History of the Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins
Florida’s Nature Coast is rich with history, from the earliest known aboriginal inhabitants who settled near our rivers and springs 14,000 years ago, to the colonization by the Spanish in the 16th century, to the Civil War and beyond into the 20th and 21st centuries.
Like the histories of all places conquered and settled by humans, the history of the Nature Coast is replete with industry and innovation, toil and perseverance, loss and suffering, and no small amount of blood.
Throughout Hernando and Citrus Counties many links to this history remain and one such gateway to the past are the ruins of the Yulee Sugar Mill in Homosassa.
David Levy Yulee built the Sugar Mill
As interesting as the ruins themselves is the story of the man who built the sugar mill, David Levy Yulee. Born David Levy in 1810 on what is now the island of St. Thomas in what was then the Danish West Indies, Levy immigrated to Florida with his parents when he was eleven years old.
Levy’s father, Moroccan born Moses Elias Levy, had made a fortune in lumber in the Caribbean and wanted to build a Jewish eutopia in Florida. The elder Levy purchased 60,000 acres of land west of St. Augustine and moved his family to Florida in 1821.
David Levy was sent to preparatory school and college in Virginia, returning to Florida as a young adult to study law. He was admitted to the bar in 1832. While David’s father was an abolitionist, the younger Levy soon established himself as a pro-slavery man and politician.
David Levy becomes David Levy Yulee
He was elected in 1836 to the Territorial Legislature, then in 1841 was elected a delegate from the Florida Territory to the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 1845 Florida was admitted to the Union as a state. The next year, Levy convinced the state legislature to do two things: Elect him as the state’s first senator, and enact a law forever changing his name from David Levy to David Levy Yulee.
David Levy Yulee had political ambitions, and, in 1846 Florida, one could not be perceived as a Jewish abolitionist and hold public office. This name change effectively distanced Yulee from his abolitionist father and his Jewish heritage. He married the daughter of a former Kentucky Governor and together they raised their children in the Christian faith.
Yulee had irons in a good many fires during the years leading up to the Civil War, including the development of a railroad connecting Fernandina on the east coast of Florida to Cedar Key on the west coast.
David Yulee develops Homosassa
In 1851, he purchased 5,000 acres of wetland just south of the Homosassa River, drained the swamp, built his sugar mill, planted sugar cane, and began a successful sugar operation. He owned over a thousand slaves who labored on the plantation and in the mill which he oversaw from his home on Tiger Tail Island, just west of the ruins of his sugar mill.
Sugar crystals and molasses produced at the mill were loaded onto barges on the canal next to the ruins, floated up to the Homosassa River where they were loaded onto ships which then sailed up the coast to Cedar Key. At Cedar Key, the sugar and molasses were transported by rail all over the United States, earning Yulee a fortune.
In the years and months leading up to the secession of the southern states and subsequent Civil War, Yulee publicly discouraged Florida’s secession, but quietly he and the junior senator from Florida ordered an audit from the War Department inventorying all munitions and supplies held in Florida forts.
Yulee Sugar Mill supplies Sugar to the Confederate Army
In 1860, knowing that war was coming, Yulee wrote to a friend in Florida “the immediately important thing to be done is the occupation of the forts and arsenals in Florida.”
It seems clear that Yulee’s financial interests depended upon the labor of his 1000 slaves and welcomed the war when it came. Yulee’s sugar mill supplied the Confederate Army with sugar and molasses, and in 1864 Union troops burnt his home and the plantation to the ground. All that remains of his enormous operation are the ruins standing today.
Yulee’s legacy in Florida history is mixed. Following the Civil War, he served time in prison for treason for his role in helping Jefferson Davis escape. He was ruined financially by the war and ultimately died penniless in New York City in 1886.
David Levy Yulee contributed to Florida’s early Economic Development
Though tarnished by the stain of slavery, Yulee was responsible for much of Florida’s early economic development. The town of Yulee, Florida and Levy County are named for him.
What was once 5,000 acres of sugar cane is now a combination of oak hammocks, scrub palmetto, restaurants, and houses. A modern, two lane highway cuts directly in front of the ruin of the smokestack.
Some of the older oak trees arch over the highway where the Florida State Park Service has cleared a small parking lot for visitors to the ruins. The park service has created a self-guided signage tour through the ruins so visitors can visualize the sugar mill of the past and the various stages of production that took place here 175 years ago.
Visiting the Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins today
What remains of the sugar mill today are the giant iron rollers that the raw cut sugar cane was fed through to extract the liquids and the enormous gears that turned the rollers. Those gears were turned by a jackshaft attached to the piston of a steam engine.
The jackshaft and piston are gone, but the steam engine remains, along with the locomotive size boiler. The extracted juices from the raw sugar cane were heated to boiling in stages in a system of copper vats of varying distances from the heat of the furnace. The foundations of the vats have survived but the copper vats themselves have long since been scavenged for scrap metal.
Several subsurface structures remain through which waste liquids were collected. The cane syrup would be allowed to cool in barrels until crystallized, then loaded onto barges and shipped to the river located only a few hundred yards to the northwest of the mill.
Imagine the Times and People of this Place
It is 65 degrees and sunny here at the sugar mill ruins on this November day. The weather is as perfect as any could be here in the Nature Coast.
It is difficult to imagine the conditions endured by Yulee’s slaves on this plantation and in the sugar mill 175 years ago. By this time of year, any sugar cane growing in this area would have been harvested and processed.
Imagine what it would be like to work those cane fields in the sweltering Florida summer heat and humidity.
Even more deplorable would have been the conditions within the mill itself. The ruins are open to the air, but the sugar mill of 175 years ago was enclosed. The heat within its walls must have been oppressive.
Sweltering Heat was part of the Job
The poor ventilation from the furnace and the boiling hot syrups from the sugar cane presented a constant danger for the slaves that worked in the mill. It is said that many slaves lost limbs while feeding the raw cane into the heavy iron rollers and suffered terrible burns. Indeed, one of the signs on the self-guiding tour pictures slaves moving the boiling hot syrup from one stage to the next as a baby crawls across the floor.
It is difficult to visit the site of the ruins without thinking about the lives of the slaves who labored there. History must be viewed not only in its beauty and glory but also in its brutality.
Homosassa’s Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins provide a wonderful local opportunity to consider the whole picture, blemishes and all.