The First Successful Sugar Beet Factory in the United States?

The First Successful Sugar Beet Factory in the United States?

By: Robert M. Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist ⋅ Star-Herald Farm & Ranch ⋅ February 21, 2016

After gaining a place in Europe, numerous attempts were made to introduce sugar beet production in the United States. The first effort to grow sugar beets was in 1830 in Philadelphia but no factory was ever built, and the idea was abandoned. The first factory built in the U. S. was at Northampton, Massachusetts in 1838, but ceased operating after 1840. Other unsuccessful attempts were made to establish factories in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and later in Utah by the Mormon pioneers.

These examples are typical of the problems experienced with beginning the cultivation and processing of sugar beets in America. Throughout the history of the sugar beet industry in the U.S. many factories have been started but operated only for a short period of time. These start-up efforts often were done on a trial and error basis, moving around frequently from place to place, trying to find that right combination of factors that would result in greater long term success.

California Beet Sugar Company

Many historians credit the first successful sugar beet processing plant to the California Beet Sugar Company founded by Ebenezer Dyer in central California – (Alvarado, now known as Union City). Alvarado was a small town founded in 1850 on the east side of San Francisco Bay between San Jose and Oakland. In 1867, the majority of sugar in the U.S. was imported (90 percent). Dyer was interested in this as a business venture, so he purchased sugar beet seeds from Germany and planted about 150 acres of test plots in Alvarado. The crop grew so well that he began to investigate the possibility of building a processing plant.

At this same time three German businessmen built a sugar factory in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. This site was chosen due the fact that the climate there was similar to Germany, and the area had been settled with German immigrants with sugar beet experience. Dyer learned of this factory and sent beets from the 1869 crop in Alvarado for analysis. Because these beets had such impressive sugar content, the three Germans (A. D. Bonesteel, Andreas Otto and Ewald Kleinau) agreed to come to California. With the help of the three Germans and numerous other investors, ground was broken at a site on the farm of Ebenezer Dyer in May 1870. The factory was completed and began operations after the growing season on Nov. 15, 1870.

After the 1873 season, due to financial problems and disagreements among investors, the factory closed and the company liquidated. The land and buildings were sold back to Dyer and Bonesteel and the other Germans purchased the processing equipment and moved the operation to a new site south of Alvarado near Santa Cruz.

Oxnard Beet Sugar Company

In 1887, a resident of Grand Island, Nebraska, Henry Koenig and several friends became interested in exploring sugar beet production in that area. It was decided that the land in the vicinity of Grand Island would be well suited to the cultivation of high quality sugar beets. Grand Island was a community largely settled by the ethnic group referred to as German-Russians. Many of these “Germans from Russia” (as they are often referred to in Nebraska) eventually migrated to the U.S., settling in several specific areas, including California, Nebraska and North Dakota. Accompanying them was their knowledge and experience for agriculture and the sugar beet industry in Germany and France, thus assisting the introduction of this crop into their chosen locations of settlement in North America.

Seeds were imported from Germany and preliminary trials were conducted in 1887, 1888 and 1889 with the help of Professor H. H. Nicholson with the Nebraska State College of Agriculture (now University of Nebraska). These studies showed that sugar beets could be grown successfully, containing 16-18% sugar. The results were so satisfactory that it was decided to build a factory in this area. Koenig and his investors raised $100,000 to begin the process, purchasing equipment from a closed factory in Canada.

In 1889 H. F. Oxnard was hired as the general manager and to supervise the design and construction of the new plant with the equipment obtained from Canada. The plant was completed in late summer of 1889 with the first campaign occurring in autumn of 1890, resulting in the production of 20,000 one hundred pound bags of sugar. The factory became known as the Oxnard Beet Sugar Company, and remained with that name until 1934 when it was bought by the American Crystal Sugar Company. It continued operating until after the 1964 campaign.

Other factories were started in Norfolk and Ames in the later 1890s, but interest began to wane in these locations due to, acreage decreases and sharp declines in sugar yields. Around 1900, interest in sugar beet production in western Nebraska began increasing (see future article on evolution of sugar beet production in Nebraska) due to several reasons, including the development of new irrigation systems, expansion of the railroads, and a more arid climate that discouraged many disease problems suffered in the more humid conditions in the eastern half of the state.

Although the Alvarado, California, plant is often considered the first “successful” factory established in the United States, the Oxnard/American Crystal factory in Grand Island can also lay claim to this honor. The California Beet Sugar Company ceased operations in 1873 after only three years of operation. The Grand Island plant operated every year on the same site between 1890 and 1964, a total of 74 years, thus making it arguably the first “successful” sugar beet factory in the United States.


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