A look at the antebellum history and architecture of the little-known sugar industry of East Florida.
From the late eighteenth century to early 1836, the heart of the Florida sugar industry was concentrated in East Florida, between the St. Johns River and the Atlantic Ocean. Producing the sweetest sugar, molasses, and rum, at least 22 sugar plantations dotted the coastline by the 1830s. This industry brought prosperity to the region—employing farm hands, slaves, architects, stone masons, riverboats and their crews, shop keepers, and merchant traders. But by January 1836, Native American attacks of the Second Seminole War, intending to rid the Florida frontier of settlers, devastated the whole sugar industry.
Although sugar works again sprang up in other Florida regions just prior to the Civil War, the competition from Louisiana and the Caribbean blocked a resurgence of sugar production for the area. The sugar industry would never regain its importance in East Florida—only two of the original sugar works were ever rebuilt. Today, remains of this once thriving industry are visible in a few parks. Some are accessible but others lie hidden, slowly disintegrating and almost forgotten. Archaeological, historical, and architectural research in the last decade has returned these works to their once prominent place in Florida’s history, revealing the beauty, efficiency of design, as well as early industrial engineering. Equally important is what can be learned of the lives of those associated with the sugar works and the early plantation days along the East Florida frontier.