The woods just north of Blue Hole Spring at Florida Caverns State Park hide the ruins of what is likely the oldest masonry structure in Jackson County, Florida.
The Robinson Sugar Mill dates from the earliest days of American settlement in the county, a time when sugar was a major industry and Jackson County’s major east-west road still crossed the Natural Bridge of the Chipola River.
The sugar mill is often confused with a second mill in the park – Carter’s Mill – which was a grist and saw mill. Carter’s Mill, however, stood downstream from the Blue Hole. The Robinson Sugar Mill was north of Blue Hole on a stream that flows from nearby Sugar Mill Spring.
The mill was built by Judge Jacob Robinson, who arrived in the Chipola River country with his two brothers – William and Isaac Robinson – prior to the establishment of Jackson County in 1822. The three established themselves along the route of the original Old Spanish Trail, a narrow pathway that should not be confused with today’s road of the same name.
Judge Robinson was the youngest of the three brothers, all of whom were important agricultural, business and political leaders at the time of Jackson County’s founding. He was the county’s first presiding judge, served on the first building committee of the First Baptist Church of Marianna and was one of the trustees of the Marianna Academy. His primary income, however, was agriculture and he was a strong promoter of early Jackson County’s sugar cane industry.
The judge claimed lands around the Natural Bridge of the Chipola and built his mill on Sugar Mill Run prior to 1825. Pole boats and barges could operate along Baker Mill Creek and the Chipola River north of the Natural Bridge, bringing their cargoes to the unique landmark where it was unloaded and portaged over the 1/4 mile long geological feature. Cotton, lumber, rice and hogsheads of sugar were then loaded aboard keelboats, barges and flatboats for the downriver run to Apalachicola Bay.
Robinson’s construction of the sugar mill opened the door for the profitable cultivation of the “rich cane lands of the Chipola” and its tributary streams. Early historian John Lee Williams wrote in the Pensacola Gazette in 1825 that “the sugar cane, altho’ a late cultivation, bids to rival the crops on the river bottoms.” There were hopes among early developers that Florida would rival Cuba in the production of sugar and sugar mill ruins from the era can be found at several locations around the state.
The best known of these complexes are probably the ones that can be seen today at the Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins Historic State Park near Homosassa and the Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park in Flagler Beach. The mill at Florida Caverns State Park, however, is older than either of those complexes. The Yulee operation, owned by U.S. Senator David Levy Yulee, was built in 1851. The Bulow Plantation mill was completed in 1831. In addition, Judge Robinson’s Sugar Mill used an older process than the steam-powered Yulee and Bulow mills.
Instead of steam, Robinson powered his mill with water. His African-American slaves dammed Sugar Mill Creek just down from its head spring to form a small mill pond. Water flowed from the pond through a sluice that increased its pressure enough to turn a waterwheel. The water was then returned to the natural bed of the creek so he could continue its course through a series of sinks and rises to the Chipola River. The spring kept the pond full at all times and there was never a shortage of water to power the mill.
The power produced by waterwheel turned a massive set of iron rollers that were part of a machine called a cane press. Slaves fed stalks of sugar cane into the apparatus to press out the juice which then went into a series of heavy iron kettles for cooking. A similar process is still used in Jackson County each fall and winter when much smaller mills grind cane for making syrup. You can see a cane grinding underway on the first Saturday morning of each December at the popular Robert E. Long Syrup Day in Two Egg (see the video at the bottom of this page).
The cooking process for making sugar was complicated. The juice from the cane press poured into the first kettle or vat where the cooking process started. As it reached the proper consistency, ladles were used to transfer it into a second, hotter vat. From there it went into a third even hotter in a process that continued until it became cane syrup. The syrup was then ladled into a final vat called the batterie. This was the hottest kettle of all and the cooking process continued until the syrup became a thick liquid called “strike.” The strike was moved into a trough that fed it into cooling vats. As it cooled, the strike hardened into sugar.
Once the cooking process was complete, the sugar was packed into barrels called hogsheads. It was then ready for shipment to ports of call anywhere in the world.
Judge Robinson was one of several key early leaders who formed a corporation to cut a canal that would link the Chipola River to Bear Creek. This would allow cargoes from his and other plantations along the Chipola to be carried by water all the way to St. Andrew Bay where it could be loaded on ocean-going vessels. The canal would shorten the distance to port for Jackson County sugar, cotton, lumber and other products by eliminating the need for cargoes to be carried all the way down to Apalachicola.
The canal never happened but the development of Old St. Joseph, the lost city of the Gulf Coast, eventually did provide the county with a short-lived alternate port.
The labor of growing and harvesting cane and then pressing and cooking it into sugar was dangerous and hard. African-American slaves labored in the cane fields during the heat of summer and in the super-heated cooking house during the winter. When in operation, the mill ran night and day. Injury, sickness and death were common byproducts of the “Jamaica Train” – as the sugar business was known.
Pages of the Pensacola Gazette describe the arrival of hogsheads of high-quality sugar from Jackson County and carried glowing accounts of Florida’s suitability for the production of sugar. Ultimately, though, it came down to economics. Sea Island cotton proved more profitable and grew extremely well in the county. Planters could gain much higher profits by growing cotton. Slaves lived longer and more money could be made with less manpower per acre.
The sugar boom was over by the mid-1830s but some production continued in Jackson County for decades to come. It is not known how long that the Robinson Sugar Mill continued to operate, but hogsheads of sugar continued to be shipped down the Chipola River through at least the days of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842).
The ruins of the mill are overgrown today but the dam and base of the main structure or sugar house can still be seen. Perhaps someday it will become a focal point for an interpretive trail that will help visitors to Florida Caverns State Park learn more about the almost 200 year old complex.
Special thanks to Billy Bailey of Florida Caverns State Park for braving snakes and poison ivy with me to find the old sugar mill and many other historic sites at the park! Watch for my history of Florida Caverns coming later this year.
Please click here to learn more about Florida Caverns State Park.
To view Rachael Conrad’s great video essay on the Robert E. Long Cane Syrup Day, just click play:
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