commercially along the upper Texas Gulf coast. Nonetheless, the Imperial Sugar Company in Sugar Land, Texas still refines sugar imported from Hawaii, Louisiana, and Puerto Rico.

From Stalk to Sugar: The Sugar-Making Process

Sugar was made in nineteenth-century Texas mills by a very involved and complex process. The first stage—extraction—entailed squeezing the juice from ripe sugar cane with steam-powered crushers. The juice was pulled by gravity from upstairs crushers to the first floor vats. The earliest mills in Texas used horsepower to drive wooden rollers to extract the cane juice. In 1843, the first steam-powered mill was established on Captain William Duncan's Caney Creek plantation.

The second phase of sugar production was the reduction process which requires a fire, a train of progressively larger kettles, and the flue chimney. Heat was produced by a fire under the smallest of the kettles (usually about 6 feet in diameter). The heat was then pulled by the height of the chimney through the flue under the kettles to where it exited up the tall chimney. The molten sugar scum was repeatedly skimmed from the top of each vat as the liquid was passed on down to the smallest kettle.

The final phase of the sugar process was granulation, cooling, and purging, which took place in the purgery—a large space attached to the reduction room to hold cooling trays and vats. When the syrup in the smallest and hottest kettle began to crystallize, it was removed into cooling trays. Cooling trays were usually wooden troughs about 10 feet long, 5 feet wide, and 10-12 inches deep. After about 30 days, the uncrystallized syrup,or molasses, was drained into a molasses barrel leaving behind crystallized sugar.

Investigating Historic Mills

With knowledge of the sugar-making process, archeological investigators formulated specific research questions prior to beginning excavations at Lake Jackson.

  • What was the layout of the original Lake Jackson mill? Was it similar to or different from other sugar mills in Texas?
  • How was the mill changed when steam power was added? The historic record documents the addition of steam power to operate the cane crushers. Where were the boiler, boiler chimney and engines located?
  • How was the mill altered after the Civil War when steam replaced fire as the source of heat in the reduction process?

Prior to excavating the Lake Jackson mill, three historic Texas sugar mills—Bynum, Osceoloa, and Varner-Hogg—were mapped to distinguish similarities and differences. Although all are in ruin, the remains are substantial enough to identify the main components.

Osceola Mill is the best-preserved mill and made identification of the shared attributes of the other mills possible. It was determined that all three are long and narrow and have cisterns close to them. They all have the flue chimney outside the structure and they are all divided into two parts, the crushing area and the purgery. At Osceola and Bynum, the boiler chimneys could be identified; both are outside the sugar mill.

Tracing the Sugar Making Process at Lake Jackson

To recap, the three processes in making sugar are, extraction, reduction, and crystallization. The extraction process extracts the juice from the sugar cane. This process is done with large iron crushers that were powered by a horse-powered treadmill attached to the crushers or by a steam boiler which provided steam power to turn the cane crushers.

The historical records state that Jackson began the mill using horsepower to run the cane crushers that extracted the juice from the cane. The tallest part of the mill ruins was the foundation for the massive cane crushers placed on the second flour. As investigations got underway on the brick floor next to the cane crusher foundation, excavators uncovered horse harnesses and large metal bands.

Although records indicate that Jackson installed a boiler to steam power the cane crushers, neither the boiler nor the boiler chimney were found during extensive excavations. All evidence indicates that the horse-powered treadmill was still in place when the mill was destroyed by the 1900 hurricane.

The second phase of sugar making is the reduction process that boils the cane juice until the juice crystallizes into granulated sugar. In the original Jackson mill, sugar cane juice was reduced to a granular form in a "train of kettles," a series of large to small kettles heated by a fire under the smallest kettle. The heat from the fire was pulled through the flue, under the series of kettles, by the draft of a flue chimney. Excavators identified the opening of the flue chimney and the flue chimney foundation at the Lake Jackson mill, along with the circular brick remains of the kettle settings.

