Raising Cane and Refining Sugar: Florida Crystals and the Fame of Fellsmere
by Gordon Patterson,
Professor of Humanities, Florida Insititute of Technology
originally published in The Florida Historical Quarterly,
Volume LXXV, Number 4, Spring 1997, Pages 408 to 428
Copyright 1997 by the Florida Historical Society, Melbourne, Florida
illustrations and captions not included in this version
On Friday, November 13, 1931, the Vero Beach Press-Journal reported that "the possibilities of commercial sugar cane production are to be thoroughly tested by the Ammoniate Products
Corporation, owners of large acreage within the Felismere Drainage District."(1) Four days later the editorial writer for the Fort Pierce
News-Tribune declared that the reports of positive economic development in Indian River County were based on more than "synthetic enthusiasm." Real progress was taking place. Frank W.
Heiser, general manager of the soon-to-be-defunct Ammoniate
Products Corporation, acknowledged that he planned to clear
1,000 acres of muck land "for the planting of sugar cane."(2) During
the next twelve years, Heiser's Fellsmere Sugar Company and its
successor, the Fellsmere Sugar Producers Association, succeeded
in establishing sugar production in central Florida, and the small
town of Fellsmere prospered as commercial sugar cane production
became a reality. Today, Heiser's work is forgotten. In the 1930s,
however, Heiser's efforts placed Fellsmere at the center of the developing sugar industry in Florida.
The story of Frank Heiser's efforts to establish commercial
sugar cane production in Fellsmere during the 1930s reveals much
about the character of Florida's agriculture and rural life in the
midst of the Great Depression. Heiser overcame hurricanes, unseasonable freezes, reluctant investors, and the federal government to
establish the Fellsmere Sugar Company. Unpublished documents,
interviews with former employees, and company records tell the
story of an individual who fought to help his community survive
In 1910, E. Nelson Fell, a retired English mining engineer, negotiated the purchase of 118,000 acres of land seven miles west of
Sebastian. With the financial backing of wealthy Virginia engineer
and entrepreneur Oscar T. Crosby, Fell set his engineers to work
dredging the largest gravity-based drainage system in Florida.(3) Fell
and Crosby founded Fellsmere Farms Company as east central
Florida's response to Governor Napoleon Broward's call to create
an "Empire in the Everglades." Between 1911 and 1915, Fellsmere
Farms Company attracted large numbers of midwestern farmers
eager to try their luck at the headwaters of the St. Johns River.
Fellsmere was booming when twenty-one-year-old Frank
Heiser arrived in 1912. Land was being cleared and dredges were
working round-the-clock cutting canals and ditches through the
Florida muck land. Heiser, a native of Lafayette, Indiana, learned
of Fellsmere from a "local real estate operator." Heiser and John
Pfrommer, a school friend, purchased twenty acres sight unseen.
Upon their arrival, they discovered that instead of purchasing
twenty acres of farmland they had bought an "overwhelming profusion of root growth." Undaunted, they set to work clearing the
land. Years later Pfrommer recalled that when "they tired of grubbing, fishing in drainage canals helped pass the time." The work
proved too much for Pfrommer, who abandoned the project after
only two weeks. Heiser, however, elected to stay. He built a "cottage" on his property and decided to take a chance on "raising tomatoes and peppers." This proved a risky venture. The land
produced a good crop, but unfortunately, there was a market glut
at harvest time and Heiser's profit vanished. Undaunted, he decided to plant citrus.
Heiser and the other investors' success in Fellsmere Farms
hinged on the company's drainage project. "The whole secret (if
there is any) for successful cultivation of muck land," declared R.
A. Conkling, director of the company's Demonstration Farm, "is
perfect drainage to remove acids and aerate (oxidize) the soil."(6)
Drainage was big business in the opening decades of the twentieth
century. Speculators invested huge sums in enterprises reliant
upon dubious drainage projects. Fell's plan, however, was based on
careful study. H. C. "Bill" Watts, one of Fell's early surveyors and engineer for the drainage district, proposed to use gravity as the basis
for the entire project. Water would flow through a series of north
and south laterals into the main outlet canal, which would then
drain the water eastward into the Sebastian and Indian river basin.
