Posts Tagged ‘Business’

The Story of the Menominee River Sugar Company 1903-1955

April 1st, 2022

Menominee, Michigan, situated far from the world’s financial centers a hundred years ago, much as it is today, nevertheless placed itself directly in the middle of one of the hottest business booms of the early twentieth century – sugar. The small community that dared to plant a footprint in world commerce occupies a slivered point of land that dips into Lake Michigan at a point so close in proximity to Wisconsin that had a cartographer’s finger twitched at a crucial moment, Menominee would be in Wisconsin instead of Michigan.

Menominee is bordered on the east by Green Bay, an arm of Lake Michigan, and on the south-west by the Menominee River. In 1903, many investors in the beet sugar industry had a timber background and had thus come to believe that the same rivers that had once delivered logs to sawmills in abundance could also serve the needs of a beet sugar factory where massive volumes of water are used for fluming beets into the factory, washing them and then diffusing the sugar from them. A sugar factory could easily put three million gallons of water to use every twenty-four hours. Barges can carry sugarbeets from the farm fields and freighters can carry products to market. The presence of the Menominee River convinced investors that Menominee could compete with the nation’s sugar producers despite negative comments from naysayers who said Menominee was too far north to successfully grow sugarbeets.

The naysayers had a point. Menominee, Michigan is an unlikely place to construct a beet sugar factory. Situated at the western end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the growing season is about forty days shorter than the prime beet growing regions in the state’s Lower Peninsula. The short season can prevent the ripening of beets which will then lessen sugar content of immature beets ill prepared for the stress of the milling process. Severe frosts in early spring are not unusual and are almost always fatal to a crop of young beets. Frosts can come early in the fall, too, which can make it impossible to harvest a crop. A farmer stood to lose his entire crop either early in the growing season or near the time of harvest after he had invested heavily in bringing the sugarbeet crop to term. Investors, however, in Menominee, as in many of Michigan’s cities, tended to discount input from farmers before building a factory and would frequently interpret exaggerated enthusiasm from a handful of growers as representing the broader farming community. Quite often, as in Menominee’s case, as it would turn out, the handful did not represent the whole.

Official recognition by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1898 of the importance of the sugarbeet industry sparked the construction of beet sugar factories across the nation. One year earlier the nation could boast only ten beet sugar factories, four of which were in California, one in Utah, two in Nebraska and three in New York. The construction of seven sugarbeet factories in 1898 brought into focus for the first time the stirrings of a rush not unlike the dot-com boom that blossomed nearly one hundred years later. The idea that sugar produced from sugarbeets could compete with sugar produced from sugarcane expanded into a full-fledged boom by 1900 when the nationwide count of sugarbeet factories stood at thirty-two in eleven states.

Nowhere was the blaze hotter than in Michigan where nine factories followed the successful start up of a factory in Essexville, Michigan, a suburb of Bay City. A burst of cyclonic enthusiasm caused a mad scramble when investors, constructors, bankers, and farmers combined energies and skills to bring to life eight factories in a single year! They were in Holland, Kalamazoo, Rochester, Benton Harbor, Alma, West Bay City, Caro, and a second factory in Essexville. Despite the paucity of factory constructors and the engineers to operate them, fourteen additional factories rose on the outskirts of Michigan towns during the next six years, one of which appeared in Menominee in 1903.

In Menominee, a group of investors undeterred by the natural disadvantages and buoyed by encouragement from influential investors and knowledgeable experts, set a plan in motion to maintain the economic viability of their city after the approaching demise of the lumber industry, which had until then provided the underpinnings of Menominee’s economy. The plan included the design of one of the largest and most modern sugarbeet factories to appear in America up to that time.