History of Michigan's Beet Sugar Industry

Welcome to the History of Michigan's Beet Sugar Industry where you will discover the detailed history of many of the sugar companies that once dotted Michigan's landscape and of those that continue to add value to Michigan's economy. Much of the credit for what became one of Michigan's enduring industries is owed to Thomas Cranage who formed Michigan Sugar Company in 1898. Read his story and others in this blog.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Michigan's sugar experience - A brief history

Michigan's First Beet Sugar Factory - Essexville, Michigan, 1898

Michigan’s Beet Sugar History
By Thomas Mahar

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 RĂ©union 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”.
Michigan’s inaugural sugarbeet campaign was, by every account, a remarkable success. Farmers harvested an average of 10.3 tons of beets from each of 3,103 acres for a total of 32,047 tons of sugarbeets. The sugar content of the beets averaged 12.93 percent with a purity of 82% from which the factory extracted 5,685,552 pounds of sugar, delivering an extraction rate of 65%.
The farmers signaled their approval when Michigan Sugar Company paid an average of $4.51 for each ton of beets, an amount that immediately classified sugarbeets as a premier cash crop. Happy investors abounded. Public Act 48 assured a profit to the sugar manufacturers by promising to pay a bounty roughly equivalent to one-third of the estimated three-cent per pound manufacturing cost. The manufacturer’s obligation entailed a guaranteed payment of $4 for each ton of beets containing at least 12% sugar and a sum proportionate to $4 for all beets containing a greater or lesser percentage of sugar.
At the projected price of four dollars, no crop in human history had held the potential for creating such a high return from so few acres. A farmer with above average ability who placed fifteen acres in sugarbeets could earn $900 and if his family provided the bulk of the labor, the net profit would more than take care of a family’s needs for a year, which, including food, was less than $800. After adding revenue from crops in rotation such as wheat, corn, and beans, and revenues from milk, eggs, and poultry, the farm family’s standard of living advanced from a subsistence level to one that compared favorably to those who held mid-management positions in industry. Not only did the advent of sugarbeets radically improve the standard of living for those who grew beets but also established its reputation as a mortgage payer. A farmer who grew beets was courted by bankers eager to find reliable borrowers, allowing many farmers to advance quickly from subsistence farming to high income and eventually to the status of wealth.
Official recognition by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1898 of the importance of the sugarbeet industry--combined with success occurring right at home with the initial outstanding results of the Essexville factory, sparked rapid development. One year earlier the nation could boast of 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, one that blossomed into a full-fledged boom by 1900 when the nationwide count stood at thirty beet sugar factories in eleven states.
Nowhere was the blaze hotter than in Michigan where nine factories followed Essexville’s successful experiment. 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. In Marine City, investors, inspired by success at Essexville, paid Kilby Manufacturing $557,000 to build Michigan’s tenth sugarbeet factory. 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, the last of which appeared in Blissfield in 1905. Fifteen years later, Monitor Sugar Company built the state’s twenty-fourth and final beet factory in Mount Pleasant.
In 1898, when ardor flamed at its hottest, enthusiasts shouted the prediction that Michigan would soon resemble a single field of sugarbeets extending from its southern border to the northernmost tip of the Lower Peninsula. Legislators grew alarmed in fear that Public Act 48, designed to spark the development of a new industry, might have instead unleashed a monster that would swallow the state’s budget. They stood by in relieved silence when Roscoe Dix, the state’s Auditor General declared Public Act 48 unconstitutional. The decision, later endorsed by the Michigan Supreme Court, cooled passions for sugarbeets only slightly because the case was strong and after all there was still hope that the United States Supreme Court would reverse the state supreme court’s decision. That effort failed when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal on grounds of jurisdiction. The court’s decision was not much more than a speed bump in Michigan where mounting excitement for beets brought fresh capital to cities that otherwise faced extinction in the fading light of the lumber industry.
If credit is given to an effort made sixty years earlier, the Essexville factory was Michigan’s second beet factory. By the 1830s, the new European practice of extracting sugar identical to cane sugar from beets had captured the minds of separate but 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. The Michigan and Massachusetts experiments led eventually to the construction of factories sized to produce salable white sugar in commercial quantities. Those first factories, cobbled together relics of French origin, averaged five tons of sliced sugarbeets per day, an amount processed in less than sixty seconds in today’s factories. Unable to achieve the goal of producing marketable sugar, both failed in 1841.
