Tensions had been growing between the Seminoles, settlers and the U.S. Government. The government’s decision to remove the natives from Florida by force pushed those tensions over the edge. In mid-December of 1835, Seminoles raided plantations near New Smyrna Beach. Aided by slaves, the natives burned crops, homes and buildings in the area. The main targets were the lucrative sugar plantations that were a major source of revenue for the locals.
This raid was only a prelude, a couple of weeks later, December 28th, 1835, Chief Osceola killed Indian Agent Wiley Thompson at Fort King (Ocala) and Major Francis Dade and his company were ambushed between Fort Brooke(Tampa) and Fort King. More than 100 of his 108 man command were killed. These acts brought an open declaration of war by the United States and would be the beginning of years of bloody conflict.
One of the plantations destroyed during the raids at New Smyrna was the 600 acre Cruger-dePeyster plantation and sugar factory just west of present day New Smyrna. Henry Cruger and William dePeyster acquired the land in 1830 and set out to establish a large commercial sugar factory. The two borrowed heavily to purchase machinery, equipment and slaves to work the press and fields. A warehouse building was constructed of cut coquina to process and store the sugar. The arch windows and rough stone structure gave a much older appearance to the factory. While most plantations relied on manual cane crushers, Cruger and dePeyster’s was powered by a steam engine housed in a smaller building beside the main structure. This allowed greater volumes and faster production.
By 1835, the plantation was beginning to pay for itself and profits were starting to come in. However, that would come to an end in December. The Seminole raid destroyed crops and the factory, equipment and barrels of drying syrup were burned and the slaves, which had aided the Seminoles, were gone. Defeated, Cruger and dePeyster moved the salvageable equipment, including the crusher, to the Dunlawton Plantation(which was also burned in 1835) in Port Orange. Continued raids during the Second Seminole War all but ended sugar production in Central Florida. Today, the crusher can still be see at Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens, a botanical garden created from the plantation located in nearby Port Orange.
With the Cruger-dePeyster Plantation destroyed and the sugar industry left in ruins, the burned out hulk of the factory sat vacant. Some of it’s stones were taken by locals for other buildings, but it was mostly forgotten for nearly 60 years. Then a well known travel writer of the day, Bradford Torrey, in his book “A Florida Sketch Book”, suggested that the old stone walls were actually a chapel built by Christopher Columbus. Torrey did not believe that it had once been a sugar mill despite of the fact locals referred to the site as “Sugar Mill”. Torrey’s article was republished in the Atlantic Monthly Journal in 1894 and the shortly after, postcards and photos began to appear calling the stone structure a mission or convent.
…I have called the ruin here spoken of a “sugar mill” for no better reason than because that is the name commonly applied to it by the residents of the town. When this sketch was written, I had never heard of a theory since broached in some of our Northern newspapers,—I know not by whom,—that the edifice in question was built as a chapel, perhaps by Columbus himself! I should be glad to believe it, and can only add my hope that he will be shown to have built also the so-called sugar mill a few miles north of New Smyrna, in the Dunlawton hammock behind Port Orange. In that, to be sure, there is still much old machinery, but perhaps its presence would prove no insuperable objection to a theory so pleasing. In matters of this kind, much depends upon subjective considerations; in one sense, at least, “all things are possible to him that believeth.” For my own part, I profess no opinion. I am neither an archaeologist nor an ecclesiastic, and speak simply as a chance observer.
-Torrey, B. (1894). A Florida Sketch-Book. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.
Wealthy financier Washington Everett Connor purchased the ruins and surrounding land as a winter home for he and his wife in 1913. His wife, Jeanette Thurber Connor, became fascinated by the “mission” on their new property and began to research the history. She continued to promote the mill as a mission for years to come.
Mrs. Connor’s interest in Florida history would blossom leading her to do extensive research into early Spanish settlements in Florida and in 1921, Along with John Stetson, she would establish the Florida State Historical Society. The society would translate and publish several books on early Florida including Pedro Menéndez de Avilés: Memorial by Gonzalo Solis de Merás and Colonial Records of Spanish Florida. Jeanette Connor passed away in June of 1927 and shortly after the historical society was forced to close. The Sugar Mill Ruins and the surrounding seventeen acres were deeded to the Florida Parks Service in 1929. Mrs. Connors efforts had insured the preservation of the site if not the accuracy of the origins of the stone structure.
The rumors of the site being a chapel or mission continued until 1941 when a local newspaperman, Charles Coe, wrote a booklet titled Debunking the So-called Spanish Mission Near New Smyrna Beach, Volusia County, Florida then in 1950, artifacts were examined and it was determined that they were of 19th century English origins. The exotic Spanish mission returned to being a simple sugar factory.
The day I visited the Mill, I had the place to myself. It is easy to see how one could get caught up in the romantic notion that this place had to be something more than a sugar plantation. The collapsed arches and crumbled stone resemble an ancient castle or abbey along some windswept coast of Europe. The walls still bare the blackened marks of the fire that destroyed it 180 years ago. While it is not a chapel built by the hands of Christopher Columbus , it does serve as a reminder of the opening days of a conflict that would take hundreds of lives and continue well into the late 1850’s.
To read more by Jim, visit Snookguy.com.
Year Taken: 2014
Website: Abandoned Florida