Delta Sugar: Louisiana's Vanishing Plantation Landscape

Article excerpt

Delta Sugar: Louisiana's Vanishing Plantation Landscape. By John B. Rehder. Creating the North American Landscape. (Baltimore, Md., and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, c. 1999. Pp. xvi, 355. $45.00, ISBN 0-8018-6131-4.)

South Louisiana's sugar industry has produced a distinctive cultural landscape. Cultural geographer John Rehder first examined the landscape traits of this region's plantations in the late 1960s. He now chronicles the demise of that landscape in Delta Sugar, arguing that the emergence in the 1970s of a multiplantation corporate model was the key factor in the displacement of traditional patterns of plantation management and settlement.

Employing a "culturogeographic perspective" (p. xii), Rehder examines the influence of the delta environment, Caribbean precedents, and ethnicity on the development of a Louisiana sugar plantation landscape defined by sugar factories and fields, levees and ditches, and outbuildings and agricultural implements. The trappings of a rural farm community--stores, churches, and houses for the free and unfree--were also present. Using six ethnically and morphologically diverse plantations, Rehder probes the waning of each over the past quarter-century. Decline is measured by the degree to which traditional plantation management has been supplanted by multiplantation corporate forms, and the extent to which characteristic plantation buildings have been replaced by a "bulldozed, sanitized landscape" (p. xiii). One exception to this pattern of instability has been the model of the small plantations/ cooperative sugar mill.

There are substantial strengths to this mix of history, settlement geography, and material culture. Rehder's description of space--of floor plans, field dimensions, and roads and canals--is sure-handed and clear. He includes a deft delineation of the differences between French Creole and Anglo-American plantation mansions, and the supporting photographs and drawings are excellent. There is also a fine overview of cane growing and processing over two centuries that is readily understandable by a person unfamiliar with the technology. Changing sugar processing technology, such as ongoing mill modernization and the invention of the cane harvester, led to progressively larger scales of operation and reduced the need for a large, quarters-based labor force. …