Sugar Plantation

Two articles by Jim Robison

Sweet truth about Osceola County's
history includes sugar

by Jim Robison

Copyright © 3 July 2005

Jim Robison has graciously given permission to post the following article which originally appeared in the Osceola section of the Orlando Sentinel (page K4) on 3 July 2005. The original publication may have additional/different photos accompanying this text.


Disston Sugar Mill in Operation
(Click on Image to Enlarge)
This image is from the
Florida Photographic Collection
of the State Archives of Florida

        Florida's Big Sugar, a catch-all term for the state's top sugar companies that take in $1 billion a year in profits, got its start -- and its rebirth -- in Osceola County.Rufus E. Rose didn't plant the first sugar cane in Florida, but he sure planted the seeds for others to find sweet profits in draining Florida's wet lowlands.

        In 1763, when Spain traded its claim to Florida to Britain in return for Cuba, the Crown persuaded rice, indigo and sugar cane growers to establish new plantations along the St. Johns River. Runaway slaves living among the Seminoles proved that sugar cane also could be raised in the interior wilds of Florida.

        In 1835, John Bunch's plantation at New Smyrna became the first seat of Mosquito County. John Joachim Bulow's sugar plantation -- some 7,600 acres -- made him one of the largest slaveholders in Mosquito County. In Hopes, Dreams & Promises, Michael G. Schene writes that the sugar cane kingdom of Mosquito County, which in the 1830s took in all of what today are Orange, Seminole, Volusia and Osceola counties and more, was built with slave labor and sugar profits.

        Starting in late December 1835, Seminoles destroyed most of the plantations between Mosquito and Matanzas inlets, and with them the early sugar industry.

        Sugar made its comeback after the Civil War when the state opened vast interior lands to drainage projects.

        That's when Louisiana riverboat captain Rufus E. Rose came to Florida. It was Rose who suggested the growing settlement on Lake Tohopekaliga should share the name of the river Hamilton Disston's dredges were widening and deepening.

        Rose was the land agent for Disston's grand deal with the state to drain much of the swamps around the former Allendale and dredge a river highway from Lake Toho to Fort Myers on the Gulf. Disston made the new Kissimmee City his headquarters for land sales and canal and drainage projects that opened steamboat commerce to the Gulf following the Kissimmee and Caloosahatchee rivers. Rose, trained as an engineer and chemist, laid out many of the first streets.

        As superintendent for shipbuilding and dredging crews, Rose worked out of the Okeechobee Land and Drainage Co.'s log store under twin oaks at Vernon Avenue and Hughes Street.

        Rose's election as Kissimmee's first mayor in early 1883 was tossed out, along with the first vote to incorporate, because some voters didn't live in the area that was to become a city. In a second election three months later, Tom Bass, another steamer captain, became mayor. However, in 1887, when the state carved Osceola County from portions of Orange and Brevard counties, Rose won election as the first chairman of the County Commission.


        That would be plenty for most men, but Rose decided to take on another enterprise.

        He bought 420 acres and built a home for his family on East Lake Tohopekaliga. Nearby, with Pennsylvanian Sam Lupfer Sr., he raised sugar cane and built a small open-kettle mill. Lupfer, superintendent of the sugar plantation, established a small private school at what today is Maryland Avenue at 10th Street. He named it the Sunnyside School. The plantation would become St. Cloud.

        Once the plantation turned its first small profit, Rose took on Disston as an equal partner. Disston, who always took a grand approach to his Florida investments, soon launched lofty expansion plans.

        Rose and Disston would end their partnership when Rose considered Disston's expansion too bold. Rose landed an appointment as the state's agricultural chemist, a post he kept until his death in 1931.

        His annual report for 1919 included his assessment of the St. Cloud plantation's successes and failures. St. Cloud historian Robert A. Fisk recently found a copy of that report published in the July 14, 1920, issue of the St. Cloud Tribune, the newspaper owned by the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of Union veterans of the Civil War and veterans of the Spanish-American War who founded St. Cloud on the abandoned sugar plantation as a retirement community.

