Historic Structures

History of Sugar Cane Growing Laurel Valley Sugar Plantation, Thibodaux Louisiana

Sugar cane was probably first grown as a crop in China, later being introduced to India and Arabia by traders. Crusaders brought it to Europe. Once appetites developed, demand for sugar increased and the cultivation of the crop spread rapidly into these countries with a climate conducive to its growth. Columbus introduced sugar cane to the Western Hemisphere where Spanish Conquistadors found ideal natural conditions: Caribbean temperatures average more than 75 degrees throughout the year, considerable sunshine, and more than sixty inches of rainfall each year. Unfortunately, as early growers found, killing frosts cover Louisiana in December and January, halting the maturation of the cane and forcing growers to replant a third of their acreage every year. But, on the other hand, Louisiana has certain advantages that make up the uncooperative weather. In an area encompassing roughly 640,000 acres of Mississippi Deltaic Plain, the Louisiana sugar bowl contains rich alluvial deposits of mixed clay and sand, which enable planters to produce higher yields of cane per acre than those anywhere in the world.

Louisiana planters, accustomed to growing indigo or rice, encountered few problems in switching their labor to sugar. Their fields were already prepared. They had only to buy seed and direct their field hands in the planting of the new crop. But those with woodlands, like Joseph Tucker along Bayou Lafourche had to clear their fields of trees and underbrush. Drains and ditches had to be cut and laced together to carry off excess water. Drainage was especially important, for poor drainage could destroy cane .

Little information exists about Laurel Valley's antebellum drainage pattern. The only surviving fixture from the Tucker years is the foundation for a waterwheel that threw excess water over a rear levee into the swamp. Yet if Tucker was consistent with pre-Civil War practices, he cut parallel ditches, two hundred feet apart, from the front to the back and then cross ditches, about six hundred feet apart. More than likely he had from twenty to thirty miles of ditches for every square mile of land in cultivation. Oftentimes, bayous served as natural adjuncts to the artificial canals. The only specific figures about Laurel Valley's drainage system is from a turn-of-the-century map showing forty-three and a half miles of canals and ditches around the plantation. These varied in width from two to twenty feet, and were crossed by 210 bridges, totaling seven miles in length. By this time, Barker and Lepine had added a Menge pump to speed up the removal of surplus water at the rear of the plantation.

Insights into the practices and procedures of sugar cane cultivation can be found in several diaries that remain from the Barker-Lepine years.

Before the Civil War, plantation work was divided into four identifiable parts: planting, which normally began in January when weather permitted and lasted until March; cultivation from April to July be hoe and plow (planters laid-by their cane only after the cane leaves touched and shaded the base of the stalk); general work, such as putting up hay, gathering corn, cutting cordwood and repairing the sugar mill; and grinding from October to January. Then the entire process would start over again repeated year after year.

Because of frost, cane must be replanted more often in Louisiana than in the Caribbean. Louisiana growers replant cane every three years. The tallest and most productive cane, the first year's growth, called plant cane, buds forth from the seed cane. The second year's growth, "rattoon," is shorter, more compact, yet produces generous amounts of sucrose and emerges from the roots of the previous plant cane. "Stubble," or the last crop, is shorter, reveals further deterioration, and comes from the rattoon cane. Instead of replanting the entire crop, planters divided their lands into three equal parts. Two parts produce the actual cane while a third lies fallow or planted in another crop, such as cowpeas, that replenishes the soil.

Planting used to begin when heavy plows pulled by oxen or mules broke up the hallow ground and turned the soil into rows. In the early years when the ground was especially fertile the distance between the rows varied from three to five feet. In the 1840's planters found it easier to work both man and machine with a distance of seven to eight feet. The incorporation of the wider distance enabled fields hands to use double mule teams rather than singles to work the soil. Next, double plows, called flucks, would cut shallow trenches or drills at the top of the rows. Here planters would place between two and four canes at distances of about four inches. They lapped them and laid them straight, with crooked stalks cut to assure a straight line. Then the cane was covered and left to grew. The whole object of cultivation at this point required keeping the land loose and keeping dirt against the stalk of the growing cane to keep it from falling over.

