For the past 250 years, sugar has played a major cultural and economic role in St. Bernard Parish. Now, the commodity gets its due, with the ribbon-cutting ceremony this week for the Sugar Museum on Hernandez Street in Old Arabi.
Occupying a former jail and courthouse that dates back to 1911, the museum features maps, documents, photographs, diagrams and artifacts that attest to the importance of the sugar industry to the parish.
“The museum will give people the opportunity to connect to this very important element of St. Bernard’s history and culture,” said Katie Tomasseo, tourism director for the parish. “It’s a big history to fit into a not-so-big space.”
Tomasseo said the idea for the museum evolved a year or two ago when the parish became eligible for a grant from the Louisiana Tourism Recovery Program, using money allocated to help boost tourism after the 2010 BP oil spill.
The old jail, which served as a meeting hall for the Arabi Lions Club in recent years, was repaired and a kitchen installed to ready it for special events. Of the two jail cells, one was retained and will host exhibits about the history of Arabi, including its former stockyards and slaughterhouses.
The parish tourism office will operate the museum, but it hired the Southern Food and Beverage Museum — known as SoFAB — to create the exhibit.
Liz Williams, the president and director of the nonprofit SoFAB, said the exhibit spotlights St. Bernard’s contribution to industry.
“Some of the items are on loan and others are from our collection,” she said. “We also developed a website … to be viewed over a smartphone that expands on what visitors to the museum will see while they are there.” The web address is www.oldarabisugar.org.
To Williams, Old Arabi in St. Bernard makes the ideal location for the museum, since it has been the home of American Sugar Refining Inc. — often simply called the Domino refinery for its major brand — since 1909.
“The refinery produces 8 million pounds of sugar a day, making it the biggest sugar refinery in the Western Hemisphere,” Williams said. “Some aspects of the exhibit explain how sugar is refined, the stages it goes through, right there in the shadow of the refinery.”
A sugar augur may not be a familiar tool to most museum visitors, but it’s on display, along with sugar nippers, a sugar kettle and a probe.
“The augur was used to press down into a barrel of sugar and then twist, to unpack it,” Williams explained. “The probe was used to poke a sack of sugar in the middle to make sure the whole sack was filled with sugar, rather than sugar on top and sand on the bottom.”
According to St. Bernard Parish historian William de Marigny Hyland, the first attempts at sugar granulation in the parish occurred in 1764, when Louis Boré and Jean Balthazar de Ponfrac, the Chevalier de Mazant, experimented with a refining technique.
The experimentation ended when the chevalier’s Chalmette plantation — later to be owned by the de la Ronde family and appropriated by the British at the time of the Battle of New Orleans — was confiscated by the Spanish, due to de Ponfrac’s role in French settlers’ insurrection of 1768 against their new Spanish rulers.
In 1794, Etienne de Boré, the son of Louis, purchased the equipment that Antonio Mendez and Emanuel Solis had used to attempt the granulation process and succeeded at last.
“Bore’s success meant that, in large measure, that the Louisiana sugar industry was born in St. Bernard Parish,” Hyland said.
The Sugar Museum is steps away from the Aycock Barn, a performance pavilion built by St. Bernard Parish in 2010 and the site of music events, a seafood and farmers market, and a monthly art and wine walk.
“The museum means a lot to us because it’s an attraction that will help visitors discover our history and our cultural heritage,” Tomasseo said. “It shows our dedication to preserving our history.”
She said the museum will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
An admission fee has not yet been established. For more information, call the tourism office at (504) 278-4242.