The Science of Sugar: Audubon Park Sugar School and Experiment Station

Sugar and the scientific investigation of its cultivation and manufacture played a major part in the early development of LSU. The Audubon Sugar School and Experiment Station was one of the first American research facilities developed for the scientific investigation of an industry with its own school for training future engineers and leaders. Audubon Park Sugar Station influenced the rebuilding of Louisiana’s sugar industry of from the inside out, initiating LSU’s reputation as a leading research university dedicated to scientific advancement.

Audubon Park Sugar School and Experiment Station, New Orleans, 1906?-1917?]

Audubon Park Sugar School and Experiment Station, New Orleans, 1906?-1917?]

It’s hard to imagine a world without sugar. When refined sugarcane cultivation was first developed in India around 1000-500 B.C. the world soon wanted its share. Due to the scarcity of tropical environments needed for farming and the rigors of manufacturing a stable product of import, sugar was difficult and expensive to produce. At one time sugar was as precious as gold, a luxury available only to the privileged few. The history of sugar, its cultivation, and availability is indeed the history of the world. The evolution of its manufacture has influenced every facet of society on a global level concerning industry, politics, economics and basic human rights. Its manufacture and appropriation has built and destroyed empires, incited wars, and enslaved millions over a 500 year stretch.

Sugar has played a central role in American and Louisiana history in particular. American colonists protested the Sugar Act of 1764 to rally against taxation by the British without representation. Napoleon’s purchase and subsequent sale of the Louisiana territory was greatly influenced by France’s stake in the sugar industry.

Sugarcane cultivation began in Louisiana in the 1730s-40s. The subtropical climate and proximity to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean Islands made Louisiana an ideal location. Successes in sugar manufacture were limited and unprofitable until 1795 when Étienne de Boré developed a viable process for manufacturing sugar granules that revolutionized the industry. Technological innovations ignited a boom in sugar business that markedly increased after Louisiana became a part of the United States in 1803. The introduction of steam power to the industry in 1822, combined with its growing economic success, helped place sugar as the top cash crop of Louisiana in the 1840s-50s. Expansion of sugar production also lead to the expansion of the slave trade, which was dividing the nation politically in two. Sugar production came to a halt in the 1860s during the Civil War, and many plantations did not survive the war. Federal take-over during Reconstruction and the difficult transition to wage labor resulted in a slow rebuild of the sugar industry across Louisiana.

By the late 1800s the sugar industry itself experienced its own revolution. Scientific advances made in Germany with beet-sugar were changing the sugar industry and its approach. New scientific developments involving chemical control and experimental research challenged traditional methods. Even before the Civil War several attempts were made to establish an experimental farm for sugar in Louisiana. In 1885 the Sugar Experiment Station was founded in Kenner, LA, sponsored by the Louisiana Planters’ Association with Dr. W.C. Stubbs appointed as director. Invoking the Hatch Act of 1887, the Board of Supervisors of LSU assumed responsibility of the Sugar Experiment Station which was moved to a new location at Audubon Park in New Orleans. By 1891 the Audubon Sugar School was established on the Experiment Station, thus offering a new curriculum to LSU cadets.

Audubon Sugar School, large building on left was residence of the Director of the LSU Audubon Sugar Experiment Station, laboratory building on the right. Audubon Park, New Orleans, 1906?-1917

Audubon Sugar School, large building on left was residence of the Director of the LSU Audubon Sugar Experiment Station, laboratory building on the right. Audubon Park, New Orleans, 1906?-1917

The Audubon Sugar School was a great success from the start with more interest generated than could be accommodated. The program provided instruction on growing cane, beets and sorghum for sugar manufacture. Graduates could boast to a complete understanding and expertise of sugar from both a scientific and practical stand point. The Audubon Sugar School garnered international notoriety. The program grew rapidly with a local and multicultural patronage representing Japan, China, the Philippines, Tahiti, Hawaii, South Africa, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Norway, England, South and Central America, Cuba, Barbados, and Puerto Rico. The Audubon Sugar School graduated its first class in 1894. Despite its great success, the Sugar School closed in 1896. Issues leading up to the school’s closure were the Cuban War of Independence and subsequent recall of 15 Cuban students, limited funding in regard to the increasing demands of the program, and local disturbances within in the sugar industry. However by 1897 the Audubon Sugar School was reestablished and incorporated within the LSU system. The curriculum was redesigned with the majority of course work to be provided on the main campus, while students were sent to Audubon Park for studies in practical work during the grinding season. This was also the start of electrical engineering course work in the Sugar School to accommodate the modernization of sugar mills from steam power to electrical machinery. Even though the Audubon Sugar School became a part of the University it maintained its original name in order to capitalize on its notoriety.