Lamentably, Fell and Crosby had minimized the magnitude of
the drainage project, drastically underestimating the amount of
water that flowed into the system. Evidence of their miscalculation
could be seen throughout the city. Years later Walter Siewert,
Heiser's timekeeper, recalled that "the town of Fellsmere suffered
heavily from water in the streets. Its paved streets, some constructed with the new fangled (at the time) poured concrete
method complete with molded curbs and gutters, made miniature
Venetian Canals through town for small boats."(7) Prospective buyers
who asked for directions to Fellsmere as they traveled down the
Dixie Highway were often told that they would know they were in
Fellsmere "when they were knee deep in water."(8)
Disaster struck on the night of Saturday, July 31, 1915. The sky
was gray and overcast throughout the day, and it began to drizzle in
the early evening. The rain continued throughout the night and
the following day. When it was all over, nearly nine inches had
fallen onto muck land already saturated with water. The drainage
system collapsed and flooded the city. Some residents left in boats
and never returned. The small town of Broadmoor, five miles west
of the city, was abandoned.(8)
The Board of Directors of the Fellsmere Farms Company
called a special meeting to address the crisis. In an effort to economize, the company closed the Chattanooga sales office and suspended all further land sales. Nelson Fell arrived from Virginia to
direct the company's day-to-day operations; however, there was little he could do. In four years the company had sunk more than a
million dollars into the drainage system; millions more were
needed to complete the project. After the outbreak of World War I,
investors were unwilling to put their money into central Florida's
muck lands. By 1917, Fellsmere Farms had defaulted on its bonds
and gone into receivership.(10)
Twenty-seven-year-old Frank Heiser assumed a leadership role
in the reorganization process. A year later Fellsmere Farms
emerged from receivership and was reconstituted as the Fellsmere
Company. Heiser was named the company's secretary.(11) Heiser's influence had grown steadily in the community since his arrival in
1912. He proved himself an astute businessman and good citrus
farmer.(12) By 1918 he was one of the town's leading citizens. One
year later Heiser organized the Fellsmere Drainage District which
was responsible for keeping Fellsmere above water. During the
next decade he served as the district's executive officer.(13)
Heiser shared Conkling's conviction that sugar cane had tremendous commercial potential in Fellsmere but that drainage was
essential for its success. Conkling declared his enthusiasm for sugar
production in Fellsmere at a state meeting of county agents in
Gainesville in 1919. "A few years ago," Conkling told the assembled
agricultural agents, "I was agricultural advisor for the Fellsmere
Farms Company. A large part of their holdings was typical saw grass
land, on a portion of which I conducted a demonstration. My
method was exactly on the line of Captain Rose [state chemist and
sugar advocate], and resulted in a very satisfactory yield of sugar
East central Florida had long been considered a prime site for
producing sugar. The Spanish introduced sugar production in
Florida shortly after St. Augustine's founding in 1565. Early production was limited to personal consumption. Between 1767 and
1776 English colonists manufactured sugar on a commercial scale
in their New Smyrna colony. In 1790, during the second Spanish
period, Luis Fatio commented on English efforts to introduce commercial sugar farming in east Florida. "In the time of the English,"
Fatio observed, "two or three mills had been begun at the Mosquitos (Mosquito Inlet near New Smyrna) and on the Ais (Indian)
River which produced sugar that was very white and of the best
quality."(15) Nearly ninety years elapsed before Major Robert Gamble
reintroduced commercial sugar manufacturing in Manatee County
in the 1850s. Fire and the outbreak of the Civil War put an end to
Major Gamble's venture. Thirty years later Hamilton Disston hired
Captain R. E. Rose to organize the St. Cloud Sugar Factory. The St.
Cloud Factory closed in 1896.(16)
After leaving St. Cloud, Rose continued to advocate commercial sugar production in Florida. In January 1913, the Fort Pierce
News-Tribune published a summary of Rose's arguments for introducing commercial sugar production in Indian River County.(17) A
year later the newspaper argued that sugar production would "become a staple" for the region's farmers.(18) Nelson Fell agreed.
Twenty years earlier he had observed the development of the St.
Cloud Sugar Factory. He and Conkling were convinced that sugar
held tremendous promise for Fellsmere Farms.
The 1913 prospectus for Fellsmere Farms described in glowing
terms Conkling's efforts to grow sugar cane.(19) The next year Robert
Kann, a new settler from Illinois, announced his intention to plant
forty acres in cane. "A still more ambitious undertaking on the part
of Mr. Kann," the Fellsmere Tribune reported, "will be the erection of
a large syrup mill two miles west of Broadmoor on the shores of
Lake Wilmington [Blue Cypress]." Kann's attempt at cane production failed.(20)
Four years later, in 1918, Frank Heiser and a handful of Fellsmere farmers and businessmen formed an informal sugar cane
producers association and launched their own sugar experiments.(21)
Led by C. H. Piffard, president of the State Bank of Fellsmere and
an early investor in Fellsmere Farms, each of the farmers promised
to plant twelve acres in sugar cane. Nine months later, Heiser's
Fellsmere Company committed $5,000 "in stock, or half the capital
necessary to put up a first class cane syrup mill."(22)
The "first class cane syrup mill" never materialized. Instead,
the Fellsmere Sugar Association rented a pre-Civil War era "portable syrup mill" which had been used by Colonel Francis Dancy in
Putnam County. In 1920, the Dancy mill produced a total run of
"several thousand gallons" of syrup. Running at full capacity, the
mill produced seventy-five-and-a-half gallons of syrup a day. Unfortunately, there was limited demand for the "splendid" syrup. For a
time Piffard's State Bank of Fellsmere offered customers free syrup
The ambitious commercial plan of Fellsmere's sugar growers
stalled in 1920. The Fellsmere Tribune continued to agitate for cane
production. Optimistic reports regularly appeared in the town's
paper. "I am in my opinion," an anonymous booster declared, "that
in cane Fellsmere is destined to greatness."(24) Commercial sugar
cane production, however, remained a dream.