When the sugar began to crystallize in the smallest, hottest kettle, the thick syrup was removed to cooling trays where the crystallization process continued. When the sugar cooled, it was placed in hogsheads, storage barrels, where the remaining molasses, uncrystallized syrup, was allowed to drain out of the hogsheads. The room where this separation occurred was called the purgery. Each hogshead contained about a thousand pounds of sugar. About three barrels of molasses were drained from each hogshead. The molasses was shipped to the Caribbean to be made into rum.

Post Civil-War Sugar Production

An inventory of property at Lake Jackson Plantation in 1878 documents the change from fire to heat the sugar kettles to the use of steam as a heat source. By this time, the Jackson family no longer owned the plantation. The new owners completely converted the mill to adapt to steam power to heat the kettles. The kettles were stripped of their foundations, steam coils were wrapped abound the kettles to provide a more regulated heat and the kettle foundations were rebuilt.

In addition to the changes in sugar making technology, a major change was made in the labor force at the mill: convicts replaced the slaves. After the Civil War, the state of Texas rented out their convicts as a labor supply.

Differences in workmanship between the Jackson period construction and convict labor period became increasingly apparent during excavations. During the Jackson period, bricks made by the slaves were uniform in size, clay was high quality, and firing was regular. Only whole bricks were used, and walls were constructed with exceptional craftsmanship. In contrast, convicts were poor masons and used low-quality materials. They used bricks of different sizes, including fragmentary pieces, in their construction and applied mortar irregularly. Walls and foundations tended to slope and buckle over time. Other evidence helped archeologists distinguish construction of the two periods. For example, alterations made by convict labor after 1873 include:

Blocked Passageways: A blocked doorway was found in the wall separating the kettle area from the purgery. The east side of the wall shows an enclosed portal with plastered walls, while the west side has very sloppy, and uneven rows of bricks with "bleeding" mortar. The door between the crusher foundations and the kettle area was also closed with a brick wall.

Raised Walls: The east/west wall, the south wall of the Jackson kettle enclosure, is an excellent example of a raised wall. Attached to the Jackson wall, iron masonry braces were placed about every four or five feet and a new section of wall was added. This alteration may be a result of the change from fire heat (train of kettles) to steam heat (steam train). The upper portion of the train of kettles would have been removed to expose the sides of the kettles. After steam coils were wrapped around the kettles, then the kettle area would have been sealed to enclose the kettles and contain the heat. This would explain convict walls on top of plantation walls in the kettle area.

Raised Floors: The lower Jackson floor is like the Jackson foundation and walls in construction; substantial, level, and with excellent masonry. The lime pit and original Jackson floor found in 1994 became the cornerstone for all other Jackson floor identifications. The upper or raised convict floors are uneven. When the floor is of brick, it is one brick thick and of poor masonry construction. Convict period floors are also of dirt and had between 1 - 1.25 feet of fill between the Jackson floor and the convict floor.

Blocked Chimney: The flue chimney opening was closed by bricks and was separated from the kettle area by a brick wall during the Convict Period alterations.

Firebox removed: The brick foundation and grates of the firebox were removed and the opening to the firebox on the north wall was closed with a brick wall.

In 1995, more of the original Jackson plantation floor was uncovered along with a kettle setting and a heat flue in the middle of the sugar mill. Since 1995, the other original kettle settings have been located and the boiler and engine platforms of the Convict period have been identified.

Putting the Pieces Together

Excavations revealed the components of the original Jackson mill: the horse treadmill that supplied the original power; the foundation for the cane crushers; the original train of kettles with fire box, kettle settings and flue chimney; and the purgery and storage area. By comparing the Lake Jackson mill to Osceola, Varner-Hogg and Bynum, it was learned that these four mills in Brazoria County were very similar in design and layout—reflecting a shared process. Historic records state that the mills at Retrieve and Darrington—Jackson's other plantations—had double rows of kettles, called a double train. These two plantations are now state prisons.

Although historic records document the addition of steam power to operate the cane crushers, the boiler and boiler chimney were not located during excavations. The foundation for the cane crushers probably remained the same. The change was from wooden to metal rollers to crush the cane. The heavier weight of the metal rollers may have required a more substantial foundation and the original foundation may have been augmented.

