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The Low-Down on LEGO TerraX and the Sugar Mill Mitigation

Updated: Apr 16

Please excuse my sugar-crazed friend. I’ll take it from here KB…

HELLO XPLORERS! Sophie here, did you miss us? We sure missed you! We are getting back into Dig Deeper by going back to our childhood roots — and by that we mean SUGAR and LEGOS! If you’ve been keeping up on our socials (which you really should, by the way — we’re on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn!), you may already know that we are referring to the sugar mill mitigation being excavated in Louisiana by our very own TerraX LEGO team! 

You’ve already been introduced to some of them, including Senior Archaeologist Paul, Crew Chief Kevin, and Expert Historian Brendan! Well, for today we pulled the very knowledgeable historian, LEGO Brendan Cooper, aside to get the low down on the current real life sugar mill project and also to help us understand a little more about what sugar and the sugar industry are all about! (It’s going to be totally awesome!) 

So, LEGO into it!  (So very punny Sophie…)

How Louisiana Got So Sweet

First off, Did you know that sugar was one of the biggest imports in the nineteenth century? (Remember — that’s the 1800s. Centuries are weird.) Most of it arrived in Brooklyn, New York where the Sugar Trust was a monopoly and the largest manufacturing industry in New York  for the entire 1800s . The sugar market and the process of sugar refining were also highly prevalent in (Can you guess?) Louisiana! You might say Louisiana is the sweetest state in the south! (Wink!)

No wonder their beignets are so good!

That’s right, almost the entire southern half of the state was owned and operated by sugar planters  by the 1830s and 1840s, and the Mississippi  River was lined with sugar plantations into the 1900s

Hold on.

Yes KB? 

I think we are getting ahead of ourselves. I don’t even know how you make sugar, let alone the political history of it! 

You're absolutely right, KB! 

Like… does the sugar just magically appear from the sky? Is it plucked from a tree and brought to the table? How the heck do they make this nectar from the gods?!

Alright, I hear you! Brendan, from one neighbor to another neighbor who happens to have a background in sugar mill research (literally) and a PhD dissertation on the sugar industry of the time… could we borrow your refined knowledge on sugar? (Okay I get it, refined like the sugar mills do.)

Let’s get into the nitty gritty of a sugar mill!

How Does a Sugar Mill Work?

“Well first off,” says Brendan, “sugarcane was processed very differently back then versus today.” Today, (actually starting around the turn of the  twentieth century — about the 1890s to the 1910s) a central factory model is used for almost every plantation, where growers ship their crop to a nearby plant for processing (before, sugar cane was processed where it was grown) (Check out the 11 sugar mills still running in Louisiana today on the American Sugarcane League website.) 

However, for our LEGO team, we are looking at much older sugar mills from the 1830s and 1840s. “The crop was typically cut in late October or early November and had to be processed very quickly,” Brendan tells us. Every plantation had its own mill so that the sugar could be boiled quickly once it was harvested. Turns out, that kind of quick processing is actually super necessary! “Sugar rots just that fast,” Brendan clarifies for us.

“The sugarcane is transported to the sugar mill for processing.” 

“Grinders then crush and extract the maximum juice from the plant.” 

“Workers then boil that juice in a series of kettles where chemicals are put into the mix to separate the sugar from other impurities, and still the juice would boil… for a long time, at different temperatures, for different lengths of time,”until…the concoction finally arrives at the perfect level of sweetness! 

“That’s right; however,” Brendan continues, “the goal is to produce ‘raw sugar,' which is cooked but is NOT necessarily table ready. Most of this raw sugar was  then moved to refiners and THEN made table ready.

To be eaten by the spoonful!?

That’s right KB, No judgment here, Xplorers.

Wow, sounds like a lengthy and delicate process for such a hot commodity! “Exactly,” Brendan adds, “which is what made it such a highly competitive industry and led to an increase in foreign competition as well.” 

A Little Friendly Competition

Louisiana was not the only one sweetening their state in the sugarmill industry. In the 1840s and 1850s, there was plenty of “friendly” competition across the world! The tension between the domestic and foreign sugar refining industries was actually “a really important dynamic at play,” a giddy Brendan tells us. 

Okay Brendan, other than the obvious — that sugar makes everything from candy, to coffee, to bread addictively delicious! (I've got a sudden craving for some sugar babies right now…) — why was the sugar industry so important? 

“Well, to put things into perspective,” Brendan explains, “for the whole nineteenth century, sugar was the single most important form of revenue for the United States government.” And this was all due to a large tax put on all sugar imports! #moneymoneymoney In addition, (not to sound like a modern day finance bro) a lot of capital and investments in sugar were handled through banks, which is just to say that the U.S. was highly dependent on the sugar industry itself! (Are you still with us?) We basically put all we had into the production of sugar, and the state of Louisiana was at the heart of it in that early part of the century. 

