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Sweet Success . . . The Story of Michigan's Beet Sugar Industry, 1898 - 1974 - Background Reading

Sweet Success . . .
The Story of Michigan's Beet Sugar Industry
1898 - 1974

By Ronald L. Henley

When the frost is on the pumpkin and the morning air is crisp and invigorating, activity in Michigan's sugar beet country begins to hum. As regular as clockwork, the harvest of the state's sugar beet crop is a sure sign of the onslaught of winter. The annual farming routine has been among the natural order of events for more than three-quarters of a century in Michigan's Saginaw Bay-Thumb area.

Historical Development

The establishment of beet sugar manufacturing in Michigan was certainly not accidental. Perhaps foremost among reasons to produce beet sugar was the desire to allow the state and the nation to become less dependent upon foreign countries for supplies of sugar. This dependency was especially evident in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century. During that period, the British blockade of continental Europe sealed off incoming supplies of cane sugar from the tropical world and forced the development of alternate sources of sugar. Consequently, the world's beet sugar industry was first established in France and Germany. This success subsequently spread to other nations of the world and allowed countries within the temperate climates to become less reliant upon foreign sources of cane sugar.

One of the first attempts to establish beet sugar manufacturing in the United States occurred at White Pigeon, Michigan, in 1838. Although a small factory was constructed and equipped to process five tons of beets daily, the lack of beet sugar technology forced the plant to cease operations in 1840. When the industry successfully reappeared at Bay City in 1898, there was a more thorough knowledge of both sugar beet production and beet sugar manufacturing within the United States. The industry had been established at Alvarado, California, since 1879, with further development taking place in Nebraska, Utah and elsewhere in California. Therefore, with a need to rekindle the industrial decline caused by the exploitation of the state's timber resources, the fertile acres of cutover land throughout much of Michigan provided a new base for establishing sugar beets as a cash crop.

Encouraged by the results of much state-wide testing of sugar beet production, initiated by Dr. Robert C. Kedzie of Michigan Agricultural College during the 1880s, the Michigan 1897 legislature passed a law, Act 48. Basically, this "sugar bounty" specified that the state treasury would pay one cent per pound to any Michigan manufacturers who produced sugar from Michigan grown beets, providing that the sugar purity was 90 percent and that the farmers were paid at least four dollars a ton for beets containing 12 percent sugar. Few payments were actually made, however, for the Michigan Supreme Court ruled the bounty unconstitutional in 1900. Nevertheless, the initial impact of the sugar bounty stimulated the successful emergence and rapid growth of the beet sugar industry during the early years of its existence.

Perhaps the greatest influence of the short-lived sugar bounty was experienced in 1899. The success of the Bay City factory (1898) had aroused enthusiasm among farmers and industrialists, and the bounty promised important subsidy payments. Therefore in 1899, eight new factories were constructed and began operations. Rapid growth of the industry continued during the next several years; between 1900 and 1906, fourteen additional plants were constructed. The completion of the factory at Charlevoix in 1906 brought the number of factories to twenty-three. However, because individual factory productivity was relatively small, and because manufacturers were too numerous in some areas or were in areas of inadequate beet production, many plants were not sound economic investments. The repeal of the sugar bounty in 1900 also caused serious financial hardships for some factories; subsidy payments were not forthcoming, and some plants had depended upon this revenue for financing purposes. Consequently, by 1909, only seventeen of the twenty-three factories that had been constructed and opened for production remained in operation.

Although the cultivation of sugar beets and factory locations during this early period were widespread throughout the state, the primary activity for the industry was in the southern two-thirds of the Lower Peninsula. The greatest concentration of sugar beet production and beet sugar factories was in the Saginaw Bay-Thumb area; southwestern Michigan was an area of secondary importance. It is significant that the counties in which beet sugar factories were located, as well as immediately adjacent counties, ranked highest in sugar beet production.

Along with the influence of the sugar bounty, another important event occurred during the first decade of beet sugar manufacturing in Michigan. In 1906, six faltering sugar companies, with plants located at Alma, Bay City, Caro, Carrollton, Croswell and Sebewaing, consolidated to form the Michigan Sugar Company that is still in operation. Previously, in 1903, two Bay City factories owned and operated by the Michigan and Bay City Sugar Companies merged to form the Bay City-Michigan Sugar Company. With that merger, the original Michigan Sugar Company ceased to exist. Nevertheless, the subsequent consolidation of the six companies was of major importance to the industry; it provided more efficient centralized leadership for those factories and certainly encouraged the success of the industry as a whole.

Prior to the 1950s, sharp fluctuations occurred annually in the acreage of sugar beets harvested, total beet and sugar production, as well as yields per acre and the number of counties producing beets. Several factors accounted for these fluctuations. For example, the low overall beet and sugar production of 1916-17 is indicative of higher prices paid for other agricultural products in great demand in foreign countries during World War I. Also, the low production of 1928-29 certainly reflected the nation's overall economic crisis on the brink of the Great Depression. Additionally, the involvement of the United States in World War 11 accounted for unstable production in the 1940s, with production in 1943 equaling the low that had occurred in 1929.

