The history of Mercedita dates to the first decades of the 19th century when Sebastián Serrallés, a Catalan, founded a sugar mill on the outskirts of Ponce. The mill produced unrefined sugar. The exact date it was founded is not known. When he returned to Spain, he left his son, Juan Serrallés Colón, in charge of the mill, and Juan Serrallés bought out the interests of the other members of the family. He also acquired neighboring land used to grow sugar cane. In 1861, he consolidated his land holdings and founded the Mercedes Plantation, which he named in honor of his wife. It is not known exactly when the plantation was first called Mercedita. The plantation consisted of 350 cuerdas of land, about 200 of which were planted. In 1862, the harvest reached a total of 725,666 pounds of sugar. In 1865, the plantation began producing rum for local sale.
During the following years, Serrallés acquired and incorporated other plantations into Mercedita through purchases and leases. Among these were the Laurel, Fe, Destierro, Bronce, Ponceña, Mallorquina, Barrancas, Unión, Mattei, Caño Verde, Margarita and Cintrona plantations. To ensure that the quality of the sugar was competitive in the market, and to make production more efficient, the final separation phase was mechanized in 1870 with the acquisition of steam tachos, or evaporation tanks. This separated Mercedita from the other sugar mills on the southern coast, which still used barrels or drums in that era.
The work of growing, gathering and processing sugar cane was done by slaves. Juan Serrallés owned 139 slaves on various plantations. After the abolition of slavery in 1873, the work was done mainly by freed slaves. In the 1880s, Mercedita began to encourage the labor force to live on the landowner's plantations.
Mercedita survived the sugar crisis of the last three decades of the 19th century because it had diversified and sold syrups and rum, which increased its income. Thus, Serrallés was able to keep modernizing the plantation little by little. By the end of the 19th century, he had also established a transportation system of moveable railroads that used wagons pulled by teams of oxen.
After the death of Juan Serrallés in 1897, Mercedita passed to his heirs. In 1902, Herman H. Wirshing, an American of German descent and an engineer by trade, married Julia Serrallés, one of the heirs. He introduced various technological changes to Mercedita during the first decade of the 20th century. It was then that it became a central sugar mill. By 1902, it had more than 5,000 cuerdas of land and the harvest that year produced 20,000 sacks (at 250 pounds each) of sugar.
After the arrival of United States forces in 1898, the island sugar industry was dominated mainly by the major capital centers in the United States. Some locally owned plantations, however, such as the Mercedita Central Mill, were able to remain afloat. The product harvested on the island was, in general, sent to refineries in the United States to be processed. It was not until 1926 that the Mercedita Central Sugar Mill founded the first Puerto Rican refinery, which it called the Porto Rican American Refinery. It was there that production of Snow White brand of sugar began. Later, in 1935, the Serrallés heirs founded the Serrallés Distillery to produce rum. This made use of the molasses that was produced in the mill and the refinery. In 1949, the Serrallés family heirs sold the mill and it incorporated under the name Central Mercedita, Inc. That year, the mill pressed 74,120 tons of cane.
The Puerto Rican sugar industry began to face problems in the middle of the 20th century due to various factors, such as increases in the costs of production, a reduction in the sales price of sugar and strikes by workers. The Mercedita Central Sugar Mill was no exception. After years of financial problems, the mill was leased by the Puerto Rico Lands Administration on October 13, 1971. The agreement included the use of the railroad, the workshops, the refinery and the mill.
In 1973, the lease contract was transferred to the recently created Sugar Corporation of Puerto Rico, which was created for the purpose of developing and improving the island sugar industry. The corporation bought Mercedita on January 30, 1979. Ownership of the refinery passed to the Puerto Rico Lands Authority on March 1, 1981. Most of the land used to plant cane, which amounted to about 8,200 cuerdas, remained in the hands of the Serrallés family and was leased to the Corporation until 1985. After that, the land was managed by individual sharecroppers who leased it from the family. The Sugar Corporation guaranteed these agreements by providing credit and other incentives.
Despite the government's efforts to revitalize the sugar industry, by the beginning of the 1990s, the situation was critical. Only four central sugar mills remained: Coloso, Plata, Roig and Mercedita. Mercedita ceased operations in 1994.
By the PROE Editorial Group
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Zayas Rivera, Duhamel. El verdor y dulce de nuestra caña de azúcar. [Puerto Rico: s. n.], 2004.
Pumarada O'Neill, Luis. Trasfondo histórico de la hacienda azucarera puertorriqueña: 1523-1942. Tomo I: Trasfondo Histórico. [San Juan, P. R.]: Oficina Estatal de Conservación Histórica, [s.f.].
Autor: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: March 18, 2010.