Misfortune continued to beset the Fellsmere enterprise. The
State Bank of Fellsmere collapsed in March 1922; six months later
the Fellsmere Supply Company went broke. In 1923, Frank Heiser
and the other leaders of the Fellsmere Company reorganized the
company as the Standard Agricultural Chemical Company; two
years later they renamed the company the Ammoniate Products
Company. Heiser served as the company's general manager.(25)
Heiser's faith in the success of the Ammoniate Products Com-
pany was based on his confidence in the potential of central Florida's muck land. Instead of growing crops on the muck, the
investors in the Ammoniate Products Company hoped to make a
profit from the muck itself. Heiser constructed a large plant west of
the city to dry the muck; the dried muck would eventually be
shipped north by rail where it would be used as a stabilizer for fertilizer. To accomplish this, he succeeded in winning an extension
of the Trans-Florida Railroad to the plant.(26) Ultimately, the cost of
transporting the muck to northern mixing plants proved prohibitive. The muck plant closed in 1925.(27)
Heiser was undaunted. He continued to direct the Fellsmere
Drainage District, and in 1927 planted a test crop of sugar cane.
The experiment went well. The cane was robust and had a high
sugar content. In 1929, Heiser planted a hundred acres in cane.
The earlier efforts at sugar cane production had failed because
they were too small. Moreover, they produced syrup which targeted
local consumption. Heiser knew he had to overcome substantial
obstacles if he was to succeed in developing a full-fledged sugar operation. First, he had to demonstrate that commercial grade sugar
cane could be raised north of Lake Okeechobee. Second, the cane
produced needed to be of high enough sugar content to justify the
construction of a sugar mill. Finally, he needed a million dollars to
finance the project.(28)
Lois Klabosh, Frank Heiser's daughter, remembered this period as one of constant activity. Klabosh recalled that in the wake of
Florida's land boom crash her father decided "to go for broke."(29) It
was not enough that Heiser succeed in demonstrating that sugar
cane would grow on Fellsmere's muck land. Heiser had to find a
way to attract large investors to the project. The friendship of Edward S. Hughes, a Texas and New York financier, proved invaluable
in Heiser's hunt for capital. Hughes had been an early investor in
Fellsmere. After the collapse of the Fellsmere Farms Company,
Hughes stepped in and "provided cash" to the Drainage District
and the fertilizer plant.(30) Evidently, Hughes thought Heiser had
"the right stuff," and he contacted his New York friends. Armed
with data from his experimental test plots, Heiser traveled back
and forth to New York. During this period Heiser liked to say that
he lived in three places: Fellsmere, New York, and a railway compartment.(31)
Heiser faced a tremendous challenge. The stock market crash
was not yet a year old, and there was little money available for new
projects. Moreover, Fellsmere's investment record was poor.
Twenty years earlier the investors in the Fellsmere Farms Company
had lost their capital. Heiser countered these objections by pointing to the high profits that could be gained from sugar cane. His
test results indicated that forty to fifty tons of raw sugar could be
produced from each acre of Fellsmere's muck land.(32) The supervisors of the Drainage District supported Heiser's claims. Their 1931
report offered an optimistic assessment of the project: "The sugar
experiments continue...and those who know the sugar business
maintain their interest and confidence in Fellsmere inspite [sic] of
the difficulties that beset any effort to finance new enterprises."(33)
But potential investors required more than test results, and
they repeatedly demanded evidence that Heiser's "experiments
[would] prove themselves on a commercial scale."(34) Heiser made it
clear that sugar cane production was not another real estate promotion. Nevertheless, it took him several years to locate four men
willing to invest in the project.(35) Two of the men had extensive experience in the sugar industry. Maurice Leonard, vice president of
the Punta Alegre Sugar Company in Havana, and William C. Douglas, a member of the Pittsburgh Industrial Commission, believed
that central Florida had tremendous potential for growing commercial sugar. J. 0. Roberts, president of the Athey Truss Wheel
Company, and E. V. R. Thayer, president of Stutz Motor Company
and ex-president of Chase National Bank, brought substantial capital to the enterprise. None of the investors, however, was willing to
give Heiser a blank check. Heiser knew from the beginning that everything would have to be done on a shoestring budget.(36)
In 1931, Heiser set his plan in motion. He first improved the
drainage system to insure that it would protect the fields. Heiser
next contracted F. H. Conrad to clear 1,000 acres west of Fellsmere.(37) Conrad hired forty local men to clear and subdivide the
fields into 150-acre units. Men were paid ten cents an hour to clear
the fields; skilled laborers, like tractor drivers, earned twenty-five
cents an hour.(38) The seed cane for the initial planting came from
Heiser's 100-acre test site. While some men cleared the fields and
planted the cane, others constructed a network of roads linking the
fields with the proposed sugar mill.
