How a Governor Stopped the Beet Sugar Industry in Its Tracks

How a Governor Stopped the Beet Sugar Industry in Its Tracks

Historians generally agree that Michigan Sugar Company constructed the first beet sugar factory built in Michigan in 1898 in Essexville, a suburb of Bay City, Michigan. It isn’t entirely true. The first beet sugar manufactured in the United States occurred simultaneously in the states of Massachusetts and Michigan in 1839. The earlier Michigan effort preceded the Essexville endeavor by sixty years but was doomed to failure when a future governor declared that Michigan was unsuitable for growing sugarbeets.

By the 1830s, the new European practice of extracting sugar identical to cane sugar from beets had captured the interest of like-minded small groups of investors in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Michigan. The latter group took the name “White Pigeon” after the town in which the company was organized when establishing the White Pigeon Sugar Manufactory.

The Michigan and Massachusetts enterprises predated the construction of factories in Michigan beginning in 1898 that today provide a direct annual contribution of approximately $298 million to the Michigan economy. Adding the indirect effects, the total contribution to business activity approaches nearly one billion dollars annually. Those first factories averaged a modest five tons of sliced sugarbeets per day, an amount processed in less than sixty seconds in today’s modern factories.

Early experiments in sugarbeet processing in America were directly related to the formative stages of a bold new economic paradigm taking root in Europe-one which held that commerce and free trade between nations might generate more revenue for governments and more prosperity for the governed than simple taxation. For commerce to demonstrate its superior power as an economic driver, governments dissolved two pivotal institutions, protectionism and slavery.

The realization that commerce could replace taxation as the fount from which governments would draw their means of support did not, however, come without a price. The price was war, actually a series of wars that began with the American Revolution and ended with the American Civil War. The leaders of America’s Sons of Liberty, those who first raised the specter of war against England, were men engaged in commerce as traders, warehouse owners, bankers, and lawyers. Their goal was to put an end to trade practices that favored England to the disadvantage of the colonies and to taxation that either limited or prohibited trade. The French Revolution, hard on the heels of the American Revolution, similarly began as a tax revolt before blazing out of control into a bloodbath that turned that nation’s aristocracy into fugitives from the guillotine.

When presenting the Declaration of Independence, the thirteen colonies listed among injuries experienced at the hand of King George III “… cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world” and “imposing Taxes on us without our consent.” The obstacle to fair trade was protectionism, a practice whereby a country uses tariffs or import quotas to shield its internal commerce from competition by more efficient producers.

Protectionism became a pervasive practice in England in the mid-seventeenth century. At that time a series of parliamentary acts controlled trade by decreeing that only British-owned vessels would convey imported goods from Asia, Africa, and America. Worse yet, the British Navigation Act of 1660 specifically prohibited the colonies from shipping tobacco, sugar, cotton, and other named products to any country other than England.

The American colonies had enjoyed a flourishing trade in the enumerated goods with a number of countries, and strict enforcement of these acts would have caused economic ruin. Fortunately, because England lacked sea dominance, its bark was worse than its bite. In addition to financial losses experienced by the colonists, was the idea that the British could so severely affect the fortunes of nearly two million people in the colonies. It rankled. Nonetheless, in succeeding decades England enacted a succession of additional trade suppression measures, including laws that outlawed the export of corn to England, sharply limited the production of some goods outside of England, and prohibited entirely the manufacture of steel in the American colonies.

The harshest suppression on colonial trade was the Molasses Act of 1733, a law that placed prohibitive duties on molasses and sugar deliveries from the French West Indies to the colonies. The measure held potentially dire consequences for the New England colonies where prosperity relied upon the importation of those commodities. Had England the sea power to enforce the act, the colonies would have been left without a market for the flour, lumber, and fish that was exchanged in trade with the French West Indies. America’s war of independence and later the War of 1812 (called by some, the war for “Free Trade and Sailors Rights”) ultimately broke the stranglehold of British protectionism.

One further obstacle to the realization of international fair trade remained. That was the institution of slavery. If governments were to achieve the goal of securing recurring revenues from the manufacture and sale of products-sugar for example-then slavery would have to go the way of protectionist measures.

Those who operated sugar plantations in the world’s tropical and subtropical regions held a marketing advantage in that the labor-intensive process of planting, harvesting, and manufacturing sugar was provided without labor cost other that which was associated with acquiring and maintaining slaves. The terrible human cost notwithstanding, from the point of view of an economist slavery retarded technological advancement of every kind and thus deterred the establishment of sugarbeets in the northern latitudes of Europe and North America.

