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The Guillon Sugar Mill

February 9, 2013

The history of Haiti is steeped in sugar, the “white gold” that helped make France’s colony the richest in the world.  Europeans had quickly acquired a taste for sugar, along with a taste for the rum made from it, and Haiti was producing 40% of the world’s supply.  But with the revolution many of the planters fled to Cuba and Louisiana where slavery was still thriving and the plantations they established replaced Haiti as sugar supplier for the world.

This morning I climbed on a tap tap heading to Saint-Marc in search of the Guillon sugar mill.  Although the information I had gleaned from the Internet was sketchy, I knew that it was near Rue Pivert, the street on which our nursing school is located.  My chauffeur from the school had confirmed that much.  But Pivert (woodpecker in French) runs for miles, and I knew the mill was off the beaten track.

I found a young moto driver who indicated he knew where it was, and we were off.  He headed in the right direction, but it soon became evident he had no idea where the mill was located.  Dismounting, I asked a few people on the street if they could direct me, but they too had no idea.  Seeing a group of young men gathered on a stoop I addressed my question to them.  At first they didn’t seem to make a connection, but after some explanation on my part, the light bulbs came on.  They knew what I was talking about.  I hailed a moto and the little group told him where I was headed.

This guy seemed to know where he was going, but not exactly it turned out.  But after stopping a couple of times to clarify directions with the locals he figured it out.  We made our way out of the city and across the Grand River Saint-Marc.  About a kilometer further on we turned onto what can best be described as a trail rather than a road.  It was just dirt and was deeply rutted.  On two occasions the moto lost traction and tipped over.  But the driver had the sense to go slowly, so no damage was done.  We plowed through a stream and around a bend the mill appeared through the banana gardens.

At the site I was greeted by two men who seemed eager to show me around and explain things.  It was apparent they had given others the tour before me.  The younger of the two was quite knowledgeable, explaining how the mill worked and guiding me to the various bits and pieces hidden in the vegetation.  The elder, barefoot, directed me to the easiest paths and cleared away the thorny branches that littered the ground.

Rather than the operations having been in a single building, the mill consisted of a number of buildings, most of which have fallen down or been dismantled.  The two main buildings are fairly intact, although the roofs are giving way; the original wood-shingle roof on one was covered with corrugated metal some years ago.  Some of the machinery is still in place and some has been disassembled and is strewn around the site.  Everything is overgrown and choked with vines.  Beans and tomatoes grow between the bananas that cover the area.  In places, centuries-old bagasse (the dried, crushed cane left over from the refinement process) lies thick.

The mill dates back to the French colonial period of the mid-1700s.  Over the years it saw many changes.  The wooden waterwheel was replaced with a steel one that is still in place.  A Liverpool manufacturer’s name and the date 1860 are cast into the machinery.  With the collapse of Haiti’s sugar market the mill turned to making molasses to supply rum distillers.  An ancient gasoline engine outside the machine shed suggests it may have been the source of power in later years.  I was told the mill ceased production 25 years ago.

The overshot waterwheel was fed from a canal system via a concrete and stone aqueduct that has held up very well.  The wheel transmitted power through a series of gears to the rollers that crushed the cane.  The juice was collected in huge square metal tubs set into concrete vats in the floor of the second building.  At the end of that building is a large cauldron that I assume was used for boiling down the molasses.  The building was strewn with broken ceramic tile, evidence of a floor that once was.  A couple of locomotive boilers, once used to provide steam for the process, lay amid the bananas.

Leaving the mill I walked back along the trail through the banana plantation, enjoying the views and the shade provided by the palms.  Cattle and horses grazed between the bananas, and from time to time I passed little clutches of people relaxing in the shade to escape the midday sun.  As I approached the stream I came upon a family doing their laundry.  I chatted with them for a bit and they graciously allowed me to take their picture.  I waded through the warm water and made my way back to Rue Pivert.

I found it sad that this mill, along with most everything else historic in Haiti, is being allowed to go to ruin.  It will not be many years before it is just a memory.  But in a country that cannot afford to care for its people, little can be done without outside help, and there does not seem to be much interest from abroad.  To my way of thinking preserving history is not only a national concern, it is the responsibility of the world.  For in a way, all history is our history.

I think I will make a return visit to the Guillon sugar mill.  I would like to record with more accuracy some of the details of the mill, photograph it from different perspectives, capture it in different light.  Perhaps what I publish will interest someone in preserving it for future generations.

Machinery building

Machinery building

Vat building

Vat building

Outbuilding

Outbuilding

Waterwheel

Waterwheel

Remains of roller machinery

Remains of roller machinery

Label casting

Label casting

Aqueduct

Aqueduct

Juice tubs

Juice tubs

One of the vats

One of the vats

Cauldron

Cauldron

Deteriorating roof of vat building.

Deteriorating roof of vat building.

Locomotive boiler

Locomotive boiler

Family washing clothes

Family washing clothes

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