The sugar mills are one of the most intriguing mixes of nature and industry that I have encountered. When the mill starts up in the fall, it bombards the senses with the sounds of water, fire, steam, and the metallic percussion of machinery mixed with the fragrance of steam, oil, sugar and molasses. A friend, who as a child accompanied his father to the mill, described it as “being taken into hell.”
My photographs of Louisiana sugar mills began as part of the industrial Mississippi River landscape. Though already closed by 1983, the Billeaud Sugar Factory in Lafayette Parish had two gigantic steam engines. This type of engine, albeit smaller, one might see at the Smithsonian. Most of the mills had converted to steam turbines. However, I was told that the Caire and Graugnard mill in Edgard, Louisiana,
might still be operating a Corliss steam engine. It was true, and in 1991 I met Eric Roussel at Caire and Graugnard. I photographed at Caire and Graugnard for several years and those photographs are featured in this selection of images.
“. . . there are few things so vibrantly, chromatically green as a field of healthy sugar cane. Cane grows within the river’s margin of life, and the mechanical processing of this crop, and the principal conveyance that brought it to market (the riverboat) had an historical reliance on waterpower—in the form of steam. These steam powered mills, their tall stacks rising like spires of industrial cathedrals from the plate-flat countryside, seemed to order the landscape in as useful a way as naming towns and church parishes do.” —John H. Lawrence, Director of Museum Programs emeritus, The Historic New Orleans Collection