        Rose wrote that the plantation was a "phenomenal success, both agriculturally and financially" for several years after 1884-85 when vast saw grass marshlands with cypress, bay, gum and willow swamps were drained and canals dug. The territory, he writes, was "identical in every respect, chemically and physically, to the Everglades." Rose witnessed the lakes drop 8 feet when canals opened into the Kissimmee River.

St. Cloud Canal running
through the Disston Sugar Plantation

(Click on Image to Enlarge)
This image is from the
Florida Photographic Collection
of the State Archives of Florida

        Ditch draining for the plantation's sugar cane fields began in 1886. That spring, 20 acres were planted with cane. Another 75 acres of rice and 50 acres of corn were planted then. When all the fields were productive, cane fields were increased to 90 acres. By 1887, Rose had sold Disston a half interest in the plantation. They were equal partners in the plantation's corporation with no stock or bond offers to anyone else.

        Disston's investment provided for the sugar factory on the east bank of the St. Cloud Canal and expansion of the cane fields to 1,800 acres, using seed cane from the original fields. The plantation gained a national reputation for growing sugar cane on reclaimed swampland. The soil left after the swamp draining was rich enough to grow sugar cane taller than men.

        "None but first-class sugar was made" at the mill with yields "superior to any American record up to that time," Rose wrote. Sugar was sold at 3.25 to 3.75 cents per pound and never reached 4 cents. Still, the plantation was making a profit.


        In the 1890s, Congress paid sugar producers in Florida a bounty of 2 cents a pound for their crop in an effort to slow sugar imports. Disston snapped up the opportunity, lining up investors to expand sugar mill and plantation operations to include a second sugar refinery on Lake Okeechobee to process cane from a total of 20,000 acres.

        The congressional bounty, Rose wrote, encouraged more sugar production and too much speculation. "Millions of dollars were invested in Louisiana cane sugar and Western beet sugar production," he wrote. Rose concluded that "extravagance" in Louisiana and the Western states spread to St. Cloud. The St. Cloud plantation became the Florida Sugar Manufacturing Co., which spent $1 million on factories and land holdings that reached 36,000 acres.

        The St. Cloud mill, built at a cost of $350,000, could produce 200 tons of sugar per day if it ran around the clock. Processed cane was hauled in barrels by the Sugar Belt Railroad to Kissimmee's steamboat wharfs and railroad depot. The company issued tokens that workers spent at the company commissary (now a private home) on the canal.

        Rose, fearing Disston was pushing too hard, decided to sell his shares to Disston. Without Rose as a partner, Disston employed managers who didn't understand farming, drainage or irrigation. Their efforts flooded and destroyed some of the most productive fields. The canals, which had allowed transportation of milling machinery, some weighing more than five tons, became clogged with weeds and sand bars. Silting destroyed more fields.

        Rose adds that similar missteps by other inexperienced sugar managers brought the same crop failures in Louisiana and out West. Even when sugar was bringing up to 7 cents a pound, plus the bounty, the managers still lost money.

        "The failure at St. Cloud was not caused by climate, soil, or the quality of cane, as no richer cane, nor larger tonnage is made in Cuba than was made at St. Cloud and South Port [also in Osceola County] on reclaimed muck land, and is still being made on the same and similar lands in the same locality," he wrote.

        St. Cloud's plantation failed because Disston and his managers were chasing profits without learning how to be good farmers or conservative businessmen, Rose concluded.

        As Rose had feared, Disston's sugar production never reached the potential he envisioned. Cane bores damaged his crop, and his other Florida ventures often took more and more of his time.

        The sugar factory in 1892 produced more than 1 million pounds of sugar from about 1,000 acres. But the end was near. The sliding national economy after the Panic of 1893, caused by unsound bank debt and speculation that resulted in a stock market crash, came at a time of over-development and land speculation in Florida. Dark days lay ahead for those who had invested too much in Florida agriculture and real estate. Congress canceled the sugar bounty. Henry Plant's railroad empire swallowed up the Sugar Belt Railroad.

        Just when Disston was nearing the end of his drainage contract with the state and at a time when he had borrowed about all he could by bankrolling his vast land holdings, the nation sank under its worst depression to date. Disston's dream of sweet success had turned sour. Ruined, he committed suicide on April 30, 1896.

