Historic Structures

History of Laurel Vallery Sugar house Laurel Valley Sugar Plantation, Thibodaux Louisiana

Laurel Valley Plantation had fared well under the management of Joseph Tucker since 1832. Gradually buying out the farms of smaller planters in the vicinity, Tucker increased Laurel Valley's total acreage from 815 to nearly 5,000 by the early 1840's. He constructed a brick sugarhouse according to the customary plan, installed open kettles and other equipment for making sugar, built quarters for the 118 slaves he owned, and began producing sugar. His managerial skills soon brought the plantation to the forefront among estates in Lafourche Parish in terms of, sugar production. Keeping some 600 to 1000 acres of his land in sugar cane cultivation annually, Tucker generally produced some 600 hogsheads or so of sugar per year (one hogshead = 1000 pounds of sugar).

When Joseph Tucker died in 1852 his cousin, Caleb, succeeded him as manager of Laurel Valley. Carrying on in Joseph!s footsteps, he maintained the high levels of sugar production which characterized the plantation during the antebellum years.

The Civil War seriously disrupted operations at Laurel Valley. Sugar production continued during the early years of the war, but in 1863 Caleb joined the Confederate forces to fight at Vicksburg. Federal authorities, acting upon an order issued the previous year "subjecting the property of Louisianians who hereafter bore arms against the United States government to confiscation," seized his plantation. Six hundred hogsheads of sugar and over 1200 barrels of molasses were removed, along with nearly every other piece of property. Caleb was killed at the Battle of Vicksburg and his heirs, returning to Laurel Valley at war's end in 1865, found "nothing comparatively on the Plantation, and everything almost a wreck." It was left to the administrator of the Joseph Tucker estate, Louis Bush, to bring some semblance of order to Laurel Valley, but, other than contracting with tenant laborers to assist in "grinding, rolling, and manufacturing the sugar," and repairing "the Brick of the Cisterns in Sugar House," Bush could do little to improve circumstances. When Joseph Pennington Tucker assumed the management of the plantation in 1869, he found that "the machinery ... at the Sugar House required thorough repairing; the Juice Boxes, Coolers and Cisterns had to be renewed; a boiler was needed for the Pump at the Lafourche." It is not known whether Tucker, his plantation burdened with indebtedness, actually effected these repairs. Plantation records from this period do reveal that "4 Steam Float Boxes made to order complete" were purchased from Daniel and Jas. D. Edwards in New Orleans, "Manufacturers of improved sugar trains."

Debts continued to accumulate on the plantation until finally Bush petitioned for it to be sold at auction to satisfy the creditors. After the initial sale in March 1872, Laurel Valley passed through several hands before Burch Wormald acquired it in July 1874, Wormald, hoping to return the plantation to its antebellum level of sugar production, refurbished the outmoded sugarhouse, replacing the open kettles and steam train with a vacuum pan and centrifugals. His improvements did lead to increased yields for the plantation, but they also increased its debts; in 1892 he too was forced to turn the estate over, to the New Orleans firm of Behan and Zuberbier.

Early the following year Laurel Valley again went up on the auction block. According to the Lafourche Comet, a local newspaper, it sold for $70,600 and "Messrs, Barker and Lepine were the purchasers. This is one of the finest sugar estates in Louisiana and the present owners have secured a bargain in getting it for the price they paid for it."

Frank Barker and J. Wilson Lepine were no strangers to the plantation business. Their partnership extended back to 1885 when they purchased Melodia Plantation, an estate of some 1000 acres located four miles southeast of Laurel Valley. Their operations at Melodia had proven successful, and the pair wished to make further gains in the sugar industry. Barker, who in 1897 would move to New Orleans to conduct "an extensive commission and brokerage business," left the management of daily operations on the two estates to Lepine. Lepine enjoyed the daily regimen of the sugar plantation. The Laurel Valley diaries kept by the plantation bookkeepers from 1903 to 1916 portray him as a manager who routinely visited the sugarhouse to inspect affairs or to tinker with machinery. From 1893 until his death in 1926 he would prove an efficient manager of Laurel Valley, a man whom workers respected and who played an important role in the life of Lafourche Parish.