Coinciding with the difficult times, several positive events prior to the 1950s contributed significantly to the development and success of the state's beet sugar industry. For instance, the Michigan Sugar Company acquired the Owosso and Lansing factories in 1924 and, later, made its final plant acquisition when it purchased the Mount Pleasant factory in 1948. (The factory at Mount Pleasant was constructed in 1920 and was the twenty-fourth and final plant to be built in Michigan.) With these acquisitions, the company had attained ownership of nine factories, further emphasizing its role as the major producer of sugar in Michigan.

During the 1930s, two other notable events occurred within the industry. In 1932, the present Monitor Sugar Company was formed. This transpired when the Robert Gage Coal Company became interested in diversification of its business interests due to diminishing coal production in the state. The company purchased the factory at Bay City (Salzburg) and became known as the Monitor Sugar Division of the Robert Gage Coal Company. Later, in October 1966, Robert Gage Coal Company split into two corporations, and Monitor Sugar Company became a separate entity. Also in 1932, the sugar companies and beet growers united to form the Farmers and Manufacturers Beet Sugar Association. The purpose of this organization, through the years, has been to represent the growers and processors of sugar beets in Michigan and Ohio. To accomplish its goals, representatives for the growers and processors mutually conduct research to improve the efficiency of both farms and factories, keep in touch with legislation and Washington trends affecting the beet sugar industry, and jointly promote the sale and consumption of Michigan-made sugar. Ultimately, the Farmers and Manufacturers Beet Sugar Association helped to promote mutual trust and harmony between the beet growers and processors. This cooperative effort has played an important role in strengthening the beet sugar industry of the state.

The post-World War II years proved to be a period of dynamic change for the industry. By the late 1950s, only the factories located at Bay City, Caro, Carrollton, Croswell and Sebewaing remained in operation. The plant at Bay City was owned and operated by Monitor Sugar Company, and the other four remained under the ownership of Michigan Sugar Company. With the exception of Croswell, each factory was located in a major beet producing county in the Saginaw Bay-Thumb area.

Coinciding with the sharp reduction in the number of factories, the number of beet producing counties had been drastically reduced by the late 1950s. Also, the counties of southeastern Michigan, which had formerly supplied the Blissfield plant, began shipping their beets to processing plants in northern Ohio. Nevertheless, these counties still formed an important sugar beet producing area within Michigan. At the close of the 1950s, beet sugar manufacturing had become more centralized than ever in the Saginaw Bay-Thumb area. Today's distribution of the industry was firmly established by 1959.

From 1960 to 1974, Michigan's beet sugar industry experienced a period of relative stability. The extreme annual fluctuations of beet and sugar production, as well as the acreage of beets harvested, so prevalent in previous decades, did not occur. The number of beet producing counties was stable at nineteen for most of the period, and the locations and ownership of the five beet sugar factories remained unchanged from the late 1950s.

Although there were fewer factories, beet Producing counties, and farms producing sugar beets than ever before in the history of the industry, record levels of beet and sugar production were achieved from 1960 to 1974. For example, with the exception of 1960, more than a million tons of sugar beets were produced each year. Prior to 1960, this level of production was reached only fifteen times in sixty-two years and never with the consistency of this period. Beet production in the five counties in which factories were located (Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Huron and Sanilac) continued to increase and, from 1960 to 1974, they produced nearly 84 percent of all sugar beets grown within the state. However, considering that beets produced in southeastern Michigan counties were shipped to northern Ohio processing plants since the mid-1950s, production in the Saginaw Bay-Thumb area became even more important to Michigan.

To best illustrate the locational changes and production increases that have occurred within the industry since its successful start at Bay City in 1898, two different periods of time might be compared. During the early Period of 1910-1919, an average of nearly 113,000 tons of beet sugar was produced annually in 16 factories. Sugar beet production averaged about 940,000 tons from nearly 114,000 harvested acres. About 50 counties grew sugar beets as a cash crop, and yields per acre averaged slightly more than 8 tons. In sharp contrast are the production figures for the period 1960-1974. During this time, 5 beet sugar factories in Michigan produced an average of nearly 147,000 tons of refined beet sugar annually. This output represented average annual production of more than 1,362,000 tons of sugar beets from approximately 79,800 acres in 19 counties.

Success Factors

In addition to the previously mentioned factors that contributed to the development and success of the beet sugar industry of Michigan, changes within the state's farm economy are also important. The trend toward greater agricultural specialization has been especially evident since World War II. Production of sugar beets and other cash crops was particularly intense in the five counties where the beet sugar factories were located, as well as in Lenawee and Monroe counties in the southeastern comer of the state. The ultimate control over the location of specific crop types, however, is the favorable interrelationship among climatic factors, topography and soil types. These physical factors have proven especially favorable for the production of Michigan's sugar beet crop.

