The Sweet Stuff
The NSW sugar industry was based on smallholdings rather than the plantations that predominated in Queensland. The pioneer cane farmers had great ingenuity in developing cane-crushing devices but their attempts to produce sugar for sale were small scale and the end product too variable to be profitable or edible. There were over fifty small, grower-owned mills operating until the depression years of the 1890s.
Meanwhile the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR), in Sydney, was looking for supplies of sugar cane. Three mills were established in 1870 at Darkwater (near Kempsey), Southgate and Chatsworth on the Clarence. Difficulties accessing the mills at times of flood or low water plus unreliable cane supplies led to the closure of the Southgate mill in 1879 and the Chatsworth mill in 1887. When the Darkwater mill closed, the machinery was used to set up a new mill at Harwood in 1874. This originally included a distillery that produced rum for the colony, but this closed in 1895. Sugar mills were later built at Condong on the Tweed River in 1880 and Broadwater on the Richmond River in 1881. CSR increased their cane prices and the increasing efficiency of these large-scale mills soon forced smaller ones out of business.
The Harwood Mill had agreements with local farmers to grow cane for 10/- a ton (with an extra 1/- for cartage to the mill). CSR employed the cane-gangs and usually handled the transfer of the cane to the mill. They also purchased larger ships to take the raw sugar to their refinery in Sydney.
Transporting and loading the cane in horse-drawn carts from the fields to punts was laborious. Later cane loading derricks came into use. Up to eight heavily laden 40-ton wooden punts were towed to the mill by steam-driven and later diesel tugs – a difficult task in often shallow or rough water. The earliest of the Harwood Mill tugs were the Cakibou and the Iluka, both paddle wheelers. A floating dock was built in 1880 for the company fleet of tugs, steam launches and barges. The Beardmore was the first diesel-powered boat which today rests inside a shed in the Harwood Mill complex.
By the 1930s some short tramlines had been built to get the cane from the field to the river but eventually tractors hauling trailers replaced punts and steamers. Full mechanisation was not achieved until the late 1970s, after the mills were bought by a local growers co-operative and the introduction of a multi-lift semi-trailer system.
Bulk handling was introduced in the 1950s to take the raw sugar to Sydney or Brisbane, until a refinery was constructed alongside the Harwood Mill in 1989. The refinery stimulated more cane growing and marked a partnership between the NSW Sugar Milling Co-Operative and Manildra Group. In 2015 the refining and milling operations were merged to become Sunshine Sugar. Still known locally as the Harwood Mill, it remains the centre of the local sugar industry and is the oldest surviving sugar mill in Australia.