PORTO RICAN FARMS


November 2, 1899

 

PORTO RICAN FARMS.

 

A Crittenden Boy Writes of Sugar Plantations, Tobacco and Ponies.

 

MAYAGNEZ [MAYAGUEZ], PORTO RICO, Oct. 5--I want to tell you something about the big farms on Uncle Sam's new island.  It will seem queer to many that there are large farms in Porto Rico.  We look upon the Island as a patch upon the face of the Carribean [sic] Sea; we think of it as divided into little garden spots with huts connected with them.  Porto Rico is nothing of the kind, it has hundreds of thousands of huts it is true, but its lands largely consist of big estates.  Fully one half of the island is made up of large tracts; it has sugar plantations of thousands of acres and coffee estates which produce thousands of dollars a year, and there are regions in which you may ride for miles and not be out of sight of tobacco.

The town of Mayagnez [Mayaguez], where this letter is dated, is down on the coast of the Caribbean Sea.  For miles above and below the country is covered with the pale, sickly green of luxuriantly growing sugar cane.  There are large plantations of sugar cane upon all the coast lands; they form a pale green binding about Porto Rico, running from the sea back to the mountains. From them is produced three to four million dollars worth of sugar a year; upon them are made millions of gallons of rum, and out of their factories annually flows enough molasses to give all the children of the United States a taffy pulling.

All of the plantations are valuable; it takes a great deal of money to run them, and those who own them may be called the sugar kings of Porto Rico.  Many of them have incomes of thousands of dollars a year, and not a few gets from 15 to to [sic] 25 percent on the capital they have invested.  Who are they?  It is hard to say; not a few are Spaniards who live in Barcelona and other Spanish cities, and manage their estates through agents.  One big sugar planter is a Frenchman; several are Americans and a large number are Porto Ricans.  Some of them have been living beyond their income, notwithstanding their large profits, and have mortgaged their estates and the mortgages are now being bought by Americans.  Other Americans are investing in sugar lands, one of the largest estates on the island having recently gone into the hands of Boston parties.  I believe the day will come when the most of the sugar will be owned by our native citizens, and that under their management they will pay even better than now.  I would not be surprised to see a sugar trust formed to buy up and operate the Porto Rican plantations.

Sugar plantations need large capital, much of the profit comes from the economical handling of the cane and the better the machinery the greater the income.  Today the best sugar plantation here produces about 4000 pounds per acre.  Fifty years ago 9000 pounds, and the lands were cropped again and again without replanting, the cane was cut down and new shoots at once sprouted up around the old stalks and within a few months there was another crop ready for cutting.  In Louisiana, I believe, they cut about two crops in three years, then the cane must be replanted.  In the past, Porto Rican plantations produced for fifteen years in successions many of the estates now produce for five years, and in the best parts of the island some yield for seven years.  The machinery of Porto Rico is not the most modern; most of the mills are old fashion and wasteful.  Some are moved by oxen, and with two or three exceptions none are up to date.

Some of the Louisiana mills cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, they make their profit because absolutely everything in the cane is turned into money and not a cent goes to waste.  On a few of the plantations here there are railroads from the field to the factory, one or two estates have steam engines to pull the cars, while on others this work is done by oxen.  On smaller plantations the cane is hauled on carts, nearly every where the sugar, when manufactured is carried to the seaboard by oxen.  The labor on the plantations is less than half the price paid in Louisiana.  The work is done by the peons, who receive from 30 to 40 cents a day and board themselves.  They plow the cane, they keep it free from weeds, and when ripe, cut it down and load onto the cars for the factories.

I have spent some time in traveling in the tobacco district of Porto Rico. These are to be found up in the mountains high above the sugar lands.  They are exceedingly rich, the dark green plants covering the hills and climbing, as it were, clear to the summits of the mountains.  Many of the tobacco fields are on the side of hills so steep that you would think the plants would fall out of the soil, and some of them so steep that the men have to almost lean backward to hoe the crop which grows almost over them.  Scattered here and there through the tobacco fields are long thatched sheds in which the leaves are dried and cured for the market.  Some of the sheds are built up and down the steep hills, the slope of the hill forming the fall which makes rain roll off.  One of the richest tobacco districts on the island, is that of Caney; the tobacco raised there is as fine as the best Havana tobacco and commands a higher price on the market; much of it is shipped to Havana and made into cigars and exported to the Unites States.

I can buy a cigar here for one cent that would cost you five cents in the States, and for two cents I can buy a better cigar than you can buy in New York for ten cents.  Fine cigars are sold here at the factories for $27 to $30 per thousand, the very finest bringing $45 per thousand. Such cigars would sell for from $100 to $200 per thousand in New York.  There are cigar factories everywhere in the tobacco districts; you find them also in the cities and in San Juan.  There is a cigarette factor[y] here that makes about 100,000 cigarettes a day.  The cigars are all made by hand.  Every workman picks out his own leaves selects his [fillers] and wrappers and after rolling [out a] cigar, finishes it by licking that [part] of the leaf which ends the [cigar] and goes into the mouth of the smoker.  This is so in all Porto Rican cigars.

If the ponies of Porto Rico could be shipped to the United States the would bring good prices as riding animals, they are all single footers and they will carry you at this gait all day without tiring.  They go as easily as rocking horses and are usually gentle and easy to manage.  The common people do not use saddles, they lay thick pads upon the backs of the ponies and strap a little basket about eighteen inches square and six inches thick on each side, this makes a seat of such a nature that the man can sit upon the back of the animal with his legs on each side of the poney's [sic] neck.  He sits, in fact as though he were in a cushioned chair, and the little beast rapidly and easily carries him over the road.  Well I will close with the best wishes to the readers of the Press.

Yours very truly,
BERT E. WOODY.

 

Source:  Crittenden Press. (Marion, Ky.) 1879-1907, November 2, 1899, Image 2 - Chronicling America - The Library of Congress.

 

[My comments are in brackets.]