On the European continent, a twenty-two year struggle between France and England that began in 1793, during which each tried to starve the other of foreign trade, showed the wastefulness of protectionist policies. It was that struggle, however, that gave sugarbeets the opportunity to climb onto the world stage when, in response to an embargo, France began to extract sugar from sugarbeets which until then had been confined to laboratory experiments. For the first time in world history, sugar, the only commodity that grows with equal success in both temperate and tropical regions, could cleanse itself of the twin blemishes of protectionism and slavery. Europeans, having learned during the Napoleonic era, the disadvantages of depending upon imported cane sugar, adopted with enthusiasm the new sugarbeet technology.

Attracted by reports of new settlers that sugarbeets had gained popularity in France, some Pennsylvania investors headed by James Ronaldson organized the Beet Sugar Society of Philadelphia and in 1830 sent James Pedder to France to study the industry. Pedder subsequently shipped six hundred pounds of seed for distribution to farmers near Enfield, Pennsylvania, where for the first time in American history, the sugarbeet was grown. Nonetheless, while Ronaldson and Pedder vigorously promoted the idea, they were unable to develop a sufficient number of adherents to support a manufacturing process.

In Massachusetts, attorney David Lee Child acquired a farm in Northhampton which became the nucleus for the sugar factory he organized in partnership with others. Child visited Europe in 1836 to study the sugarbeet industry. He came away from the experience filled with enthusiasm that led to the founding of the factory in partnership with Edward Church and Maximin Isnard, an early developer of the beet sugar industry in France. Child, however, was handicapped in his effort to persuade prospective investors of the promise he had seen in the European sugarbeet factories because of a reputation for personal improvidence. For an income, he relied upon his wife, Lydia B. Child, at the time the country’s foremost woman author who was noted for penning, in addition to more serious works, the still popular poem that begins “Over the river and through the woods to grandfather’s house we go.” Equally troubling was his altruistic preference for defending clients who could not pay a fee–not to mention a six-month stint once spent in jail on a charge of libel.

Perhaps of greater concern to potential creditors was Child’s inclination to take up causes that were ahead of the times or in opposition to public sentiment and then meld these social concerns with his business interests. He fought on the side of Spain in that country’s war with France, opposed ill treatment of Native Americans, and protested the annexation of Texas. More pertinent to Child’s promotion of a sugarbeet enterprise, both Childs made known their ardent opposition to slavery and in public speeches, writings, and personal actions amply demonstrated a determination to help dismantle an evil system. Child aimed to secure the freedom of slaves in the South then take them to Massachusetts where he would employ them in his sugar factory, thus relieving the North’s dependence on slave-labored cane sugar while at the same time providing a means of independence for freed slaves. Confidence in the Childs couple withered. Lydia’s brilliant writing career dived into oblivion; David’s less spectacular presence in the business community became unwelcome.

David Lee Child’s inability to secure financial support caused the Northhampton sugar factory to close after two seasons of operation. Eventually Child authored a technical book on sugar manufacture, corresponded with other Americans who shared his interest, proposed a school in which he would train technicians, and in 1839 won a silver medal at the Massachusetts State Exposition for the first manufacture of beet sugar in the United States, having produced thirteen hundred pounds of sugar.

The Northhampton factory, short of capital and a credible manager, struggled for two years before closing its doors forever in 1841, ending the dream of David Lee Childs and those who had come to depend upon him. Childs’ struggles rung a familiar note in Michigan where investors sought to found an industry that would enjoy success similar to that enjoyed by the French. The White Pigeon firm announced the Niles Intelligencer, that it would commence operations on March 14, 1839, confidently promising the availability of sugar for coffee the following morning.

Michigan achieved statehood in January 1837 and immediately found itself in desperate need of an economic underpinning. A tripling of the state’s population between 1830 and 1834 caused by the westward movement of New Englanders created new demands for economic activity, demands that would not be met by the state’s primary industries, agricultural, mining and fur trapping. It cast about for new industries. One which was showing great potential in Europe was the manufacture of sugar from sugarbeets.

In its 1838 session, the Michigan legislature adopted a bill introduced by Representative Thomas Gidley of Jackson that provided a bounty of two cents for each pound of sugar manufactured from beets in Michigan. The bill was the first of its kind in the United States. (Sponsorship of private industry with public funding was a common practice adopted by several states but would fall into disfavor in a later era and regain favor in still another.) The House of Representatives’ Agriculture and Manufacturing Committee placed Gidley’s bill under consideration.

