The Santa Juana Central Sugar Mill was founded by a group of Belgians in the municipality of Caguas in 1906. The town and surrounding areas enjoyed a huge bonanza thanks to the economic activity generated by the mill. The business was the largest source of jobs in the region and promoted the establishment of businesses to supply the mill’s needs. In 1922, Santa Juana had the eighth-largest production of any mill on the island.
The Belgian businessmen belonged to a corporation called Societé Anónyme des Sucreries de Saint Jean (San Juan Sugar Producers Corporation) created in Brussels. Its objective was to invest in the sugar business in Puerto Rico. The company immediately began to invest large sums of money in Puerto Rico, especially in the development of a rail line. The train was essential for transporting the cane from the fields to the mill.
The central mill had an elementary school on its grounds. The children of both the administrators and the workers studied there.
In 1927, the Belgians sold the mill to the United Porto Rican Sugar Company. The company, founded in Maryland, had already acquired the Santa Ana and La Defensa Central Mills and some land in Vieques. The following year, it also bought the Juncos Central Mill and the Pasto Viejo Mill in Humacao.
With all of these mills under its management, the United Porto Rican Sugar Company became the fourth sugar producing corporation in the United States. It produced more than 50 percent of the sugar in Puerto Rico. Of the four companies, it had the most mills, the most acres of and operated in the most towns.
Under the United States management, there were changes in the way the Santa Juana mill operated, in the lifestyle, and in the treatment of workers. The mill became part of a capitalist corporation that even had its own bank. Unlike the Belgians, who lived in wooden houses built near the mill, the new owners settled on the other side of the Grande de Loíza River on a farm called Mano Manca in Gurabo. The workers continued to live on the grounds of the mill.
A series of events significantly affected the sugar production: Hurricane San Felipe of 1928, the Great Depression of 1929, Hurricane San Ciprián of 1932 and the sugar cane strikes of 1933 and 1934. Santa Juana’s production in 1933 was the lowest since the mill had passed to the hands of the United States owners. At the beginning of that year, it was put up for auction. In 1934, the Federal Court authorized the sale of the mill to National City Bank, which was placed in charge of reorganizing the corporation as a trust that was called Eastern Sugar Associates.
The total amount of land acquired by the Eastern Sugar Associates in Puerto Rico came to 54,000 acres. Among the properties acquired were 5 central mills, 133 miles of railroad, and warehouses and port facilities in Humacao.
During the 1940s, the Santa Juana Central Sugar Mill experienced new financial heights. In 1941, Santa Juana was the second-largest mill on the island in terms of the number of acres of cane planted, after the Guánica Central Sugar Mill, as well as second in acres of cane harvested. During that era, a 205-foot chimney was built that still remains standing and which increased the capacity of the boilers. As a result of this addition, the mill reached daily processing of 4,500 tons and reduced the discharge of ashes to a minimum.
Also in 1941, a white sugar refinery was established under the name La Blanquita. This sugar could only be sold in the local market, because the refineries in the United States did not allow the export of processed sugar, to avoid competition.
In 1940, a few Puerto Ricans held some of the highest positions in the corporation’s management, although the president and the treasurers were from the United States. One of the first was Manuel A. del Valle, who became chairman of the Board of Directors when Harry Nadler retired in 1945. Del Valle went to live with his family in a big house on Mano Manca, which today is the University of Turabo.
By the end of 1957, the sugar industry on the island was in a state of decline. The Fajardo Sugar Company and the Eastern Sugar Associates decided to merge, which created the Fajardo Eastern Sugar Associates. The five central mills controlled by the new sugar corporation were, in order of production, the Fajardo, Canóvanas, Juncos, Santa Juana and Cayey Central Sugar Mills. The merger did not have the desired effect, however, and in 1961 the Juncos mill was sold to C. Brewer and Company of Hawaii.
The Hawaiian business, established in 1826, planned to mechanize and modernize the farming phase of production to produce greater quantity and higher quality cane. It brought 20 varieties of cane from Hawaii, began a new program of fertilization of the soil and mechanization in the fields and experimented with different planting methods. They also extended the processing season, which was longer in Hawaii, and thus eliminated what was called “the dead time.” However, because the geographic, climactic and topographic conditions in Puerto Rico were different from Hawaii, these strategies were not successful.
The Hawaiian varieties of cane became diseased and the planting methods did not take into account the hot and humid summers on the island. The biggest failure consisted of extending the processing season, due to the scarcity of workers and the high summer temperatures on the island. Despite all these problems, the company became one of the largest sugar producers in Puerto Rico with a range that covered 12 municipalities in the eastern part of the island.
The greatest difficulty was understanding the system of independent farmers on the island, because in Hawaii the companies planted the cane themselves. From the beginning, there were conflicts between C. Brewer and the independent farmers in the region. By 1961, the farmers were selling their land or developing it as part of residential projects. This, along with the other setbacks described above, led Santa Juana to cease operations at the conclusion of the processing season in 1967.
Ingenios y Haciendas Azucareras en el Valle del Turabo: La Central Santa Juana, Universidad del Turabo, proyecto subvencionado por la Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades, 2001.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 10, 2010.
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