Michigan’s Beet Sugar History

April 22nd, 2022 by admin Leave a reply »

In Michigan’s Bay City suburb of Essexville on October 17, 1898, a smiling Governor Hazen B. Pingree was on hand to witness the beginning of Michigan’s first beet sugar harvest. By doing so, Pingree heralded a period of speculative investment in beet sugar manufacturing marked by the founding of companies that sometimes rose overnight to spectacular heights and just as quickly spiraled downward to oblivion, carrying away the savings of thousands of small investors. The handful of companies that survived those tumultuous first years, however, would one day produce more than a billion pounds of sugar annually.

Governor Pingree had thrown his support behind Public Act 48, legislation that promised bounty money for beet sugar manufactured in Michigan. Its passage sparked a rush to build beet sugar factories all across the state and would according to its supporters, go a long way toward replacing jobs lost by the fast approaching demise of the lumber industry that had been the state’s economic mainstay for fifty years. Michigan had once been a land of white pine forests so dense that in 1812 government surveyors declared it unfit for human habitation. After exhausting the forests of Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania, the lumber barons turned their attention to Michigan’s hundreds of millions of board feet of virgin white pine. Now that it was all but gone the state’s political leaders needed a new source of economic wealth.

The governor and company executives, Thomas Cranage, Benjamin Boutell, Nathan Bradley, men whose fortunes had been garnered in the lumber industry, listened with satisfaction to the factory whistle summoning beets from the storage pits for entry to the first of twenty-three factories where laborers, entrepreneurs, farmers, and politicians set aside natural differences to combine their skills for the common good. It was an idea that had traveled from Europe nearly seven decades earlier.

France developed sugarbeets as a source of white granulated sugar less than one hundred years earlier. Napoleon Bonaparte, after assuming control of France continued the French tradition of threatening England with war. In keeping with his bellicose intentions, he placed an embargo on English shipments and in so doing effectively cut off access to the English ports that France depended on for the transshipment of cane sugar from the West Indies. Sugar stocks piled up on English docks while the people of France suffered for the lack of it.

Until the embargo against English trade in 1806, France met its needs with a continuous supply of cane sugar from Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean and Réunion in the Indian Ocean. To meet the unsatisfied need created by his embargo and the counter-embargo imposed by England, Napoleon decided to encourage production of sugar from sugarbeets. Experiments ten years earlier had established the viability of the beet root as a replacement for cane sugar. So convincing were the results that representatives of the cane industry offered to pay the modern equivalent of $120,000 to Karl Franz Achard, the scientist most responsible for carrying out the research in return for his disavowal of the possibilities of extracting sugar from sugarbeets. His rejection of the offer not only confirmed his strength of character but also established the foundation of an industry.

By 1812, forty factories were in operation in France. These factories, minuscule by 21st century standards, handled nearly one hundred thousand tons of beets produced on some seventeen thousand acres, and from them, manufactured more than three million pounds of sugar. From France, the industry spread to German, Russia and other countries. In Germany, Achard established a school attended by students from all parts of Europe. When the students returned to their home countries, they carried with them technical information that encouraged the establishment of many more factories. Eventually, Achard’s descendants settled in Michigan where they became involved in the state’s infant sugar industry.

The sugarbeet resembles a turnip on steroids. Its weight varies from three to five pounds. A thick canopy of broad-leaf foliage protects it from the sun. The sugarbeet is a member of the Goosefoot family and has as its cousins, red beets, spinach, pig weed, lambsquarter and Russian thistle and is, more narrowly, of the Beta vulgaris species, which includes not only sugarbeets but also table beets, Swiss chard and mangel-wurzels. Its roots can extend six to eight feet in mellow soil thus can survive climates as varied as those found in Arizona and in Michigan where it enjoys a growing season extending from March to October. The period following the growing season, the period during which sugar is extracted from the beet and then refined, is referred to by the industry as the “campaign”.

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