While it is true that a good idea has many fathers, the Michigan industry recognized one more than any other. That was Professor Robert Kedzie, a legendary chemistry professor at Michigan Agricultural College (later, Michigan State University) and a pioneer consumer advocate who had helped the country end the practice of manufacturing arsenic-laden wallpaper and volatile kerosene. He had originated the idea of the agricultural extension service. He devoted more than fifteen years research to the development of the sugarbeet, eventually earning the sobriquet “Father of the Michigan Sugar Industry” for his steadfast devotion to the belief that sugarbeets would play a vital role in Michigan’s agricultural future.
By 1906, thanks in part to Robert Kedzie and to dozens of town leaders across the state who were willing to accept desperate measures to save their dying communities, the state’s beet sugar industry had evolved into three basic groups that would remain largely unchanged during the next 100 years. The first constituted those factories that experienced a lifespan of fewer than ten years, one of which was Michigan’s first factory at Essexville. The others included four of the eight factories that came into existence in 1899.
Factories in Rochester, Kalamazoo and Benton Harbor plus one in Charlevoix had been built by industrialists who firmly believed in their self-invented axiom that when it came to farmers, “build it and they will come”. The theory failed to blossom into sugarbeets when farmers saw little reason to surrender profitable fruits and vegetables for a product that depended upon a factory to convert farm goods into salable products. The factories failed for want of beets.
Lumber baron Worthy Churchill led a group of investors to the idea of building a 600-ton per day sugar factory directly across the street from Michigan Sugar Company’s Essexville factory, correctly believing that factory’s 350-ton slice capacity made it an easy target for an aggressive competitor. He was right. By 1903, he had persuaded Tom Cranage, Michigan Sugar Company’s president, to merge with his new company. They named the new corporation, Bay City-Michigan Sugar Company, effectively ending the existence of the original Michigan Sugar Company and then began the process of closing down the smaller factory.
In addition to the group of factories destined for brief existence there were seven others that would remain largely independent and survive for an average of 41 years. Chief among them was the Holland factory that by all standards should have gone the way of other undersized 350-ton factories but because of frugal management by Charles McLean, a former school superintendent who possessed the obstinacy of a bear trap, the factory survived 37 years. The Holland factory was the only factory in the United States to shut down operations on Sunday, which it did during its first eleven years at great cost in efficiency but in keeping with the religious convictions of a majority of the community.
Bay City in1899 was still a fast-paced lumberman’s paradise enjoying the last hurrah of timber harvesting while keeping an eye out for a handy replacement. Among the ruins of a decaying industry rose the city’s third beet factory, revealing another example of persistence, one matching that displayed at Holland in terms of lifespan and the will of a single individual to achieve success.
Mendel J. Bialy, a scrappy lumber mill manager, a bookkeeper by training, assembled a group of investors, who like himself had no experience in beet sugar manufacturing. Together they organized the West Bay City Sugar Company in 1898. The investors awarded a contract to Bartlett and Howard, a Maryland iron works company looking for an entry into a hot new industry – sugar manufacturing.
Such was Bialy’s confidence that he determined himself qualified to operate the factory without the aid of technicians schooled in the intricacies of a beet sugar factory. The result was predictably disastrous. The factory achieved a mere 126 pounds of sugar per ton of beet sliced, a 48% extraction rate in an era when factories often achieved 65-69%. Even the Holland factory, where operations ceased twelve hours each Sunday, recorded a higher extraction rate of 53%.
Those who had instigated rumors of imminent abandonment did so without first considering Mendel Bialy’s indomitable spirit. He kept the factory in operation for 38 campaigns on a shoestring budget and the charity of nearby factory managers who came to his aid with spare parts, expertise and patience.