In 1899 coursework was increased to a five year program to ensure satisfactory foundations in the sciences. The first three years were dedicated to basic engineering while years four and five were spent on practical instruction at Audubon Park. From the beginning there was a strong demand for Sugar School graduates within the industry, and most students could expect job placement six months prior to graduation. Coursework in 1900 included: Mechanics; Chemistry; Agriculture; Drawing; Botany; Entomology; Veterinary Science; and Modern Languages, as most chemistry books and journals were written in German at the time; in addition to laboratory, manufacturing and field work at Audubon Park. In 1908 the school was reorganized as a college within the University, when colleges were first established at LSU. Dr. Charles E. Coates was appointed first dean of the Audubon Sugar School. In 1911 it was reported that thousands of school children and tourists toured the fields, crops, laboratories and sugar mill of the Audubon Park Sugar Station annually as an educational endeavor and promotion of the Station’s contribution to Louisiana and the industry. While the Sugar School taught future engineers, the main purpose the Sugar Station was to conduct experiments and collect data for the improvement of the sugar industry of Louisiana. In 1925 the Audubon Sugar School and Experiment Station moved to Baton Rouge on LSU’s new campus where sugar studies are still conducted today within the Audubon Sugar Institute.

In celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act, LSU Libraries Special Collections has put together an exhibit detailing the agricultural origins of LSU, and the University’s involvement in the evolution of the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service, 1914-2014. The exhibit showcases rare books, archival records, manuscripts, oral histories, publications and photographs from LSU Libraries Special Collections.

“Cooperative Extension at LSU” runs through January 24, 2015; come by and check it out.

Sugar students at work and eating sugarcane, November 1902. Audubon Sugar School, New Orleans.]

Sugar students at work and eating sugarcane, November 1902. Audubon Sugar School, New Orleans.]

Clarifying sugar. Filtration at the clarifiers, Audubon Park, New Orleans.

Clarifying sugar. Filtration at the clarifiers, Audubon Park, New Orleans.

Digitized images from University Archives concerning Audubon Park Sugar School and Experiment Station:  LINK

Additional images concerning Audubon Sugar School located in the Louisiana Digital Library:  LINK

 


RELATED PRIMARY SOURCE MATERIALS

William Carter Stubbs Letter, Mss. 2283, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, La. Hill Memorial Library, MISC: S: 12.

Sugar Experiment Station (1893-1898) Announcement. Hill Memorial Library, S537 .L82

LSU Photograph Collection, 1886-1926, Louisiana State University Archives, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA. Hill Memorial Library, Range AA: 29, Box 2 [Audubon Sugar School/Station]

Louisiana State University (1900) Audubon Sugar School. The Gumbo, Vol. 1, pp. 73-74. Hill Memorial Library, LD3118 .G8 1900

Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service Records, A3000, Louisiana State University Archives, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, La.

Audubon Sugar School Photographs, Mss. 1198 and 4385, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, La. Hill Memorial Library, Picture Collection, Range E: 66, Box 9

Weller, A.E. (1911, May 7) Sugar Experiment Station at Audubon Park. The Daily Picayune, Vol. LXXV (No. 103), p. 36, 47.
Available online through LSU Libraries at America’s Historical Newspapers.

 

RELATED SECONDARY SOURCE MATERIALS

Aronson, Marc. Sugar Changed the World (2010). Hill Memorial Library, TP378.2 .A767 2010

William, Frederick W. Yesterday and Today in Louisiana Agriculture (1940). Middleton Library, S451 .L8 W5

Sugar at LSU: a Chronology

 

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