        Machinery at Disston's sugar and rice plantations rusted once his holdings came under the control of his Philadelphia brothers, who did not share his enthusiasm for Florida. The machinery of the dismantled Disston sugar mill was shipped off the Mexico. Only its brick ruins remain.


Sweet promises lure speculators
to massive sugar projects

by Jim Robison

Copyright © 10 July 2005

Jim Robison has graciously given permission to post the following article which originally appeared in the Osceola section of the Orlando Sentinel (page K4) on 10 July 2005. The original publication may have additional/different photos accompanying this text.

        Mining silver and copper in the wilderness of Russia made E. Nelson Fell a wealthy man, taking some of the pain out of the money the founder of Narcoossee lost in Florida.

        Fell was 52 when he returned to the United States in 1909 with plans to retire to a Virginia estate. His future son-in-law, P.A. Vans Agnew, was reopening his law office in Kissimmee after his profitable mining negotiations in Siberia.Vans Agnew hoped to persuade Fell, who had lost his Florida investments of the late 1800s when world politics and Florida's sometimes contrary climate combined to doom the British colony at Narcoossee, to put off retiring to Virginia and return to Florida. Florida, again on top of one of its boom-to-bust-to-boom cycles, was still pretty much a frontier with plenty of opportunities, and state leaders were eager to drain the Everglades for farms and towns.

        Fell agreed, once he had trusted reports from a long-time friend, Kissimmee riverboat captain Rufus E. Rose, who had been one of Hamilton Disston's agents from the swamp-draining years of the 1880s. In 1887, Rose, who had come from Louisiana with training as a chemist and engineer, had become chairman of the first Osceola County Commission. A few years later, Fell also was to be on the County Commission.

        Rose had started the sugar-cane plantation at St .Cloud on East Lake Tohopekaliga, enabled it to make profits that attracted the envy of cane planters in Louisiana and sugar beet growers out West and bailed out when his partner, Disston, wanted to expand too fast. Disston's cane-field expansion from little more than 1,000 acres of cane fields to more than 36,000 acres -- looked far too extravagant for Rose's conservative business and agricultural tastes.

        Disston spent himself into bankruptcy and then committed suicide after Rose sold off his shares of the St. Cloud sugar plantation.

        Still, Rose always stood by his expert opinion that the St. Cloud plantation would have succeeded -- even after Congress withdrew the 2-cents-a-pound bounty for U.S.-grown sugar -- if only Disston had hired the right people or cooled off his speculative land buying.

        Nelson Fell, who had been trained in Germany as an engineer and later worked for his British family-owned mining investments worldwide, had supervised the dredging to drain 2,500 acres for farmland around Narcoossee. When the English colony foundered, Fell left Florida to run family mines in Russia.

        Rose, after his split with Disston and the failure of the St. Cloud sugar cane plantation, took a post as the state's agricultural chemist.

        Rose focused on profits that could be made from selling land after massive drainage of the upper St. Johns River region. Rose convinced Fell that he could avoid the failures of St. Cloud and Narcoossee if he bought land on the edge of the Everglades. After all, the rich muckland around Narcoossee, St. Cloud and west to the Kissimmee River valley was no different than what could be made by draining off the Everglades, perhaps better.

Dredges working on Fellsmere Farms Canal
(Click on Image to Enlarge)
This image is from the
Florida Photographic Collection
of the State Archives of Florida

        Fell selected acreage that had been part of a failed 1895 plan to drain land west of Sebastian and build a railroad to Kissimmee. Fellsmere Farms Co., which would create the town of Fellsmere, planned to drain the land by digging canals to the Sebastian River. But, just as fate had doomed Fell's paradise dreams in Narcoossee, forces combined to bring down Fellsmere, too. It began with land-fraud scandals, a congressional investigation of South Florida's swampland scams and the government's involvement in questionable drainage projects. Flooding also threatened the region. Fellsmere's investors got nervous, and money began drying up.

        Still, Rose never gave up his support that money could be made growing sugar cane at Fellsmere.