Five additional factories made up the balance of the independents, each with a story like those at Holland and West Bay City where persistence, derring-do, hard work and dedicated artisans gave life to factories that in turn generated economic well-being for townspeople and farmers in equal portions. Four of those factories came into existence in Mount Clemens, Menominee, St. Louis, and Bay City. The new Bay City factory was the fourth built in that city’s environs giving it more beet sugar factories than any city in America. At first operating under the name German-American Sugar Company, it evolved into the Monitor Sugar Company. The fifth was established in Blissfield where a magnificent showplace factory took center stage only to collapse into mediocrity a few years later when its chief sponsor and benefactor, Henry O. Havemeyer, died suddenly of a heart attack.
As 1905 drew to an end, the Michigan beet sugar manufacturing industry began to wobble not unlike a child’s spinning top at the end of a vigorous twirl. Factories that had opened just a few years earlier to the sound of blowing bugles, marching bands and patriotic speeches from political luminaries reposed behind locked gates in mute reproach to the forces that had rendered them so. Seven factories had closed, Essexville and five others situated in Kalamazoo, Rochester, Benton Harbor, Marine City, Saginaw, and East Tawas most often because farmers turned indifferent to the appeals of factory representatives to grow beets. Sixteen beet factories with a combined daily slice capacity of nearly eleven thousand tons remained in business, however.
Despite disasters elsewhere a new company formed, one that would eventually become the sole survivor among the state’s sugar companies. It came about on August 20, 1906 when the Bay City-Michigan Sugar Company struck a deal with Charles Beecher Warren, its principal shareholder and Bay City native, to form a new company, one that borrowed its name, Michigan Sugar Company, from Michigan’s pioneer entrant into the beet industry.
The new Michigan Sugar Company’s balance sheet reflected the assets of six sugar factories located in Michigan. The companies were, in addition to the Bay City-Michigan Sugar Company, the Saginaw Valley Sugar Company in Carrollton, the Peninsular Sugar Company in Caro, the Alma Sugar Company in Alma, the Sanilac Sugar Refining Company in Croswell, and the Sebewaing Sugar Company in Sebewaing. Warren would serve as the company’s president until 1925 when he resigned in anticipation of accepting an appointment by President Coolidge as United States Attorney General. An unusually fractious United States Senate, however, pointing to Warren’s relationship to the sugar industry, rejected the nomination in a narrow vote. Coolidge’s Vice President, Charles Dawes, who could have swung the vote in Warren’s favor, was taking a short nap at the Willard Hotel when the vote was called. He arrived in the Senate chamber too late to change the result. It was the first time since 1868 that the US Senate had rejected a presidential cabinet nomination, ending both Warren’s distinguished public service career and his association with the sugar industry. Previously, he had served as Ambassador to Japan (1922-1923) and Ambassador to Mexico in 1925.
Eighteen years after its founding, Michigan Sugar, in 1924, added two additional factories to the corporate roster when beet sugar factories in Owosso and Lansing joined the company. Twenty-four years later, in 1948, Michigan Sugar acquired the Mount Pleasant factory in a move calculated to acquire acreage allotments mandated under 1948 federal legislation. The factory had been built by Monitor Sugar Company in 1920 and taken over by Isabella Sugar Company in 1933. Members of the Coryell family who under the leadership of Charles Coryell held the controlling interest in Monitor Sugar Company until 1982, also for a time held controlling interest in Isabella Sugar Company. By 1948, the factory had become a derelict, useful only for odd parts and marketing allocations assigned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an unfitting end to a company that had successfully pioneered molasses desugarization via ion exchange fifty years before the process gained acceptance in the domestic sugar industry.
With the closing of three factories at Menominee, Blissfield, and St. Louis in 1954, the state of Michigan had only two companies remaining, Michigan Sugar Company that by then was operating four of the nine factories it had acquired, Caro, Carrollton, Croswell, and Sebewaing, while Monitor Sugar Company operated one in Bay City. The two companies would operate in competition with each other for the next half century until Michigan Sugar Company, by then a grower’s cooperative owned by 1,300 sugarbeet growers as of 2002, acquired Monitor Sugar Company from the Illovo Sugar Company of Durban, South Africa on October 1, 2004.
Today, the combined factories, each of them examples of modern extraction technology, possess a beet slicing capacity of 22,000 tons per day (not including Carrollton where production was suspended in 2005) and an ability to produce more than a billion pounds of sugar each year. The sugar arrives at the market place in granulated, powdered, brown or liquid form packed in bags ranging from two pounds to 2,000 pounds or in carloads. In addition, the company markets more than 150,000 tons of molasses and pulp by-products, which combined with sugar products, gives the state of Michigan a significant presence in the domestic food industry. Somewhere, surely, Governor Pingree, who did so much to foster an economic marvel, continues to smile.