T. B. Ford, a sugar engineer from Cuba, was responsible for
building the sugar mill. Heiser proposed building the mill several
miles south of the old muck plant. His standing order was to get
the job done as inexpensively as possible. Ford traveled to Louisiana and Cuba in search of suitable material. He eventually found a
dilapidated sugar mill which he had broken down and shipped to
Fellsmere. "The mill proper was put together from a pile of rusty
old iron shipped from Cuba and Louisiana, plus everything that
could be recycled from the muck plant," Lois Kiabosh remembered.(39) The mill itself was powered by an ancient Whitney and
Corliss steam engine that turned an eighteen foot flywheel.(40)
"Nothing much was new," Klabosh recalled. "It looked like a pile of
Workers hurried to finish construction of the two buildings designed to house the machinery. J. L. Sanborn, who had come to
Fellsmere in 1924 to supervise the construction of the muck plant,
directed the building site.(42) Sanborn salvaged whatever he could
from the old plant. Workers carefully cleaned old bricks so that
they could be reused at the mill. The mill was something of a wonder to local residents who regularly drove the four miles to observe
Thanks to Heiser's efforts Fellsmere was in a unique position
in the summer of 1932. The Vero Beach Press-Journal declared that
"there is no unemployed labor in Fellsmere."(44) Field preparation
and mill construction generated a payroll of nearly $4,000 a
month.(45) By year's end, Heiser had accomplished a great deal. The
mill was completed and capital improvements had been made in
the drainage district. The initial seven hundred acres were no
longer bare. Cane rose more than ten feet above the muck land.
An additional seven hundred acres were cleared and readied for
Nineteen thirty-three dawned full of promise for Fellsmere
and its sugar mill. The Vero Beach Press-Journal enthusiastically reported on February 10 that "a splendid stand of cane promises a
run of the mill for about sixty days. Those in charge are optimistic
about the success of the undertaking."(47) The 1933 season established the pattern for subsequent years. There were two separate
seasons for the fields and the mill. The growing season ran from
January to late October or early November when harvesting began.
The grinding season at the mill began with the harvest and ran to
late February or early March. The cane was brought to the mill, cut,
ground, pressed, strained, and the juice boiled down to raw sugar.
During this period the mill ran twenty-four hours a day. Heiser's
mill supervisor, Julius Lee, trucked the raw sugar to Fort Pierce
where it was loaded on ships and transported to a sugar refinery in
Philadelphia. The idle season for the mill began in April and ran
until the beginning of the harvest. This was the period in which repairs were made on the mill.
The Fellsmere sugar mill ended its first season's operation on
April 7, 1933. In two months, the mill had processed enough cane
to produce two million pounds of high grade raw sugar.(48) Cultivation for next year's crop continued for one month after grinding
season ended. Fifty of the approximately 225 employees were kept
on the payroll after the end of May.(49)
Fellsmere Sugar Company saved Fellsmere from economic
ruin. "As demand for sugar grew," one resident remembered,
"Fellsmere seemed, once more, on the upswing. The Fellsmere Inn
was a hustling, bustling place."(50) Gail (Kinney) Griffin, a resident of
Fellsmere during the Depression, believed that "the Fellsmere
Sugar Company was the savior of Fellsmere. In my recollection everyone was grateful - black and white."(51) With national unemployment running at nearly twenty-five percent of the work force in
1933, any kind of work was welcomed, and the boom created by
Heiser's sugar mill attracted jobseekers to Fellsmere. Walter Siewert, the mill's time-keeper in 1933, recalled that "as to manpower
[the rule was] to use local help to the utmost."(52) Concern grew that
the community would be inundated with hordes of jobless men
seeking work. Signs were put up on the roads leading into Fellsmere warning that the mill was not hiring outsiders.(53)
Siewert's time book and payroll ledger for the 1933 season documents the magnitude of the sugar mill's operation. This slim volume records in two-week installments the name of each employee,
the number of hours worked each day, the total number of twelvehour days worked, the rate of pay per day or hour, and the total
amount of wages paid. One hundred and eighty-six men and two
women were employed at the mill for the pay period ending February 17. The total payroll was approximately three thousand dollars.
The average pay per hour for a twelve-hour day was seventeen cents.