Suffice to say, the industry provided great wealth and prosperity to its many plantation and mill owners in Louisiana; however, “it also had distinct contradictions,” Brendan chimes in. In Louisiana, for seemingly obvious reasons, it was also a huge liability! From yearly flooding to fires, “the business was a precarious one,” says Brendan. But that’s not all! On top of all the environmental contradictions, in order to keep the industry competitive and profits abound the industry ran almost entirely on enslaved labor. Sugarcane labor, particularly in Louisiana, was known to be very HARD work! (What with combatting both a quick turnaround and a less-than-friendly environment). It required highly skilled labor and was very physically demanding and dangerous. “It is another interesting contradiction,” says Brendan. Especially when we remember that, “capitalization of the industry was generally very high, while its profits fluctuated fairly regularly.” 


Yes KB? 

So sugar was clearly a highly important aspect of Louisiana, the U.S., and the rest of the world, but how does it all relate to a historian's job on a Louisiana LEGO mitigation of a sugar mill? 

Well, let us let LEGO Brendan explain… 

The Present Day Past: Sugar Mills and TerraX 

“The goal,” Brendan tells us, (given the evidence of the time when our sugar mill was operating — roughly 1860s), “is to give as full a picture of the industry in the region as possible (starting from the 1840s).” 

Oh, okay! So what you’re saying is, as a historian, you have to DIG DEEPER (wink wink) into the past to understand the present mitigation at hand. 

Exactly! “And after we establish this fuller picture, then we can develop sharper questions (as sharp as a LEGO piece under a foot) that will contribute to a fuller and deeper understanding of the industry in this time period, which can lead to potential discoveries of new findings of the remaining time period!” 

What about the current Louisiana project? What kind of understanding have you come to at the 1860s sugar mill in Louisiana? 

“Our team is finding artifacts from the 1860s up to the 1940s,” says Brendan, “and we are still piecing together what it all means; however, this project is a little different from my previous mitigations and studies.” (And it’s not just because it's made up of colorful little plastic bricks with little 2-inch minifigure team members!) 

“It is different because in previous mitigations (like at Fort Butler or St. Amelia) we had more to do with certain themes and were contained within a larger area,” — meaning — “it was easier to find historical information.” For example, there are a lot more historical records of events of the Civil War than of some random sugar mill out in the middle of rural Louisiana. “With an absence of family records for this particular mill, things [have become] more difficult.” Brendan explains that “historians focus their work on what archives are available,” and “without any archival information directly linked to this particular property, the job gets a little tricky.” 

Not all hope is lost, though! Thus far, our little LEGO team has found evidence of multiple occupations that are guaranteed to help trace regional developments, technology changes as well as the labor force, political context, and impacts to industry! 

One bit of evidence that Brendan says stuck in his mind is “the possibility that there might be some connection between the Austrian Consul and sugar production in the area after the Civil War.” (This is where our previous research of foreign and local rivalries comes into play! — Look at us being little historians!) What makes this potential link between European tech firms and Louisiana sugar mills particularly interesting is that it is a connection that Brendan tells us has never been made before! You see, at the same time Americans were mastering the process and sale of sugarcane, European countries and companies, which produced sugar from beets, were state-subsidized and using that money to push forward technological advancements! European inventors and innovators in the industry then sold their technology to people in Cuba and the U.S., industrializing their sugar industries. However, we’ve never made a direct link from all that industry and invention sharing to one of our sites. “It is both daunting and exciting at the same time!” Brendan concludes. 

And so, the investigation and mitigation continues! At this point, Brendan hasn’t found any family histories or diaries from this specific plantation, and so the pressure is passed on to the TerraX LEGO archaeologists, who are “building context (out of LEGOS of course!) and drawing connections to the artifacts” found on site. #diggingdeeper

LEGO, ya’ll! (I’m really not sure that joke works, Sophie). Nevertheless, it’s truly fascinating to be able to pull back the curtain and see what happens behind the scenes with a historian. (We think you should start a sugar podcast, Brendan — that would be sweet!) Your work as a historian shows us how important it is to gather all the information you can in order to get a fuller understanding of a place before defining it in history — you never know what connections could be made! So thanks so much to Brendan for giving us a brief insight on what it's like as a historian in su… su… su… sugartown! We are equally excited to see what findings come up in the near future!

Don’t worry your little minifigure heads, Xplorers, we will keep you updated on all our findings in coming blogs. In the meantime, keep up with our little LEGO crew on our socials on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Until next time! 

— Your sweet-as-candy, Xplorers, Soph and KB!


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