        Gordon Patterson, a humanities professor at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, writes in a spring 1997 article for The Florida Historical Quarterly headlined, "Raising Cane and Refining Sugar: Florida Crystals and the Fame of Fellsmere," that Fellsmere would become the center of Florida's revived sugar industry.

        Patterson quotes from a January 1913 issue of the Fort Pierce News-Tribune in which Rose advocated for commercial sugar production in Indian River County. Patterson adds, "A year later the newspaper argued that sugar production would `become a staple' for the region's farmers."

        Fell, still trying to save his Florida investments, plunged into trying to make Rose's ideas work.

        Fellsmere Farms planted sugar cane and an Illinois farmer opened a syrup mill at nearby Broadmoor. By 1918, Frank Heiser and a few other Fellsmere farmers formed a sugar cane producers association.

Fellsmere Sugar Mill
(Click on Image to Enlarge)
This image is from the
Florida Photographic Collection
of the State Archives of Florida

        In 1919, the same year Rose's annual agricultural report to the state outlined why Disston's sugar cane speculation had doomed the St. Cloud plantation, Heiser attended a state meeting of county agents in Gainesville to announce that Fellsmere Farms had adopted Rose's drainage and sugar cane methods that had "resulted in a very satisfactory yield of sugar cane."

        Fell never was able to complete enough of his drainage projects to keep his company afloat. He lost everything he had invested and retired to his Virginia estate. Heiser, however, formed his own series of corporations to carry on sugar-cane production.

        Patterson writes, "The story of Frank Heiser's efforts to establish commercial sugar cane production in Fellsmere during the 1930s reveals much about the character of Florida's agriculture and rural life in the midst of the Great Depression. Heiser overcame hurricanes, unseasonable freezes, reluctant investors, and the federal government to establish the Fellsmere Sugar Company."

        Patterson notes, "Fellsmere Sugar Company saved Fellsmere from economic ruin." As demand for sugar grew, one resident remembered, "Fellsmere seemed, once more, on the upswing. The Fellsmere Inn was a hustling, bustling place."

        Unemployment was staggering the rest of the nation, so those in Fellsmere were happy with any kind of jobs.

        "Concern grew that the community would be inundated with hordes of jobless men seeking work," Patterson writes. "Signs were put up on the roads leading into Fellsmere warning that the mill was not hiring outsiders."

        As the Great Depression sank deeper, the number of jobs at the mill fell off and the hourly rate for those with jobs plunged.

        President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration and Congress then launched efforts to restrict sugar production and limit sales by setting state-by-state farm quotas. Fellsmere and other Florida cane growers couldn't expand.

        Fellsmere growers endured a hurricane in 1933 and a record freeze in 1934.

        "Heiser proposed a bold plan: Construct a sugar refinery in Fellsmere that would manufacture granulated sugar from the raw product," Patterson writes. "His investors thought he was mad."

        With his own money at stake, that of three New York investors and a federal loan, Heiser's Fellsmere Sugar Company became the Fellsmere Sugar Producers Association.

        "Construction on the refinery began in September 1935. One hundred men were put on the project," Patterson writes. "Once completed, the sugar `factory' would be capable of producing `approximately 100 tons of standard granulated sugar per 24 hours.' The sugar was to be packaged in five-, ten-, twenty-five and one-hundred-pound bags under the trademark `Florida Crystals.' "

        Florida, however, has never been easy on entrepreneurs.

        Sacks of "Florida Crystals" soon found their way to food stores "up and down the eastern seaboard," Patterson writes.

        But, in time, Florida's freeze-to-heat-wave climate, federal restrictions and a glut of sugar on the world market, followed by World War II, combined to force Heiser to sell his company to Puerto Rican sugar producers in 1943. Heiser moved to Jacksonville, where he died in 1961.

        Fellsmere remained a sugar town into the 1960s, when the sugar fields, after a series of new owners, became citrus groves and sugar cane moved deeper into the Everglades.

        The "Florida Crystals" brand remains a staple of the state's agricultural economy.

Copyright  2005: Jim Robison
Donated to the Genealogy Club of Osceola County for posting on their website