Postbellum Revival of the Sugar Industry in South Louisiana

On the eve of the Civil War, the Louisiana sugar crop hit its peak value of $25,000,000; four years later, the Louisiana sugar industry was in shambles. Over the course of the war, Louisiana land depreciated in value more than any other southern state due to the loss of sugar lands. The sugar planters of south Louisiana struggled to rebuild and reorganize their labor force while adjusting to a free-labor system following the Civil War. In 1866, a State Bureau of Immigration was established to encourage workers from China as well as Europe, namely Germany, to come to the sugar region of Louisiana for jobs in the cane fields; however, most of the field workers continued to come from the local African American community. Due to labor shortages and financial losses after the Civil War, as well as the necessary overhead required to fund improvements in the technology and mechanization related to sugar manufacturing, sugar planters discontinued grinding at smaller mills and sent their cane via railways to larger central facilities for grinding and refining. The landscape of parishes like West Baton Rouge began to change as traditional plantation culture gave way to the separation of cane-growing from sugar manufacturing and smaller sugar mills were abandoned. In 1900, there were 16 sugar mills in West Baton Rouge, 8 in 1924, and only 2 by 1976. As of June 2021, there are no sugar mills operating in the parish. 

The Hill family outside their new homeThis image shows the Hill family in their “new” home, c. 1908.

In 1866, John Hill moved from East Baton Rouge Parish to West Baton Rouge Parish and bought Homestead Plantation in present-day Port Allen. He was one of the first planters to revive the sugar industry in West Baton Rouge after the Civil War. By the grinding season of 1866, he produced his first crop of sugar cane, four years before his neighbors. Hill moved his family into a raised Creole-style house on Homestead Plantation, but when the river threatened to take the house in the early 1900s, the second story was detached from the brick first floor and moved to safer ground. 

Consolidation of Sugar Plantations

Hard times brought on by the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Great Depression resulted in consolidation of plantations and mills in West Baton Rouge and the surrounding sugar parishes. One example of such consolidation in West Baton Rouge occurred when the Laws family of Cincinnati moved to the parish in 1878 and purchased Marengo Plantation, which they renamed Cinclare. In 1897, they built a new modern factory on the plantation. The mill was expanded and modernized again in 1906 due to the high demand for their services. Harry Laws established a new name for Cinclare’s operations, Harry L. Laws and Company, Inc. The mill itself was called the Cinclare Central Factory. In 1927, the corporation purchased nearby plantations including Choctaw, Balver, Rosewell, Catherine, and Orange Grove because the original plantation land alone could not produce enough cane for their large mill. They ran a night train to haul cane from these surrounding fields to the Cinclare Central Factory for grinding.

A significant interruption in the revival of the sugar cane industry in Louisiana occurred from about 1912-1930 due mainly to the mosaic disease, a virus affecting the variety of sugarcane that was most commonly grown in Louisiana. The disease caused a near collapse of Louisiana’s sugarcane industry in the 1920s. New cane varieties were introduced from Java that were resistant to the mosaic disease, but before these new varieties could begin to reverse the decline, the Great Depression resulted in more financial struggles for farmers and factory owners. As in every crisis, the mosaic disease and the ensuing Great Depression resulted in consolidation of farm land and mills. The trend toward consolidation continued through the 20th century. In Louisiana, while the average cane acreage per farm increased from 28 acres in 1937 to 101 acres in 1958, the number of factories decreased from 92 to 47.

Aerial photo of Cinclare Sugar Mill

Aerial image showing Cinclare plantation and the factory after the expansion that took place in 1906

Cinclare Central Factory's LocomotiveOne of Cinclare Central Factory's locomotives, c. 1897

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3

Impact of Industrialization on Agriculture

By 1861, 80 percent of Louisiana’s sugar mills were driven by steam. By 1900, the last of the open-kettle mills largely disappeared, the only holdout being the Kelson sugar mill in the northern part of the parish, which still used the open-kettle method in 1916. Bagasse, the fibrous residue of crushed cane, was burned to produce the steam needed to run the mills. Ideally, a sugar mill can meet its total energy requirements by burning the bagasse produced. As the 20th century progressed, more and more mechanized processes in the mills became electrified and automated, thus reducing the number of mill floor workers needed.

In the fields, the shift from mule to tractor power took place in the 1920-30s. New tools like mechanical cane harvesters, cane loaders, rotary hoes, and cane pilers replaced human and animal labor. The goal had always been to make the processes of growing, harvesting, and grinding cane more efficient. Both World Wars siphoned off sugar workers as men traveled abroad to fight; it was clear that the agricultural industry needed to find new methods of harvesting cane with machines rather than relying on harvesting by hand. It was during the WWII era that mechanical cane harvesters were developed.

Changes to Infrastructure

The turn of the century saw a distinct shift from river transportation and mule carts to the railroad in terms of moving supplies. For example, Langdon Laws of Cinclare set up an agreement with the Texas and Pacific Railroad to use the rail line that ran through Cinclare Plantations to move their cane from the fields to the mill, which saved the expense of building new road beds. In the mid-20th century, there was a shift from rail to trucks for shipping cane and raw sugar in the parish. 

The state improved the roads in the 1930s and began work on the LA 1 Highway that runs through West Baton Rouge Parish, which enabled farm and mill workers to live away from the plantations as well as improved transportation of agricultural materials to and from the farms and mills. Bridges crossing the Mississippi River to West Baton Rouge were built in 1940 and 1968, further connecting mills like Cinclare to other south Louisiana sugar farmers.