During the next two months the work force grew to 204. The average pay per hour dropped to sixteen cents and the total payroll was
approximately $3400 for the pay period ending on April 14. The
grinding season ended in April. The May and June payrolls showed
a considerable drop in both employees and total pay. Seventy-nine
men were listed in the time book for May 26, 1933. The average pay
per hour dropped to fifteen cents. During the idle season most of
the work involved preparing the fields for next season's crop. Canecutters and field workers received ten cents an hour. The total payroll for May 26 was approximately one thousand dollars.(54)
In addition to providing crucial employment, the sugar operation also took over other vital town operations. In 1932, the Drainage District was on its last legs, and at the May 13, 1932, board
meeting the supervisors stopped all further maintenance of ditches
and canals.(55) Heiser arranged for the Drainage District to receive
office space at the Sugar Company headquarters. Since the District
no longer had any money to pay employees, Heiser volunteered to
manage the drainage on company lands and directed sugar company personnel to take charge of drainage operations.(56)
Meanwhile, federal legislation posed a new threat. Franklin
Roosevelt's inauguration in March 1933 initiated a period of dramatic change. Roosevelt intended the newly passed Agricultural
Adjustment Act (AAA) to empower the Secretary of Agriculture "to
raise farm prices and restore farmers' purchasing power."(57) Specifically, the act gave the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to restrict production and limit sales.
These proposals touched off a storm of debate in the summer
of 1933. In June, Heiser and a delegation of Florida sugar producers, led by Clarence Bitting of U.S. Sugar, traveled to Washington to
meet with the Secretary of Agriculture, officials in the Agricultural
Adjustment Administration, and members of Congress.(58) Heiser
and Bitting's objective was to win favorable concessions from the
AAA for Florida's sugar growers. In September, the Secretary of Agriculture turned down the Sugar Stabilization Agreement that had
emerged from the meetings because he believed "no effective control of production was contemplated."(59)
The failure of the Sugar Stabilization Agreement led to the
passage in May 1934 of the Jones-Costigan Act. Reluctantly, sugar
industry officials agreed to the imposition of quotas. The Jones-
Costigan Act governed the sugar industry for the next decade. The
sugar production quotas were determined by "taking the average
continental consumption of sugar from the Philippines, Puerto
Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Cuba for the years 1931-1933, and of
Hawaiian sugar for the years of 1930-1932."(60) Heiser and Bitting opposed the legislation because the quotas would curtail the development of Florida's cane fields. From 1930 to 1933, Florida produced
little sugar. Consequently, a quota based on these years would benefit Louisiana cane growers who produced the lion's share of mainland cane sugar in the late 1920s and early 1930s.(61)
Nature continued to threaten Fellsmere Sugar Company. On
the night of September 2, 1933, a hurricane tore through Indian
River County. Winds of eighty to one hundred miles an hour flattened much of the cane fields. The roof of the sugar mill was blown
off, exposing the mill's expensive equipment to wind and water
damage. The Vero Beach Press-Journal reported that approximately
"50 percent of the crop was ruined."(62) Fortunately, the damage was
not as great as was first feared; most of the cane had not been uprooted and could be righted. Nevertheless, the September storm
reduced the overall sugar content in the cane.(63)
The mill launched the 1934 grinding season during the first
week in January. Heiser hoped that improvements in the mill's new
depot and new machinery would improve the company's produc-
tivity. The mill hired two hundred and fifty men to harvest the cane
and operate the mill. The company's payroll grew to $8,000 per pay
period.(64) By February the mill was running at full capacity. A new
375 hp boiler increased the mill's total horsepower by twenty-five
percent. This allowed the mill to process four hundred tons of cane
in a twenty-four-hour period. The mill shut down in early April after producing 1400 tons of raw sugar.(65)
Everything appeared to be coming together for Fellsmere
Sugar Company during the fall of 1934. The 1800 acres of cane
were doing well. J. L. Bustin, the company's assistant treasurer, estimated that the total cane production would be somewhere between forty and fifty thousand tons. The expanded acreage
necessitated the importation of outside field laborers. The company constructed accommodations for the approximately 400 West
Indian cane-cutters. The "little city" contained sleeping quarters, a
dining hall, and a commissary for the black workers.(66)
Harvesting had just gotten underway when disaster struck on
December 12, 1934. Record-breaking cold temperatures blanketed
the entire state of Florida. Tampa and Jacksonville reported snow
flurries. In Fellsmere the U.S. Weather Station reported that the
temperature had fallen to nineteen degrees.(67) The damage seemed
overwhelming. Frank Heiser noted tersely in his record book for
December 12: "All cane frozen."(68)
The investors called an emergency meeting. "If we've got a
bitch pup," one declared, "we'd better know it now."(69) The meeting
ended without a clear resolution. Thayer backed out.(70) Douglas, Leonard, and Roberts decided to continue. In Fellsmere, while the investors were considering their options, work proceeded at a furious
pace. The serious cold damage to the cane forced the sugar mill
into full operation. In order to meet the local payroll Heiser asked
for his managers' support. Julius Lee, the mill's superintendent,
borrowed against his insurance policy to help make the payroll.(71)
The cane-cutters worked furiously to save as much of the damaged
cane as possible. Two months later the grinding season ended. Increases in acreage from previous years allowed the company to post
record returns. Raw sugar production increased by eighty percent
over 1934.(72) The December freeze had an unexpected benefit. Federal officials held off on imposing quotas on Florida sugar producers. Heiser learned that "no marketing allotments for Florida were
contemplated for 1935."(73)
Heiser proposed a bold plan: construct a sugar refinery in
Fellsmere that would manufacture granulated sugar from the raw
product. His investors thought he was mad. Five years earlier he
had succeeded in convincing them to invest in a fledgling sugar
project in central Florida's muck lands. After three years of production he wanted them to invest more money into what appeared to
many as another Florida swamp.
