I saw in the newspaper last week a picture of a local sugar cane farmer seated in the air-conditioned cab of his tractor.  The caption read something like SUGAR CANE PLANTING TIME.  How things have changed!  
I got the lady in the office at Steen's Syrup Mill to send me a copy of their  little book THE STORY OF STEEN'S SYRUP, so I could check out the history of the cultivation of sugar cane in Vermilion Parish. I started reading, and found that sugar cane belongs to the grass family, and its cultivation began in India, 'way before the time of Christ.  It has, over the centuries, spread all around the world.  The first cane planted in Louisiana probably came from Santo Domingo and most of the large sugar plantations in the state were located around New Orleans.  One thing that remains the same is this:  sugar cane takes more than a year to mature, so next year's crop has to be planted before this year's crop is harvested.  Only farmers with a lot of land can grow sugar cane.    

In the early days in Vermilion Parish, sugar cane was planted by hand. Cane stalks cut from the almost mature crop were laid end on end in the open row and covered by hand with a hoe.  Each joint sprouted several new canes and this was the crop harvested the following year. The mature cane was harvested by cutting it with hand-held cane knives and it was loaded into mule-drawn wagons and hauled to the sugar mill.  Some of farmers kept a little of the crop to make syrup. They extracted the cane juice from the cane by feeding the stalks into a grinder powered by a mule harnessed to a long pole.  The mule walked round and round to "grind" the cane, and the juice went into a large tub or barrel and was later cooked on an open wood fire until it thickened to the syrup stage.  We still call the sugar cane harvest season the "grinding season."

I remember during the Depression Years, farmers paid my father for services rendered by bringing him milled rice, meat from a boucherie, sweet potatoes harvested from their fields, and sometimes a gallon of their homemade cane syrup.  Just fifty years ago, you could go to one of several farms and buy a gallon of their homemade syrup for just a dollar.

There was a small sugar mill located a few miles from Abbeville at Rose Hill, where my father worked when he was a young man, but I do not know of any sugar mill still in operation in Vermilion Parish at this time.  Farmers now haul their cane (in large usually diesel-powered) trucks to the sugar mill in New Iberia or Patoutville or to Steen's Syrup Mill in Abbeville.

C. S. Steen Syrup Mill was founded by Mr. C. S. Steen, Sr. in 1912, and soon other farmers began to haul their cane to him to be processed.  They hauled their finished syrup home in barrels or tin cans.  So successful was this enterprise that the mill had to be expanded every year.  The present plant was erected in 1930 on four acres of land located in the heart of Abbeville, on the shady banks of Bayou Vermilion.  

During the growing season, when the mill is not grinding, plant maintenance, building work and the loading and shipping of syrup is handled by about 30 employees, but when "grinding season" arrives, about 140 more men and women are employed.  (My husband and my father both worked full-time for Steen's, and I and some of my daughters, as well as other family members have worked there during the grinding season.)  Syrup-making season usually extends from mid-October to Christmas Day.  The fragrance of the cooking syrup hanging in the air always made me want to bake a big pan of biscuits or make a double batch of homemade bread.  

Many times, at my husband's request, I cooked Christmas dinner for the men on his crew who had to work on the holiday.  Many times, I went to work with a basket of homemade bread for everyone on my shift to snack on.  (I worked the swing shift, skimming the big pans of boiling syrup.)

This family business was passed down to family members and is now operating under the guidance of Albert "Ugly" Steen and his mother Miz Lillian.  Abbeville is proud that their city has one of the world's largest industries of its type.  

22 August 2001

Copyright © 2001 Aline T. Meaux, Abbeville, LA

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