GUTLEBEN, Dan, The Sugar Tramp-1954- Michigan, Printed by: Bay City Duplicating Co, San Francisco, 1954
HENLEY, ROBERT L., Sweet Success . . .The Story of Michigan's Beet Sugar Industry 1898 – 1974, Michigan Historical Center, Department of History, Arts and Libraries

BINGAY, MALCOLM W., Detroit Is My Own Home Town, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1946 (In reference to comments made about Hazen S. Pingree.)

LOCHBILER, DON, The Detroit News, June 11, 1998, The Shoemaker Who Looked Like a King
INFLATION ADJUSTMENTS: The pre-1975 data are the Consumer Price Index statistics from Historical Statistics of the United States (USGPO, 1975). All data since then are from the annual Statistical Abstracts of the United States. Recorded at http://www.westegg.com/inflation
MICHIGAN ANNUAL REPORTS, Michigan Archives, Lansing, Michigan
©2006 Thomas Mahar
About the Author:
Thomas Mahar served as Executive Vice President of Monitor Sugar Company between 1984 and 1999 and as President of Gala Food Processing, a sugar packaging company, from 1993-1998. He retired in 1999 and now devotes his free time to writing about the history of the sugar industry. He authored, Sweet Energy, The Story of Monitor Sugar Company in 2001.
Contact: Thomas Mahar E-mail tkmahar@aol.com

First Sugar Manufactured in Michigan

The vial depicted above contains the first sugar produced in Michigan. It is stored among the collections of the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing, Michigan. The sugar was produced on October 5, 1898.

Beet sugar was first made in Michigan at Michigan Sugar Company located in Essexville, Michigan, a suburb of Bay City. The company president was Thomas Cranage who had achieved success in two other Michigan industries, shipping and lumber.

The first sugarbeet processing season ("campaign" in the parlance of the industry) in Michigan's history was, by every account, a remarkable success. Farmers harvested an average of 10.3 tons of beets from each of 3,103 acres for a total of 32,047 tons of sugarbeets. The sugar content of the beets averaged 12.93 percent with a purity of eighty-two percent from which the factory extracted 5,685,552 pounds of sugar. A sugar content of 12.93 percent meant each purchased ton of beets contained 258.6 pounds of sugar. From that, the new sugar factory packaged 169 pounds, which equated to total sugar recovery of sixty-nine percent. Just the same, within a short time, the owners realized the factory’s smallness made it unsuitable for efficient operation. It operated until 1906 then lay idle until it was dismantled and moved to Waverly, Iowa in 1907 where it continued to produce sugar until 1942. . Michigan Sugar Company paid an average of $4.51 per ton of beets, an amount that immediately classified sugarbeets as a premier cash crop

By way of comparison, the remaining factory in Bay City today routinely processes more than 1.2 million tons of beets during a campaign. The sugar content will usually achieve eighteen percent or better from which the factory will extract approximately ninety percent, which translates into more than 345 million pounds of sugar, about seventy times more than was produced during the state’s first sugarbeet campaign.

The sugar sample rests in a vial three inches in length. For many years it was in the possession of Donald North, the chief chemist of the German-American Sugar Company, later known first as Columbia Sugar Company, then Monitor Sugar Company and eventually, a component of Michigan Sugar Company How it came into his possession is unknown. However, the Michigan Sugar Company's factory was situated only a few miles from the German-American Sugar Company. It was common for employees to transfer employment from one sugar factory to the next. It is possible that Mr. North was employed at Michigan Sugar Company at the time the sugar was made. Another possibility arises from the fact that he was a good friend of Luther Carpenter, a former chief chemist for Michigan Sugar Company. He may have transferred the vial to Donald North when he left Michigan to take a position with the American Sugar Crystal Company in 1918. In any event, the sample was considered important to him - important enough that at an early date he passed the vial on to Clayton Wanless, a fellow chemist. Toward the end of Wanless's life which occurred on October 7, 1951, he passed it on to his son, Charles ("Bud") Wanless.