Coinciding with agricultural specialization, other noteworthy changes have occurred within Michigan's farm economy since the 1940s. Regarding the state's sugar beet farmers in particular, the declining number of farms, beet producing counties and acreage devoted to sugar beet production,were met with significant increases in yields per acre and greater acreage harvested per farm. Among those factors accounting for greater yields were improved sugar beet (monogerm) seeds, which permitted spaced planting with modern, mechanized equipment and the proper use and management of commercial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

Another significant aspect of Michigan's beet sugar industry was the trend toward greater mechanization by both beet growers and processors. Mechanization in agriculture virtually eliminated manual labor, facilitating greater efficiency during the growing season and allowing for a more rapid and efficient harvest. Similarly, the factories   greatly expanded and modernized their beet processing facilities. The development of better factory receiving and storage equipment and improved production techniques contributed to smooth-running operations. Continuing internal improvements also allowed greater efficiency of production. Generally, the trend toward greater automation enabled sugar companies to reduce manpower requirements. This factor partially compensated for rising costs of operations, which were not always equaled by increased net returns for the sale of sugar and its by products of beet pulp and molasses. Nonetheless, as the industry became more specialized, larger capital investments and increased production by both growers and processors were required. Consequently, counties and plants that produced marginal amounts were eliminated.

Since the initial establishment of the industry in Michigan, the state has maintained an important role in the United States domestic beet sugar program. For example, in 1908 the state's production was exceeded only by that of Colorado. During the period from 1920 to 1924, Michigan still remained second behind Colorado; Utah and California were ranked third and fourth, respectively. More recently (1967-1971), Michigan's ranking shifted to sixth among nineteen states producing beet sugar; California had become the nation's leader, followed by Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota and Washington. The primary factor for Michigan's relative decline was the total increase in production in other states.


  • Ball, John M. "Changes in Sugar Beet Production in Michigan, 1899-1958." Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters 45 (1960): 137-44.
  • Gutleben, Dan. The Sugar Tramp—1954. San Francisco: Bay Cities Duplicating Company, 1955.
  • Henley, Ronald L. "Michigan's Beet Sugar Industry: A Geographic Analysis." Unpublished M. A. thesis, Eastern Michigan University, 1973.
  • Henley, Ronald L., and Ojala, Carl F. Michigan's Changing Beet Sugar Industry. Boyne City, Michigan: The Prestige Press, 1977.
    —"The Beet Sugar Industry of Michigan: A Geographical Analysis." Michigan Academician 6, No. 3 (Winter, 1974): 321-32.
  • Kedzie, Frank S. "Sugar Production in Michigan." Michigan History 16 (July-September, 1932): 296-303.
  • Stilgenbauer, F. A. "The Michigan Sugar Beet Industry." Economic Geography 3 (October, 1927): 486-506.
  • United States Beet Sugar Association. The Beet Sugar Story. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Beet Sugar Association, 1959.


The growing and processing of sugar beets have undergone numerous changes since the industry burgeoned in Michigan.

The initial problem was one of agriculture rather than manufacturing. After numerous experiments, Harry T. Wickes, Thomas A. Harvey and George B. Morley, along with other prominent Saginaw Valley citizens, early in 1897 induced some six hundred farmers to grow sugar beets. This trial crop produced beets with an average sugar content of sixteen percent—an excellent prognosis for the fledgling industry.

In 1898 industrialists established the Michigan Sugar Company plant at Essexville. Spurred by an 1897 legislative act offering a bounty of one cent for each pound of sugar made from Michigan beets and the resultant emergence of new factories, farmers began the widespread planting of sugar beet crops. In that early era they hauled tons of beets to various factories in wagons, sleighs, trucks and trains.

Today multiple-row harvesters top, dig and load sugar beets into trucks that deliver them to factories to be processed. Piling machines unload the beets and convey them to large "air conditioned" storage piles.

Since the inception of a beet sugar industry, varied techniques of obtaining pure sugar from a raw sugar beet have evolved. Today the process is highly automated; it begins with washing the sugar beets and cutting them into long thin strips known as "cossettes." From that point, the modem beet sugar factory goes through the following five steps:

1. Diffusion
The cossettes enter the diffuser which extracts the raw juice and discharges the pulp to a dryer. The raw juice then travels to an automated juice purification station. The dried pulp is used for cattle feed.

At the juice purification station the raw juice is mixed with milk of lime, treated with carbon dioxide gas and filtered. Repeated twice, this process increases the purity of the juice.

3. Evaporation
The multiple-effect evaporators serve to concentrate the juice by removing excess water. This is achieved by boiling it under a vacuum. Flowing from one evaporator to another, the juice's density increases and a heavy syrup-like liquid remains. The juice from these evaporators is filtered once again and then enters the crystallization process.

4. Crystallization
Again the manufacturer bolls the juice under a vacuum causing further concentration until the sugar in the juice begins to actually crystallize. The finished product of this process of crystallization is called "massecuite" and consists of sugar crystals and syrup.

5. Separation
The massecuite then travels to the centrifugal machine to be separated. Placed in a finely perforated cylindrical basket, the centrifuge spins at 1,000 revolutions per minute and throws up syrup toward the screen-like holes. The pure white sugar crystals remain and subsequently are bathed by hot filtered water. The syrups thrown out of the centrifuge are reboiled and eventually become molasses. The remaining slightly damp sugar crystals then move to the granulator where hot filtered air dries them. Lastly the manufacturer packs the final product—pure white sugar.

Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.

Updated 08/17/2010

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