It's a misconception that sugar cane won't grow in northern Florida. In fact, you can find locally-produced cane-sugar as far north as farmers markets in middle Georgia. But it's true that it never has been a major export crop from the Clay County area.
It's been grown here since British colonial times, typically in small fields of less than five acres.
In 1917, we know 79 acres were planted in sugarcane in Clay County. Acreage increased in the 1930s -- could it be a coincidence that it takes a lot of sugar to make moonshine? Today, perhaps twenty acres are under cultivation and at least two family cane grinding events still happen each winter.
It's true that cane grinding requires a mill, but not much of one compared to sawmills or grist mills. Most of the time, Clay County mills have been mule-powered, but occasionally there have been steam mills. Nowadays, it's cheaper to borrow a tractor to turn to the mill, than to keep a mule in feed for a year just for one day's grinding.
Buying cane syrup at the market? Check the label to see if you're getting the real deal, of whether its got corn syrup filler -- lots of them do.
Scientific Steps for Extracting Cane Syrup
Thanks to the Starling Family for some photos.
1. Harvest your spring garden and then plant your cane. (We get two growing seasons in Clay County).
2. Watch it grow.
3. When you're out in the field on your mule in early December and no one can see you, it's ready to cut. Call your family and friends.
4. Hitch up the mule to the grinding machine and coax her to go round, extracting cane juice into a bucket.
5. Stand around and get your picture taken.
6. Boil up the juice into syrup. These vats are so large that they're also great for scalding the hair off a hog.
7. Filter the syrup through an HTSD (high-tech screening device). It's a coincidence this looks like an old sock.
8. Of course there has to be a potluck at a cane grinding.
Come . . .
. . . and
. . . Get it!
Historic Sugar Plantations
Our first evidence for it is in the 1830s when William Travers operated a sugar plantation mill at Magnolia Springs with his friend Matthew Solano. This was burned by Seminoles in 1840 and not rebuilt. This fifty-barrel operation wouldn't have been larger than five acres. Here are the rest of the references we know of to early sugar works:
[Doctors Lake] Sugar Works (north side of lake)
It is shown on the Bien 1865 map and the cove north of present day Doctors Lake Estates is still called Sugarhouse Cove.
A bay on the south side of Doctors Lake, indicating the probably location of an early saw or sugar mill. Also the location of a small bombing range during WWII.
Across from Mill Cove is Sugarhouse Cove, where cane fields were also planted. Coincidentally a plantation called "Cane Field," near Sugarhouse Cove, probably got its name, not from sugar, but rather from its early owner, William Kane (Cain).
Fleming Sugar Mill (at Hibernia)
Long Branch area
There may have been a sugar mill in the Long Branch (Penney Farms) area around 1880. Darling Prescott (a small child) died in a sugar mill accident and was buried in the Long Branch Cemetery. (John Wilson Prescott family history)
McIntosh Sugar Works (now Orange Park area)
See also the Burlington Sawmill
Apparently steam powered (Parade of Memories, pg 35)
Map CCA101585 at the Archives also shows sugar works on the Kingsley plantation.