Charles Wanless retained the vial for the next twenty-five years. He began to worry about its safekeeping because of advancing age. He learned of Thomas Mahar, the newly appointed financial controller of Monitor Sugar Company - learned that he was collecting records and other artifacts pertaining to the company's history. He met with Mr. Mahar and during an emotional moment explained the importance of the vial, explained that it represented the history of pioneers and that the history was slipping away. Mahar accepted the vial and promised that the names of the previous conservators would not be forgotten. He retained the vial for the next twenty-three years. Upon his retirement in 1999, he handed the vial to Robert Arnold, the factory superintendent and asked him to accept responsibility for its safekeeping.

Robert Arnold kept the vial for six years, returning it to Mahar in 2005. Mahar had been in commuication with the Michigan Historical Society in Lansing, Michigan. That organization agreed in May, 2005 to accept it as an historical artifact. It resides there now.

East Tawas, Michigan - Where Expectations Met Reality

By the turn of the 20th century, Michigan, a state that had pegged its economic fortunes to the lumber industry began to accept the reality that it had sold its heritage for pennies on the dollar. The lumber that had been its economic mainstay was gone! For sixty years lumberjacks had raged across the state from Lake Michigan on the state's western shore to Lake Huron on the eastern shore and from Lake Erie in the south to Lake Superior at its northern end ripping away forests and leaving behind economic depression, an ugly environment and hopelessness.
Gradually, the state's leaders became aware of a new industry, one that did not tear down resources but rather added resources – agriculture, especially agricultural products that included processing factories. The developing beet sugar industry fit the bill with perfection. Michigan Sugar Company's new factory in Essexville, a suburb of Bay City, proved beyond question that farmers, industrialists, and venture capitalists could profit equally by raising sugarbeets and then processing them into table sugar. Soon, the rush to build beet sugar factories developed into a full scale stampede. The Michigan sugarbeet industry escalated at a breathtaking pace.
Nine factories followed Essexville’s successful experiment. 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! That was 1899 when new factories were built in Holland, Kalamazoo, Rochester, Benton Harbor, Alma, West Bay City, Caro, and a second factory in Essexville. In Marine City, investors, inspired by success at Essexville, paid Kilby Manufacturing $557,000 to build Michigan’s tenth sugarbeet factory. 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, the last of which appeared in Charlevoix in 1906. Fifteen years later, Monitor Sugar Company built the state’s twenty-fourth and final beet factory.
Unhappily, the unbridled enthusiasm for new beet sugar factories often resulted in the construction of factories in places that had not won the farmer's heart. One such place was East Tawas, a lovely village on Lake Huron's shore that would one day attract tourists who sought its Lake Huron's sandy beaches and gently lapping waves. But until 1903, East Tawas, like most of Michigan, had relied on the lumber industry for its daily fare. When the lumber barons packed up their money bags and departed for greener pastures, investors turned to the beet sugar industry that was blazing as hot as the dot com industry would blaze nearly a century later. Instead of fame and fortune, however, East Tawas earned the distinction of having in its environs a sugar factory that would have the shortest lifespan of any beet sugar factory in Michigan.
The total operating time its two-year life span was twenty-nine days, eighteen the first year and eleven during the second and final year. The total weight of beets sliced during that period was 17,648 tons, far from enough to support the factory’s overhead expenses, much less provide a profit to the investors. Some named it Churchill’s Folly after Worthy Churchill, the president of the Bay City-Michigan Sugar Company.
With the construction of the Bay City Sugar factory in Essexville underway, Worthy Churchill wanted to secure a sugarbeet growing estate somewhere north of Bay City where inexpensive and idle timberland awaited someone to put it to better purpose. Coincidentally, East Tawas was burdened with a bankrupt sawmill situated at a fork in the road a few miles north of the town, where, today, U.S. 23 intersects with Tawas Beach Road. Its proximity to Lake Huron offered a handy source of water. Rail lines built to haul lumber from sawmills would now carry sugar equipment to the site. The residents of East Tawas, much like residents of villages throughout the state, were loathe to depart even though its gently undulating hills, once covered with magnificent white pine were now barren. Rich soils drifted from unprotected hills to settle in moss covered swamps. Jack pine, short and crooked, and weeds grew in the dry crevasses near the edges of the swamps.
East Tawas residents clamored for a sugarbeet factory. The infant industry was three years old, but already legends involving sudden wealth and entire communities saved from extinction, caused an outcry for one in their community. Significantly, others who had made substantial investments in the new industry did not heed the call. Absentees included the most successful of the pioneer sugar manufacturers: Ben Boutell, Penoyar brothers William and Wedworth, Nathan Bradley, Rasmus Hansen, Thomas Cranage, and every other major investor in Michigan’s then existing sugar industry. That left Worthy Churchill who showed his support with a $50,000 investment and Charles B. Warren, a representative of the Sugar Trust, tossed $25,000 into the pot. Warren’s fellow Detroiter and good friend, Charles Bewick, a Detroit industrialist signed on for $50,000 and accepted a vice-presidency while Warren added the treasurer’s title to his growing list of responsibilities. Eugene Fifield of Bay City, who had earned a reputation among investors as someone who worked well with farmers, added his name to the shareholder list and one thousand dollars to the treasury. Citizens of more modest means took note of the large commitments of men of power and dipped into slender savings to follow suit.