First, however, he had to reorganize the Fellsmere Sugar Company, a project that took two years to complete. Heiser remained in
charge of the overall operation. The Fellsmere Sugar Company officially became a cooperative called the Fellsmere Sugar Producers
Association, and the mill operations were separated from the cane
fields. The key to the project was the construction of a sugar refinery. To finance the project, Heiser secured a small start-up loan
from the federal government and managed to raise an additional
fifty thousand dollars.(74) The three remaining New York investors
contributed the balance. Finally, Heiser sold his citrus grove to a
Wabasso grower, staking everything on the success of what he referred to simply as "the factory."(75)
Construction on the refinery began in September 1935. One
hundred men were put on the project. Heiser's objective was to finish the factory by December 1 when harvesting would begin. It was
an ambitious plan. Once completed, the sugar "factory" would be
capable of producing "approximately 100 tons of standard granu-
lated sugar per 24 hours."(76) The sugar was to be packaged in five-,
ten-, twenty-five-, and one-hundred-pound bags under the trademark "Florida Crystals."(77)
The refinery was a gamble. Since 1931, Heiser had staked everything on the canefield's eventual success. He sold his citrus farm
to a Wabasso packing house.(78) Heiser and his supporters had invested more than a million dollars in the mill and canefields. Five
hundred men depended on the company for employment.
In 1935, the threat posed by the Jones-Costigan Sugar Act materialized. Sugar acreage quotas were imposed on Florida's sugar
growers. Heiser hoped that the quotas would be lifted, and he
promised to put more acres into cane as soon as the allotment was
increased.(79) In spite of the quotas, he plunged ahead with the
project. The initial reports for the 1936 harvest were favorable. By
late February, Heiser's managers estimated that the factory would
produce 5.5 million pounds of raw sugar. This translated into a
daily output of between 125,000 and 150,000 pounds of refined
During this period Heiser lived at the "factory." Lois Klabosh
was a senior at Fellsmere High School during the 1936 grinding
season. She remembered her father following a regular routine.
Mornings he would drop her off at the sugar company's office
which was located at the old Fellsmere Estates Company Building
in Fellsmere. She would walk to the nearby high school while her
father sorted through the refinery's paper work. Heiser then drove
the four miles out to the fields and "factory." At the "factory" Heiser
worked out of a small office which also served as his "lab" for "measuring and recording the 'Brix' yield of each mill run."(81)
By the summer of 1936 sacks of "Florida Crystals" were being
shipped to stores up and down the eastern seaboard. The Savage
Brokerage Company in Jacksonville handled distribution. The
Winn-Lovett foodstore chain was one of the first retailers to market
"Florida Crystals."(82) The brokers discovered that there was a large
demand for Fellsmere sugar. To meet the growing demand Heiser
added 640 acres to the cane fields.(83) He hoped that the new acreage
would raise the total raw sugar production to eight million pounds
for the 1937 season. The weather, however, did not cooperate. Two
years earlier a disastrous freeze had nearly destroyed the cane
fields. In November and December 1936, unseasonably warm
weather slowed the cane's growth and lowered the plant's sugar
content. The 1937 raw sugar production of six million pounds was
only a fraction better than the previous year's output.
The company's reorganization was completed in November
1937. The Fellsmere Sugar Producers Association purchased the
"plant and entire holdings of the old Sugar Company."(84) The cooperative arrangement allowed Heiser to expand the number of investors in the sugar operation. The Department of Agriculture,
however, blocked Heiser's efforts to increase his allotment. In February and March 1938, Heiser was forced to plow nine hundred
acres of cane back into the ground. Despite this setback the factory's production of refined sugar grew by ten percent to 6.6 million pounds.(65) The increase in production, however, was offset by a
glut of sugar on the world market. Sugar prices fell in 1938 to between $4.25 and $4.30 per hundred pounds. The editors of the Vero
Beach Press-Journal remained optimistic about the sugar cooperatives' future. In their year-end "Progress Report" they declared:
The industry [Fellsmere Sugar Producers Association] is
one of the most important in the county and is the only refinery in the state. Other companies produce sugar on
Florida soil for refining into finished product at other
points in the country, but the Fellsmere organization carries the operation through to the consumable refined
sugar on the premises. It is one of the most efficient and
highly important of such organizations in the United
States, and once the sugar price difficulties are ironed out
it is expected that it will develop to proportions that may
make the Indian River section as famous for sugar as it now
is for citrus.(66)
The outbreak of war in Europe increased the already considerable uncertainty confronting Fellsmere's sugar growers. First, the
AAA abandoned its sugar quotas in September 1939 only to reverse
itself and reinstitute them in 1940. Lois Klabosh recalled that
"World War II brought changes in the way the farm was operated
and [created] a lot of uncertainty about the future. Restrictions on
acreage and [the] imposition of quotas made life more difficult,
and the outlook for labor was not good."(87) Labor shortages and
wildly fluctuating sugar prices plagued the operation. Panic on the
commodities exchanges had initially forced sugar prices upward;
when shortages did not materialize the price of sugar plummeted.
