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Crews to stabilize sugar mill ruins

The historic Yulee Sugar Mill will undergo work to remove threats to its life span.

Published January 13, 2006

HOMOSASSA - Standing sentry in the heart of old Homosassa for more than 150 years, the Yulee Sugar Mill hints of a time when the community was center stage for the drama of the Civil War.

Built by 69 slaves in 1850, the stone and iron structure provided sugar products to the Southern troops.

But it has not weathered the years unscathed.

To ensure that future visitors will be able to see the remnants of history as they learn about the past, state and national park workers are about to begin a project to stabilize the structure and clear the Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins Historic State Park of trees that threaten to crumble its foundation.

"We're not going to rebuild it," said park manager Nick Robbins. "It will stay like it is, but it needs to stay like it is for future generations."

The work, which begins next week, will undoubtedly catch the attention of residents, he said Thursday, standing in the shadow of the imposing mill chimney. The mill is on the National Register of Historic Places and is considered Citrus County's oldest standing structure. It sits at the edge of Yulee Drive, so close to the road that there is concern that the car vibrations and exhaust might have contributed to the deterioration of the mill, but attempts to reroute the road have been unsuccessful.

One of the first things people will notice is that the tall cedar trees surrounding the mill will be cut down. And the thickest part of the live oak, which for decades has leaned over and shaded the historic structure, will be cut down.

Dappled sunlight that illuminates the stone walls will give way to more sunshine.

Robbins knows that people like the look of the mill as it is.

"It's pretty," he said, gesturing to a clump of ferns on the site which will also have to go.

Then he points to the reasons.

The oak tree, for example, has sent roots deep into the foundations of the mill. Roots can do much damage to a fragile structure. The cooling vat walls on another side of the mill have already been fractured by roots.

"This can be disastrous to a historic structure," he said.

In addition to the tree work, in February work will begin to replace the mortar that holds together the stone structure.

"We will be stabilizing the ruins," Robbins explained. "We want to fix it so that it is stable again."

In the 1960s, the original lime and sand mortar was replaced by Portland Mortar, a much stronger substance. As time went by, the new mortar proved to be stronger than the rocks it held in place, causing fractures. Now that mortar will be replaced by a softer concrete which will allow uniform expansion and contraction.

The work will be done by park service staff, volunteers and rangers from other parks. The methods used might then be passed along to other parks that also might have similar structures that need to be stabilized, Robbins said.

The project is expected to cost about $45,000.

Much of the plan for fixing up the ruins grew out of a site survey conducted in 1996 by Gary Ellis and his Gulf Archaeology Research Institute.

Ellis said Thursday that he considers this region of Florida among the richest in history on the continent with its forts, battle sites, burial mounds and other archaeological features, including the old mill and its ties to the Civil War era.

In addition to the physical changes planned for the historic site, another very different project has also been going on at the sugar mill in recent weeks that will also assist with the work.

Lori Collins, the undergraduate adviser for the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, archaeologist Travis Doering, also from USF, and Chris Branas of Phillips & Jordan Inc., a specialty contractor, have been working on a three-dimensional computer model of the sugar mill.

The work on that detailed digital model continued Thursday. On a tripod in one corner of the state park site, sophisticated equipment was mapping millions of points along one wall of the structure. On the notebook computer in front of them, the wall took perfect shape in a virtual world.

Every nook, chip and crevice could be seen on the screen, ensuring that the sugar mill will always be available for examination in its current condition.

Branas said the work will provide structural analysis to help with the stabilization. It is also a part of the process to try to get the mill listed as a National Historic Landmark.

That history makes the Yulee mill quite significant, Robbins said.

When it was built, it was one of only three iron roller sugar mills in Florida. It was also rare because it was on Florida's west coast, where only a handful of sugar mills were found.

The mill was part of a sugar plantation called Margarita owned by David Levy Yulee, the first Florida state senator. Yulee's 5,100-acre plantation also grew citrus and cotton and he is the developer of an orange variety still used today known as the Homosassa sweet orange.

Yulee's home was on what is now known as Tiger Tail Island. It burned in 1864 when the Union blockades came up the Homosassa River. The Northern troops then freed Yulee's slaves, ending the operation of the sugar mill.

In its last year of operation, the mill produced 486,000 pounds of sugar.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or

[Last modified January 13, 2006, 01:45:18]

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