The committee’s report stated:

The manufacture of sugar from the beet, has for many years past been considered a subject of great importance, and has directly or indirectly received governmental patronage, from many of the governments of the old world, but has not, until within the last few years excited much attention or interest in this country, from the impression that in the manufacture of sugar, the beet could not come in successful competition with the sugar of the south. Recent experiments, however, in the middle and eastern states, fully demonstrate that such an impression was an erroneous one…. The Committee, from their acquaintance, with the nature of the soil and climate of this state, and from their experience in the growth of the beet, do not hesitate to express the opinion, that no part of the United States, or perhaps of the world is more favorable to the growth of the raw material for the manufacture of beet-sugar, than the greater portion of the state… [Since it is our aim] to be as independent of the other states or countries as possible, and liberally to encourage the agriculture and manufacturing interests of the state…[support is advocated].”

Stimulated by the support of the legislature, investors Chapman Yates, Samuel Chapin, and several others formed the White Pigeon Beet-Sugar Manufactory, the only manufacturing firm of its kind in the United States with the exception of David Lee Child’s Northhampton, Massachusetts, factory.

White Pigeon lies on the edge of a vast prairie in St. Joseph County, a few miles north of the Indiana border. In 1837, the year of its formation, White Pigeon was a stopping off point for Indians traveling to Chicago for distributions of treaty goods. Its name honored an Indian chief named Wahbememe, or White Pigeon, who had run several miles on foot in 1830 to warn settlers of an impending attack by an unfriendly tribe, thus saving them from certain destruction. The effort cost him his life. He collapsed from exhaustion and died at the feet of those he had saved.

The nearby prairie supported an abundance of whatever farmers decided to plant: corn, wheat, oats, and, during the years 1838-1841, sugarbeets. Proximity to the rapidly developing Chicago market assured success for farmers and manufacturers. For that reason, many small manufacturing firms would eventually set up shop in or near White Pigeon.

Lucius Lyon, an early observer of the beet industry, believed the White Pigeon experiment relied upon technology expounded by Count Jean Antoine Chaptal (1756-1832), former president of the French sugar commission. If so, the technology was twenty-five years out of date in 1839 when the White Pigeon Sugar Manufactory was constructed.

In 1839, the White Pigeon investors sent John S. Barry to Europe for the purpose of studying and reporting on the prospects for sugarbeets. He visited a number of factories in France, Belgium, and Germany during which he collected information about operating costs, sugar recovery, and the political climate in those countries. An attorney with a reputation for thorough attention to detail, Barry appeared to be ideally suited to the role of investigator. To his credit, this reputation would lead the people of Michigan to elect him governor in 1842. The future governor’s lack of business experience, however, and his complete lack of prior knowledge about the properties and economic potential of sugarbeets, put him at a disadvantage when interviewing French sugar manufacturers-with whom he spent the greater part of his time-including many who had become dispirited by the political clout of cane sugar importers who had gained political ascendancy in France. Barry arrived in France at the very moment the French beet sugar industry was confronting governmental pressure to cease domestic production of beet sugar in favor of slave-produced cane sugar. By 1836 there were 436 factories in operation. This alarmed the importers of cane-sugar and led to legislation which was unfavorable to beet sugar producers. This legislation caused the abandonment in 1837 and 1838 of 166 factories. Beet sugar production in France continued to be spasmodic until 1873.

Barry approached his task much in the manner of the cautious attorney taking depositions on behalf of a litigant. He compiled careful notes and wrote memorandums even before leaving the factories he visited and interviewed those he met with the aid of written interrogatories prepared in advance. To his credit, he collected ample information about the operating costs, sugar recovery, and the political climate of the countries he visited. The use to which he put it is another matter.

In forming his opinion, Barry assumed conditions and experiences in Europe would transfer to America in whole. For example, he gave no credence to lower land and labor costs then prevailing in America and assumed the French answered his questions with the candor equal to his own. He did not consider that those who advised him had little or no information about America’s markets, agriculture, or economics, nor did he seem to realize that those advisors, burdened with competition from cane sugar, saw little need to give encouragement to prospective competitors. Unlike David Lee Child who had visited the European factories three years earlier when conditions were more favorable to French sugar manufacturers and returned home in a state of great enthusiasm, Barry returned from his visit disheartened.

Perhaps Barry was unaware that hundreds of sugarbeet factories had sprung up like wildfire across Europe in the quarter century preceding his visit with locations in every European country except Norway. Similarly, he seemed unaware that in each of the countries hosting factories to process the new crop, the climate, terrain, soil conditions, and cultural appetites of the people were remarkably similar to features found in Michigan. Barry solemnly entered into his notebook as gospel, viewpoints that would doom the new Michigan industry at birth. His report, conveying the advice of his French counselors that sugarbeets were unworthy of the time and investment of Michigan farmers, was devastating.