Churchill, eager to get the wheels in motion, and well satisfied with the performance of Joseph Kilby in constructing the Bay City Sugar Company’s Essexville factory, set about to appoint him for the East Tawas project. Joseph Kilby handed in a bid of $598,500. Based on each one thousand tons of beet-slicing capacity, the price was nearly fifty percent greater than was the cost of the Essexville factory, indicating a shift away from the quickly built small factory to larger facilities consisting of quality engineering and equipment.
Nevertheless, Vice-president Charles Bewick said to hold on–not so fast. He too had a candidate for the construction contract. Bewick had gained some experience at Caro and Croswell where new factories had been constructed. He was then serving as the first president of the Sanilac Sugar Refining Company, owner of the Croswell factory, and had a long history in the Detroit manufacturing sector. He included among his friends Joseph Berry, a noted manufacturer of varnish who owned with his brother Thomas an eight thousand acre farm near the middle of the Michigan Thumb. The Berry brothers became significant stockholders in Bewick’s Croswell factory along with D. M. Ferry, the largest distributor of garden seeds in the world–all packaged in Ferry’s sprawling Detroit factory.
According to Bewick’s point of view, the Oxnard Construction Company offered experience, quality, and an unbroken record of success. Joseph Kilby, on the other hand, was an upstart, a former top hand with E. H. Dyer who had gone off on his own. Bewick protested Churchill’s premature announcement and pushed forward his choice. Churchill countered, and prevailed, with an objection to Oxnard’s practice of submitting cost-plus contracts. He wanted a firm bid and got it from Kilby whose bid matched dollar for dollar the bid for the Churchill’s Bay City factory built three years earlier at a cost of one thousand dollars per ton of beet-slicing capacity. The contract went to Kilby who in turn assigned the job to John Shepherd, a noted construction engineer who supervised the construction of factories at Benton Harbor, Holland, and Carrollton.
In the short run the selection of a builder made little difference. Tawas was the wrong place to grow beets. Lake Huron lay east of the factory site and while it served well as a water source, beets could not easily take root among its waves. The nearby slopes, stripped of trees, would have been a difficult place to grow and tend beets but even that impractical source of beet ground had already surrendered its soil to newly made swamps. Where the ground was level, stumps interfered with farming. There was some arable land, however, but the farmers who owned it lacked experience with sugarbeets. Those who succumbed to the persuasive entreaties of Gus Carton, the factory’s agronomist and chief recruiter of farmers, lost money when they failed to produce enough beets per acre to generate a profit.
Kilby’s field staff under the direction of Jack Shepard performed better than any factory built up to that time in Michigan. Shepard, known and respected for attention to detail that included running thorough water tests--that is, operating the factory with only water to locate weakness--constructed a factory that exceeded expectations. The factory sliced five hundred ninety-four tons of beets per day during its inaugural run, a clear record, and only six tons short of its planned capacity. Unhappily for Shepard and his crew, there were only 10,690 tons of beets available, enough for a mere eighteen days of operation.
The next year, the frost stayed late, keeping farmers indoors. A late start, combined with a profitless crop the previous year and rumors that the factory would close, caused farmers to return to traditional crops. The factory acquired only 6,958 tons of beets, enough for a mere eleven days of slice. Gus Carton proved himself indomitable. He proposed a plan whereby the company would purchase lands and resell them to Russian immigrants at attractive prices. He attracted the Russians and invested $25,000, but didn’t get the beets, the Russians proving no less independent than were the farmers who were already present.
A bolt of lightning shattered the brick chimney in July 1905. The directors, all experienced investors, knew better than to add more capital. The chimney lay where it fell and arrangements were made to ship the beet crop to a Bay City beet factory. Disaster had also struck in St. Louis Park, Minnesota where a beet factory burned to the ground. The East Tawas board of directors viewed the fire as an opportunity. When the beets destined for the St. Louis Park factory went to another factory, their quality captured interest, especially the beets from Chaska, Minnesota. At the direction of the board of directors, Kilby dismantled the East Tawas factory and re-installed it in Chaska where it remained in operation for the next sixty-five years.
East Tawas slowly recovered from the loss of the lumber industry and its failed sugar factory and today is a successful destination point for tourists who enjoy the nearby Huron National Forest, Lake Huron and Tawas Bay, and the AuSable River made popular by canoeists and fishermen and the Tawas Point Lighthouse, in operation since 1876, a part of the Tawas Point State Park.
It does not plan to see another sugar factory anytime soon.