These factors contributed to Heiser and the other Association
members' decision to sell the cooperative.
In 1943, a group of Puerto Rican sugar producers purchased
the Association and all of its properties. The final liquidation of the
Association took place in July. Lois Klabosh recalled that "the sale
was fairly profitable to all." Heiser was asked to continue as manager of the Fellsmere operations. He declined. In fact, none of the
founders remained in Fellsmere.(88)
Frank Heiser left Fellsmere for Jacksonville in 1943. He sold
his house to the new company's general manager. He continued to
visit Fellsmere periodically as a consultant for the new owners.
Sugar production in Fellsmere continued for twenty years. In 1959
Okeelanta Sugar purchased the Fellsmere Sugar Producers Association. Four years later Okeelanta was purchased by the South Puerto Rico Sugar Company (SPRS). In 1965, the SPRS transferred
Fellsmere's sugar quota to its Okeelanta operations. In 1967, the
Gulf and Western Company purchased the SPRS's properties in
Frank Heiser died in December 1961. He did not live to see the
end of the sugar fields or Gulf and Western's introduction of large
scale citrus production. Still, he succeeded in his dream. As a
young man he believed that sugar could be produced commercially in central Florida, and he deserves credit for establishing the
state's first sugar refinery in the twentieth century. Perhaps most
important, Heiser generated jobs for the local people of Fellsmere
that sustained the community for more than thirty-five years.
1. "Commercial Cane Growing for the County," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, November 13, 1931.
2. "Indian River County," Fort Pierce News-Tribune, November 17,
3. "Fellsmere Farms, Florida," Sales Brochure, Fellsmere Sales
Company, June 1913, 4-5, in Walter Siewert Collection, Special
Collections, Evans Library, Florida Institute of Technology,
4. Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, The Everglades: River of Grass
(St. Simons Island, Ga., 1974), 242.
5. John Pfrommer to Stella Heiser, February 12, 1962, Siewert
6. "Sugar Cane in the Everglades," Fellsmere Tribune, October
7. Walter Siewert, "A History of the Fellsmere Drainage District
(Now) Fellsmere Water Control District," nd., 4, Siewert Collection.
8. "Cane Fields of Fellsmere," Fellsmere Tribune, January 1, 1921.
9. Siewert, "History," 8.
10. "Company's Affairs to be Adjusted," Fellsmere Tribune, January
11. "Fellsmere Corporation," Fellsmere Tribune, April 6, 1918.
12. Lois Klabosh, "Reasons for Undertaking the Sugar Mill,"
February 26, 1993, 1, Siewert Collection.
13. Siewert, "History," 15.
14. R. A. Conkling, "Sugar Cane in the Everglades," Fellsmere
Tribune, October 25, 1919.
15. Quoted in U.S. Department of Agriculture, Florida's Sugar
Bowl, rev. ed. (Tallahassee, 1959), 7.
16. Florida's Sugar Bowl, 9.
17. "Sugar Cane for Florida: Some Interesting Statistics on Sugar
Production," Fort Pierce News-Tribune, January 31, 1913.
18. "Cane Production to be Revived," Fort Pierce News-Tribune,
January 23, 1914.
19. "Fellsmere Farms Florida," Sales Brochure, Fellsmere Sales
Company, June 1913, Siewert Collection.
20. "Big Cane Growing and Syrup Mill Project,"
December 11, 1914.
21. "Sugar Cane Greatly Enlarged," Fellsmere Tribune, December
22. "Sugar Mill," Fellsmere Tribune, September 28, 1918.
23. "Fellsmere Syrup is About Ready to Sell," Fellsmere Tribune,
March 20, 1920.
24. "Cane Fields of Fellsmere," Fellsmere Tribune, January 1,1921.
25. Siewert, "History," 17.
26. Lois Kiabosh, letter to author, June 7, 1995, Siewert Collection.
27. Walter Siewert, letter to author, September 8, 1992, Siewert
28. "Commercial Cane Growing for this County," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, November 13, 1931.
29. Klabosh, "Reasons for Undertaking the Sugar Mill," 1.
30. Lois Klabosh, "Early Experiences," February 26, 1993, 3,
31. Siewert, "History," 23.
32. "Cane Planting at Fellsmere Completed," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, February 1, 1932.
