Early records indicate that the planting of sugar cane on the future Estate St. George began with the Danes as early as 1736, years before the 1773 sale of the Virgin Islands from France to Denmark.
During these years, the growth of sugar cane for sugar, molasses, and rum increased with an influx of Danish investors and overseers, a few experienced sugar cane farmers from St. John and St. Thomas (where mountainous conditions made growing sugar cane harder), and, of course, with growing numbers of enslaved people to do the back-breaking work of clearing brush, planting, and production.
During what historians refer to as the “Golden Age” of sugar cane production in the West Indies, 1770-1820, the newly named Estate St. George was consecutively owned by two Danish planters, John Heylinger and Peter Oxholm, who, over time, developed three types of mills– animal, wind, and water– in order to power its three, successive sugar factories.
Danish overseers attended to the day-to-day growing of the cane and kept the enslaved population in submission. The main product was molasses, a product of reducing the sugar cane extract. The sugar cane factories provided a means by which the extract could be boiled, reduced, barreled, and then shipped to Europe and the US.
This factory system required workers—some freed, mostly enslaved— to make repairs, construct barrels, forge iron, build and maintain a limestone kiln, as well as grow the product. It is estimated that 90% of the sugar cane field workers where enslaved, an unbearable situation that was borne by those who had no choice.
By 1846, with economic decline in the profitability of sugar cane production, like other estates on the island, St. George suffered financial hardships with bankruptcies and further sales.
With the emancipation of the enslaved in 1848, conditions on the island did not change.
Sugar cane production remained an almost unimaginable enterprise. Unlike other sugar cane producers, however, who succumbed to high debt and reduced markets for their product, St. George remained in the business of molasses production, largely owing to its move to steam to power its mechanisms.
Today visitors can readily see the ruins of the once-busy mid nineteenth century factory. This site was active in some measure until 1918 and is a visual reminder of the lives of those who were emmeshed in the enterprise.
St. George Village Botanical Garden contains a large number of historical buildings and ruins from its Danish/African settlement, including the well preserved remains of the sugar factory.
The site’s seventeen buildings include slave cabins (a few repurposed as a library and museum), a manager’s house, an overseer’s residence, a blacksmith’s shop, and numerous ancillary structures typical of a large 19th century sugar cane estate.
Wandering among the 16 acres of garden paths with pauses at the historic cemetery, visitors can readily absorb a sense of place and time. We at the Garden take seriously our role as stewards of this rich and vital material culture. Ongoing efforts to raise funds for the preservation of our buildings and ruins will ensure that they will continue to be eloquent reminders of St. Croix’s history.