GUTLEBEN, Dan, The Sugar Tramp-1954- Michigan, Printed by: Bay City Duplicating Co, San Francisco, 1954

HENLEY, ROBERT L., Sweet Success . . .The Story of Michigan's Beet Sugar Industry 1898 – 1974, Michigan Historical Center, Department of History, Arts and Libraries
©2009 Thomas Mahar – all rights reserved

Menominee River Sugar Company 1903-1955

By Thomas Mahar

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.

As the lumber era petered out at the beginning of the 20th century, railroads that had come into their own because of timber, sought new sources of revenue. Principal among them was the Detroit and Mackinac Railroad whose land agent, Charles M. Garrison, collected and distributed information about the potential of the sugarbeet industry. While Garrison spread word among Detroit's financiers about prospective profits in sugarbeets, communities affected by the decline of lumber looked to area resources for ways of replenishing wealth. They had plenty to work with. The state was crisscrossed with rail lines and rivers and some left over cash from the lumber era. With Garrison leading the way, investors perked up. Communities eager to find a quick replacement for lumber hastened to attend meetings sponsored by Garrison and quicker yet to bring their towns into the fold. All that was needed was to persuade the farmers to grow the beets. That is where the Michigan Agricultural College (Now Michigan State University) stepped in.

Upper Peninsula farmers, encouraged by Michigan Agricultural College to plant sugarbeet test plots, received an even greater shot in the arm by the visit of Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson, in 1902. He expounded the advantages of sugarbeets and discouraged the notion that the Upper Peninsula's climate wasn't up to the task of producing profitable crops. Wilson served in three presidential cabinets, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft, serving longer (1897-1913) than any other cabinet official. He encouraged modern agriculture methods, including transportation and education as they applied to agriculture. His word carried a lot of weight. When he spoke of sugarbeets, some farmers listened and when his department avowed that the cold northern temperatures would not inhibit the development of the industry in their neighborhood, investors, farmers, and manufacturers lined up to begin the industry in Menominee.

Optimism rose to new heights when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced favorable results of the sugarbeet plot tests. The Sugar Beet News of December 15, 1903, reported test results from beets delivered by approximately 140 farmers. The test runs revealed 15.6 to 19.9 % sugar, which meant a cash value to the farmers per acre of from $5.70 to $7.13 per ton ($135-$169 inflation adjusted to the current period). At those projected prices, no crop in human history had held the potential for creating such a high return from so few acres.

In the Lower Peninsula, a farmer with above average ability who placed fifteen acres in sugarbeets could earn more than $800 and if his family provided the bulk of the labor, the net profit would more than take care of a family's needs for a year, which, including food, was less than $800. After adding revenue from crops in rotation and revenues from milk, eggs, and poultry, the farm family's standard of living advanced from a subsistence level to one that compared favorably to those who held mid-management positions in industry. USDA figures supported belief that Upper Peninsula beets would exceed by two per cent the average for all the other 18 sugar beet factories in the Lower Peninsula.