One of the first actions taken by the new owners of the plantation in 1893 was to announce plans for a narrow gauge railroad to link the fields at Melodia and Laurel Valley with the Laurel Valley Sugarhouse. Along the route between the two plantations, it would also receive cane from smaller planters wishing to have their crop manufactured into sugar. Barker and Lepine also began acquiring new equipment for their sugarhouse, including a second vacuum pan and vacuum pump. Although they hoped to begin sugar production with the start of the grinding season in late October, it was not until November 14 that the Sugarhouse commenced operations. The Lafourche Comet noted that "after many accidents and setbacks . . . the mill is now running smoothly and giving satisfactory results."

The initial season volume of sugar reached more than 2.5 million pounds, and pleased with this success Barker and Lepine began making further improvements in the Sugarhouse. New equipment added by 1900 included an electric light plant, boilers equipped with oil burners, a double effect, and a crusher for the mill room. By 1901 the factory was described in The Southern Manufacturer as "very modernly equipped." The Sugarhouse, which Barker and Lepine had also expanded in size by adding another story to the original brick building, contained a six roller mill and crusher, two Corliss engines, standard double effect, a seven and a half and a ten foot pan, ten centrifugals, four large magma tanks of fifty thousand gallons capacity, each, hot room capacity of four hundred and fifty cars, and in feeding cane they use a Bodley Mallon Cane Feeder and the American Hoist and Derrick. The plant is fully lighted throughout by an electric light plant. The daily capacity of the mill is six hundred tons. From 1901 onward Lepine continued to make changes in the Sugarhouse as older equipment became outmoded or as production demanded.

As businessmen, Barker and Lepine were motivated to improve conditions in the Sugarhouse out of their awareness of the influence of the sugar market in plantation operations. Buyers of plantation goods at the Sugar Exchange in New Orleans, where the daily transactions in sugar and molasses were conducted, gave the best prices to planters whose products were of high quality. The trade in these products was greatly conditioned by the color and the purity of the sugars, and the chemical content of the molasses, which were sold. Planters brought samples of their products to the Exchange in hopes of obtaining a good offer from a prospective buyer. Thus to fetch the best price for his product, the planter had to insure that it was of very high quality.

Before any sugar left the Sugarhouse, it was taken to the laboratory to be evaluated. The laboratory at Laurel Valley, which Lepine had installed in 1916 above the main office, contained all the equipment needed for this evaluation, including chemicals, scales, and instruments. The most important instrument in the laboratory was the polariscope, also known as the polarimeter or saccharimeter. This device provided the planter with an estimate of the sucrose level of the sugar. It operated on the principle that sacchrined solutions rotated the plane of a ray of polarized light. Light from an external source entered the lens of the polarimeter and was polarized by a prism "made from a rhombohedron cut from a transparent crystal of Iceland spar." The polarized light ray, known as the extraordinary ray, then passed through a tube containing the saccharine solution. The sucrose within the solution rotated the plane of the ray to the right. The amount of this rotation varied with the strength of the solution. A standard weight of pure sucrose in solution with a standard quantity of pure water, when placed in a tube of given length, rotated the ray of light to a point marked as 100 on a polarimetric reference scale. Using the same quantity of water to form the solution, but varying the concentration of sucrose within the solution, would show a rotation expressed in percentage of the standard of 100 . The Sugar Exchange based the market price for sugars manufactured in Louisiana on a purity of 96; sugars showing this level of sucrose content would receive the current market price, while levels above or below this would sell for more or less than the going price.

The higher grades of sugar were those classified as "plantation granulated." These sugars had a high sucrose content since they were manufactured from pure syrup ("first sugar") or from the molasses obtained from first sugars in the centrifugals and boiled back in the vacuum pan with fresh syrup ("mixed" or "second sugar"). The boiling in the vacuum pan proceeded to the grain or crystal formation point, and fresh syrup added to the pan would deposit more layers of sugar on the crystals. Hence these sugars were also known as "grain" sugars. The bulk of Laurel Valley's output of sugars consisted of plantation granulated, in both first and second sugar forms. To sell at the market price these sugars had to show a purity of at least 96, with sugars of higher purity being preferred. Buyers of the brown or yellow product largely consisted of grocers, who then sold it for direct consumption.

In 1926 operations ceased.