33. Minute Book, Fellsmere Drainage District (MB-275), May 29,
1931, Fellsmere Water Control District, Fellsmere, Fla., Siewert
34. "Commercial Cane Growing for this County," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, November 13, 1931.
35. Lois Klabosh, letter to author, June 7, 1995, Siewert
36. Siewert, "History," 23-24.
37. "Cane Planting at Fellsmere Underway," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, December 4, 1931.
38. Siewert, "History," 24.
39. Lois Klabosh, letter to author,June 7, 1995, Siewert Collection.
40. Siewert, "History," 24.
41. Klabosh, "Early Experiences," 2.
42. "Construction of Fellsmere Mill to Begin Soon," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, May 6, 1932.
43. Siewert, "History," 24.
44. "Fellsmere Mill Solves Unemployment," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, June 3,1932.
45. "Sugar Industry in Fellsmere Makes Progress," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, July 22, 1932.
46. "Review Fellsmere Sugar Industry Slows Progress," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, December 16, 1932.
47. "Cane Grinding Starts at Fellsmere Mill," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, February 10,1933.
48. "Fellsmere Mill's Grinding Season Ended Last Friday," Vero
Beach Press-Journal, April 21, 1933.
49. Melbourne Times, May 12, 1933.
50. "Sugar Mill Brings Life to Town," Melbourne Times,Ju/ly 18, 1979.
51. Gail Kinney Griffin, "Recollections.," Siewert Collection.
52. Walter Siewert, letter to author, January 5, 1993, Siewert
53. "Sugar Industry in Fellsmere Makes Progress," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, July 22, 1932.
54. "Fellsmere Sugar Company Timebook for Payrolls Ending
February 17, April 14, May 26,June 23, 1933," Siewert Collection.
55. Fellsmere Drainage District, Minute Book (MB-296), May 13,
1932, Siewert Collection.
56. Siewert, "History," 27.
57. U.S. Department of Agriculture, US. Sugar Program Agriculture
Information Bulletin III (Washington, D.C., 1953), 7.
58. For information on Bitting and U.S. Sugar, see Joseph
McGovern, The First Fifty Years: The United States Sugar
Corporation (Clewiston, Fla., 1981), 4-5.
59. U.S. Department of Agriculture, US. Sugar Program Agriculture
Information Bulletin 111,7.
60. Joshua Bernhardt, The Sugar Industry and the Federal Government
(Washington, 1948), 163.
61. J. Carlyle Sitterson, Sugar Country: The Cane Sugar Industry in
the South, 1753-1950 (Lexington, 1953), 376.
62. "Fellsmere Sugar Mill Loss Not Determined," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, September 8, 1933.
63. "Season Concludes at Fellsmere Mill," Vero Beach Press-Journal,
64. "Fellsmere Mill Begins Grinding in January," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, November 17, 1933.
65. "2200 Tons of Raw Sugar Produced for the Season," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, February 22, 1935.
66. "Cane Grinding Starts About December 10," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, November 16, 1934.
67. Siewert, "History," 27.
68. Klabosh, "Early Experiences," 2.
69. Siewert, "History," 27.
70. Klabosh, "Early Experiences," 2.
71. Virginia Malletre, interview by author, April 3, 1993.
72. "2200 Tons of Raw Sugar Produced for the Season," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, February 22, 1935.
73. Bernhardt, The Sugar Industry and the Federal Government, 171.
74. Siewert, "History," 27.
75. Klabosh, "Early Experiences," 2.
76. "Florida's First Sugar Refinery in this County," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, December 20, 1935.
77. "Sugar Plant Ends Season Tbursday," Vero Beach Press-Journal,
May 2, 1937.
78. Klabosh, "Early Experiences," 3-4.
79. "Florida's First Sugar Refinery in this County," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, December 20, 1935.
80. "Fellsmere Sugar Refinery Output," Vero Beach Press-Journal,
February 28, 1936.
81. Lois Klabosh, "Feelings About the Work," February 26, 1993, 5,
Siewert Collection. "Brix" is percentage of sugar content.
82. Walter Siewert, letter to author, February 23, 1993.
83. "Acreage Boosted to 2400," Vero Beach Press-Journal, July 10,
84. "Cooperative Buys Sugar Plant," Vero Beach Press-Journal,
November 26, 1937.
85. "Fellsmere Sugar Plant Output is 6,600,000 Pounds," Vero Beach
Press-Journal, March 4, 1938.
86. "Production of Sugar," 1939 Progress Edition, Vero Beach
Press-Journal, Volume 20, 12.
87. Lois Klabosh, "Reasons for Leaving," February 26, 1993, 1,
88. Klabosh, "Reasons for Leaving," 1, 9.
89. Siewert, "History," 34.