Growers selected plant cane from the fields in October. It was the first cane cut at harvest; then it was stacked near the fields to be planted in the spring. The layer of the cane were so placed that the leaves of the plant covered the stalk of the lower level, affording some measure of protection from frosts. The only problem with mat laying cane came when the "mats" were opened up. Sometimes the plant cane had been severely affected by dry rot or damp rot. Most of this was substantially overcome after the Civil War when planter began windrowing their plant cane - that is, burying it in the rows until planted.

For the "rattoon" or "stubble" crop, preparations for the next year involved what was called "barring off the stubble," running as close as possible to each side of the stubble with a specially-designed plow to throw off the dirt. The "rattoon of stubble" was then shaved or sharply cut about one inch from the ground with an instrument pulled by a mule.

When the harvest season began in October, workers and animals raced to bring the cane in before the deadly frosts; once the cutting season began the workers - slave or wage - had almost no time to themselves. From Joseph Tucker through Barker-Lepine the techniques remained almost the same. The field work was performed by men, women and children who were divided into groups according to ability. The first and the most important were the cutters who went to the field armed with thirteen--inch long knives, four inches wide. They attacked the cane with these long blades, chopping off the leaves, then decapitating the top, and finally separating the stalk from its roots. They moved continuously through the rows of cane. Behind them came another group of younger men and sometimes women picking up the cleaned stalks and placing them in mule-drawn wagons for the trip to the mill. Barker-Lepine speeded up this process by installing derricks adjacent to the railroad at central field points. Consequently, trains rather then mule carts, completed the last leg of the journey to the mill.

Once the harvest was completed,workers at Laurel Valley and elsewhere found their daily routines somewhat relaxed. Unskilled workers went to the fields to clear brush and to clean ditches. Some went in the fields to gather and haul the corn to a crib for feeding the mules. More specialized crews, especially under Barker-Lepine, worked on the railroad, repairing the rolling stock, replacing worn-out tracks and clearing way debris. There were other such as the coopers who made barrels and carpenters who kept up the plantation buildings.

From the beginning of Laurel Valley, the relationship between owners and workers ranged from slavery to contract, to free wage labor. Joseph Tucker used slaves to work his fields. He started with twenty-two that he brought with him from Natchez, but he died years later owning 130. Because he lived on the plantation, he or members of his family no doubt personally supervised the daily work and used drivers chosen from among the slaves to enforce orders. About the only non-slave labor under Tucker's supervision were the skilled workers in the sugar mill such as the sugar maker. After the war his sons relied on many of these former slaves. Although freemen, they signed one-year work contracts which guaranteed them a daily wage as low as 35 cents and as high as $1.00. The number of these workers fluctuated by as many as thirty or forty a month. Some workers demanded higher wages than those for which they had contracted; others simply moved off the plantation. The instability caused Tucker and others to recruit Chinese workers. In 1872 there were twenty-three under contract at Laurel Valley with options for two additional years.

Burch Wormald became the first of the post-War owners at Laurel Valley to make a major effort to stabilize the plantation work force. He tore down the slave cabins, reminders of the previous era, and erected twenty-six double Creole frame structures. These new quarters offered workers greatly improved living conditions. Wormald was evidently successful because in the 1880ys more than twenty families were listed as year-round residents on Laurel Valley. Some were former slaves, others descendants of French Acadians who had been pushed back to the brules (high swamp ridges) in the 1820's by the growth of the sugar culture. Plantations like Laurel Valley offered these sons and grandsons of petits habitants the security of stable employment.

Under the partnership of Barker-Lepine, however, most labor problems were overcome. The partnership needed a dependable labor supply if its mill complex was to survive. Between 1897 and 1922, more than thirty-five residential structures were added, including twenty-six "shotgun" buildings for field workers and eight Creole "T" houses for skilled employees. As a result, they attracted over sixty families as permanent residents. During harvests the plantation obtained seasonal laborers from Mississippi through jobbers who received $1.00 to $2.00 a day per worker provided. These workers were housed in three boarding houses maintained by the plantation. The pay of unskilled workers remained fairly constant during the Barker-Lepine years. In the summer, workers received about 85 cents a day and during grinding about $1.25 a day. As could be expected, skilled workers received much more - from $75.00 to $300.00. a month. Over the years the work force remained fairly stable. But after 1926, cut backs in the operations and the depression caused many families to seek employment on other plantation or in nearby cities, especially New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Since that time, machines have taken over so many aspects of cultivation that today only six families live on Laurel Valley. The only time extra labor is needed is when the seed cane must be planted, a task still performed by hand.