After the Civil War, the mill was significantly altered in the transition to the "steam train" method. The cane crushing area is the only portion of the mill that not altered by the change. Addtionally, in the area between the large foundations of the crushers and the kettle area, the floor was raised with rubble about 1.5 feet above the Jackson floor. A single brick thick floor was laid on the rubble that contained a hole and drain. The train of kettles was torn apart, the firebox was removed, and the top portion of the kettle supports was removed to expose the kettles. The kettles were wrapped with steam coils of metal that were connected to the newly installed boilers. The kettle supports were then rebuilt resulting in convict construction on top of Jackson construction. Metal rods supported the new construction. The area around the open kettles would have been sealed to keep heat from escaping from below the kettles.

Since fire was no longer a source of heat, the flue chimney was bricked closed and a wall built separating the chimney from the mill; the area became a trash dump. A new foundation for the new boilers was constructed north of the mill, close to the location of the kettles.

What was the purpose in changing to steam heat? According to George Olcott, who studied the sugar making process during the mid-nineteenth century, "Steam does not discolor the sugar nearly so much as fire, therefore steam trains have been extensively adopted, and great expense has frequently been incurred in altering the arrangement of the boiling-house to suit the new regime. A steam train will cost twice as much to run and keep in order as a common train will, to say nothing of the first expense…" Many mill operators claimed the heating of the kettles was easier to control but workers had to be highly trained to make the process work.

Because so many Texas sugar mills have been completely destroyed or are in ruins, and because the historical record is incomplete, we do not know how many sugar mills changed to the steam train method. The Lake Jackson mill may be the only mill in Texas with preserved evidenced of this technology.


S.F. Austin
Stephen F. Austin followed through on the dream of his father, Moses Austin, to establish colonies in Texas and raise cotton and sugar. Image courtesy of the Texas State Library and Archives.

Click images to enlarge  

Brazoria County map
Major plantations in Brazoria County, Texas. The success of sugar cane planters such as Abner Jackson earned Brazoria, Fort Bend, Wharton, and Matagorda counties the title of "sugar bowl" of Texas. The location of two of Jackson's three plantations are denoted by the letter "N."
sugar cane at various stages of growth
Sugar cane plants at various stages of growth. Photos courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Cooperative Extension Service, Texas A&M University.
map of ruins of 4 sugar mills
Map of ruins of four nineteenth-century sugar mills in Texas, surveyed to provide comparative information on size and layout.
using a transit
Volunteers at Lake Jackson Plantation taking a reading with transit. Photo by Mott Davis.
sugar mill before excavations
Western end of sugar mill before excavation. The foundation of the cane crusher is in the center. The tallest feature is the support for the cane crusher.
cane crusher
When the bands were completely exposed, the size of the treadmill could be determined by the circumference of the bands. The green copper sheeting fragments are part of the copper sieve under the cane crusher.
treadmill bars and remnants of horse harnesses
Below the bands and the sieve, excavators found the treadmill bars and remnants of horse harnesses. The bars were the treadmill for the horses, or mules, and the harnesses held the animals in place.
Jackson Mill kettle settings
The settings for the five kettles can be seen with the smallest kettle—which was directly over the firebox—at the top of the series. All of the kettles were sealed in brick and plastered so the heat could not escape. The heat was pulled from the firebox through the train of kettles by the height of the flue chimney. The heat passed under all of the kettles and out the flue chimney.

Steam does not discolor the sugar nearly so much as fire, therefore steam trains have been extensively adopted, and great expense has frequently been incurred in altering the arrangement of the boiling house to suit the new regime. —George Olcott.

convict period boiler and engine foundations
Convict period boiler and engine foundations in the mill. In the foreground is a pipe draining from the convict-period boilers into Lake Jackson. In the center are the metal plates on the brick foundation to support the boilers of the "steam train."
excavating sugar mill
Excavators work to uncover another area of the sugar mill. Structure I can be seen in the background.