Although there was an outcry in opposition to John Barry’s opinion during which many suggested that productivity in America was greater than in France and that Barry had been duped, investors and farmers lost heart and set aside their dreams. An economic depression (described as a “panic” in the public media of the day) beginning in 1837 increased investor caution and shriveled the nation’s money supply. The least cloud of doubt chased money away from new ideas. The future governor met accusations that the Europeans hoodwinked him by showing compassion for his detractors. In reply, he wrote, “It is possible, though not probable, that I might have been imposed upon and deceived by those engaged in the business of making sugar, of whom my inquiries were made, and from whom my information was obtained. I think, however, that such was not the fact, as the information obtained at one establishment was always in the main, of a character similar to that obtained at another.”

An earlier decision by the owners of White Pigeon Sugar Manufactory to employ outdated French machinery reinforced support for Barry’s opinion that sugarbeet factories in America would fare badly in any effort to compete with cane sugar. The absence of trained technicians added considerably to the factory’s poor performance, with the result that it tended to produce a large amount of molasses but little crystallized sugar. Molasses is a byproduct of beet sugar manufacturing. A processed sugarbeet results in some sugar, some pulp (The remains of the sugar beet after the sugar has been separated.), and some molasses. The molasses represents all the impurities present in the beet when it arrived at the factory’s door plus actual sugar that escaped during the process only to end up in the molasses tanks. Even a well managed factory will experience high ratio of sugar lost to the molasses stream resulting in a sugar content of 50% in the molasses. A poorly managed factory will allow much more sugar to enter the molasses stream, thus causing the molasses to have a high purity. Its brackish nature caused by the presence of salts makes it unfit for the human palette but ideal for cattle. The molasses found in the kitchen cupboard is blackstrap molasses, produced as a byproduct of cane sugar.

John Barry noted that the molasses was not “tolerable to the taste”, an observation that betrayed his lack of understanding of the beet sugar production process. Had he but asked, his French advisors would have revealed that molasses had an outlet as livestock feed.

One year after the Michigan legislature approved the sugar bounty, Samuel Chapin, who in addition to serving as an officer of White Pigeon Sugar Manufactory also served as a legislative representative from St. Joseph County, sponsored a bill to loan five thousand dollars to the struggling company. The measure was referred to a select committee of which Chapin was named chairman. The committee reminded the legislature Michigan was committed to ventures in economic development, including agricultural experimentation, and that the White Pigeon effort would establish, once and for all, the practicability or impracticability of sugarbeets in Michigan. The proposal passed both houses but conditions were attached that would make it highly unlikely the loan would ever become reality. The first of the conditions was that the company secure a mortgage in an amount equal to twice the value of the loan. Second, the appropriation would occur only if in the opinion of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction it would not lessen sums distributed among the state’s school districts. The probability of the state granting the loan, especially during a period when Michigan was still in the grip of the 1837 financial panic, was on the far side of remote. Despite failure to receive state assistance, the White Pigeon company, having started at exactly the wrong time, with outdated equipment, a lack of technical knowledge, and too little capital, held on for two years.

When the doors closed forever in June 1841, concluding an experiment that met a fate made even more ignominious by the fact of the White Pigeon Sugar Manufactory became a lost chapter in the state’s history. It would not again come to the public’s attention until 1939 when the Detroit Free Press made passing mention of White Pigeon in its “A Hundred Years Ago” column, where it was observed that the company had opened its doors a century before. A sugar executive of the day, astounded by the account, immediately wrote the Free Press, suggesting an error and that to his certain knowledge no sugar company existed in Michigan until 1898.

Sugarbeets would have their day but that would come only after all those who had struggled to make the industry a reality had passed from the scene.

By 1841, when Michigan farmers were casting about for anything that could serve as a cash crop (including a short-lived scheme to process cornstalks for sugar production), another crop emerged that would hold the attention of investors for nearly three-quarters of a century. The crop was timber and for the next fifty-nine years pushed all thoughts of beet sugar from the minds of investors. It wasn’t until lumber petered out toward the end of the century that Michigan once again expressed an interest in sugarbeets, an interest that would result in the formation of a credible industry that continues to thrive more than a century later. The Michigan Legislature, acutely aware of the need of industry to replace lumber, in 1897 passed Act Number 48 which provided a bounty of one cent for each pound of sugar produced in Michigan from sugarbeets. Although the bounty would have a short life after failing to overcome legal hurdles, it succeeded in sparking the founding of an industry that still serves the people of Michigan.

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