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Explore Sugar Mill & Plantation Ruins

St. Croix 100 - #30 Sugar PlantationYou have probably seen dozens of historic sugar mills dotting the landscape of St. Croix. Many of these mills were constructed between 1750 and 1800 when, while under Danish rule, St. Croix was one of the richest sugar producing islands in all of the Caribbean. These picturesque mills and remaining sugar plantation ruins now serve as reminders of the heritage of the island when ‘sugar was king’ and St. Croix was known as ‘The Garden of the West Indies’, with more than 200 sugar plantations.

While most of the plantations have disintegrated, or been destroyed in hurricanes or the great Fire Burn of 1878, there are still some full and partial plantation ruins you can explore. If you would like to see the most well maintained sugar plantation on St. Croix, visit the Estate Whim Museum where the sugar mill, Great House, and other plantation buildings have been restored by the St. Croix Landmarks Society. If you are not familiar with the traditional Caribbean sugar plantation estates, a typical plantation consisted of numerous buildings which housed the residents and workers, and provided for the processing of the sugar cane.

The most easily recognizable building was the sugar mill that crushed the sugar cane, which could be animal driven or the more traditional windmill operated. A factory (or ‘boiling-house’) was the building where the sugar cane juice was reduced until crystallized. The cure house was the building where the sugar settled and the molasses separated out and dripped from the sugar crystals. A cooperage and/or blacksmith shop were necessary for producing barrels for transporting the sugar and sugar byproducts for export. The plantations also had stables for horses and mules, and sometimes additional high walled animal pens for other animals. There was an Overseer’s house where the plantation manager (or master’s boy) lived. There was generally a ‘Slave Village’ where a series of cabins were located for the slaves that worked the plantations. The Great House was the main building where the planter, or plantation owner, and his family resided. The cook house (or kitchen) was a separate building located slightly away from the other houses and buildings because of the heat generated during cooking, and the general fire hazard.

St. Croix History

The workings of the wind operated sugar mills themselves were relatively simple. Inside the stone and coral exterior was the machinery, including three upright iron-plated rollers. The middle roller was attached by a central wooden pole to the sails and axle mechanism at the top of the mill, and it turned the other two rollers using cogs. The almost constant Caribbean trade winds would blow the sails with enough force to turn the machinery inside while workers fed sugar cane stalks through the rollers. As the stalks were crushed, sugar cane juice was extracted and ran downhill in a sluice to the factory buildings where slave laborers used it to produce sugar, molasses, and rum for export. The dried out leftover cane stalks were then used as fuel for fires under the huge copper pots used to boil the cane juice, so nothing was wasted.

Today on St. Croix the sugar mills and plantation ruins are recognized for their haunting beauty. Much of the old machinery from the mills is gone, either sold off as scrap metal or dismantled and lying rusting in the surrounding underbrush. The wooden windmills that once stood on top of the sugar mills have long since been destroyed by weather and time. Although many of the 200 or so sugar mills originally built have tumbled into ruin, some of the mills have been cared for and even restored to their former grandeur. As you drive around the island you will find that some of these plantation ruins are found on private property, some have even been incorporated into island homes or other structures. For example, Feather Leaf Inn is built on the grounds of the old Butler Bay Estate, and you can wander through many of the ruins or even stay in the historic great house. Obviously, common courtesy dictates that an invitation is required for you to explore ruins found on private properties. The good news is that there are some sugar mill and plantation ruins located in places open to the public that are available for exploration.

You can see Rust Op Twist from North Shore Road. This beautiful sugar mill is up on a hill overlooking the North Shore coastline. However, Rust Op Twist is privately owned and visitors are not welcome at this time…so you’ll have to see this one from the road. If you head over to Estate Mount Washington you can enjoy exploring plantation ruins in the shade of huge trees on a serene working orchard in the West End’s rainforest environment. While this former sugar plantation estate is on private property, the owners are kind enough to allow the public to access to the plantation ruins. The ruins at Estate Mount Washington also allow you to walk into an animal operated sugar mill set into the ground instead of the more often seen windmill. This estate also offers the ruins of a dungeon, a small bell tower, a cistern, and remnants of equipment and copper pots scattered across the grounds.

Aerial view of Rust Op Twist

In addition to the Estate Whim Museum, the St. George Village Botanical Gardens and the Cruzan Rum Distillery are both open to the public for tours. The St. George Village Botanical Gardens are built around the ruins of Estate St. George, and you can take a self-guided tour. This peaceful space allows you to explore some of the island’s plantation ruins while also enjoying the beautiful flora and fauna of the botanical gardens. The Cruzan Rum Distillery is housed on Estate Diamond, and the plantation buildings have been incorporated into the distillery and its offices. The distillery offers tours which include some of the history of the Nelthropp family and Estate Diamond. Cruzan Rum also offers a fantastic cultural photo op of a sugar mill surrounded by the seven flags of the countries that have owned the island of St. Croix throughout its history.

These sugar mills and plantations pay homage to the heritage of the island, and have become a recognized symbol of St. Croix. As you explore these remnants of St. Croix’s past, please be careful and respect the history and culture of these sites. Many of the ruins are obviously crumbling, so please do not to stand on the walls or loose piles of the stone ruins. Also, please do not take pieces of the ruins, or leave any trash behind. These plantation ruins and sugar mills are some of St. Croix’s most historically revered areas, and we want to preserve them for the enjoyment of our residents, visitors, and for future generations. Don’t miss an opportunity to visit some of the plantation ruins and sugar mills, where you can truly touch and be touched by part of St. Croix’s history and culture.

– Jennie Ogden, Editor

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