If the tests proved reliable indicators, Menominee region beets were worth up to $10 more an acre than Lower Peninsula beets, assuring an income of nearly $1,000 per year just from sugarbeets.

Although enthusiasm was on the upturn, something more was needed to seal the deal. To instill confidence in prospective investors that technical expertise lay near at hand, Benjamin Boutell, who won fame as both a tugboat captain and as a captain of industry, arrived in Menominee from his Bay City, Michigan headquarters for the single purpose of conveying interested investors to Bay County where they could see groomed beet fields and efficient factories spinning out white crystalline sugar. Eleven prospective investors accompanied Boutell to Bay City where convincing evidence lay at hand. Four beet sugar factories, more than in any other city in the United States, had been constructed in that city's environs. Bay City virtually hummed with economic activity because of the presence of sugar factories. Mansions peopled by former lumber barons who had transformed themselves into sugar barons, lined the city's prestigious Center Avenue.

Boutell announced he would become one of the investors, providing the other investors had no objection to having a factory designed and installed by Joseph Kilby who was according to Boutell, the finest constructor of beet sugar factories in the United States. Many others agreed with Boutell's assessment; Kilby built nine of the eventual twenty-four factories built in Michigan. Local investors lined up behind Boutell to organize the Menominee River Sugar Company. A half dozen important backers came forward, each of whom subscribed to more than $25,000 in stock of the Menominee River Sugar Company.

Heading up the list of local shareholders was Samuel M. Stephenson, a former lumber manufacturer and native of New Brunswick, Canada who had made a home for himself, his wife, Jennie and their four daughters and one son, in Menominee. He was then seventy-one years of age but in no mood for retirement. Following a successful career in lumber and banking, he served three successive terms in Congress (Michigan's 11th District 1889-93 and the 12th District 1893-97). He invested $100,000 ($2 million by modern standards) in the beet sugar factory, taking heart in not only favorable test plot results and the enthusiasm of his neighbors but also interest shown by the American Sugar Refining Corporation, generally known by its then popular sobriquet, the Sugar Trust. Some years later the Sugar Trust would fall into disfavor as a result of charges of unfair business practices, but in 1903, it had the confidence of the general public and investors alike and controlled the manufacture and sale of 98% of sugar consumed in the United States. Trust Executives, Arthur Donner and Charles R. Heike, invested $300,000 to acquire 36% of Menominee River Sugar Company's stock.

All the members of the board of directors and roster of officers apart from Bay City resident, Benjamin Boutell, listed Menominee as their home of record. Menominee residents made up 74% of the shareholders. Together, they controlled 53% of the shares. In addition to Stephenson, other major shareholders who also accepted positions as either officers or directors were: William O. Carpenter who invested $55,000 and served the sugar company variously as president and vice-president. Gustave A. Blesch invested $15,000 and served as treasurer. John Henes, a brewery owner, invested $25,000 and served as a director. Augustus Spies was the second largest investor after Stephenson and the Sugar Trust. He, too, served as a director.

Spies provide an excellent example of the hardy pioneering spirit that prevailed in Menominee. He was a native of the grand duchy of Hessen-Darmstadt, Germany where fertile soils and a mild climate allowed the production of grain and wine. He participated in the founding of the Stephenson National Bank in partnership with future U.S. Congressman Samuel M. Stephenson and Samuel's brother, future U.S. Senator, Isaac Stephenson. In addition, he owned the Spies Lumber Company and several large tracts of forest; he was an investor in the First National Bank of Menominee, the Marinette and Menominee Paper Company and president of the Menominee Light, Railroad and Power Company. When the fledgling sugar company got under way, he stepped forward with $75,000 ($1.5 million in current dollars).

Support from Menominee's wealthy class, who also shared distinctions of making good business decisions and rising on their own merit rather than inherited wealth, was so great that there was no need to solicit funds from the public at large. With its shares over-subscribed by $35,000, the Menominee River Sugar Company was in the enviable position of having adequate capital for its venture. Not only was it possessed of sufficient capital but also it enjoyed the added benefit of the experience of Benjamin Boutell and representatives of the Sugar Trust. Menominee would not want for technical or business expertise.

Gustave Blesch, like Augustus Spies, owed his success to the inherited qualities of hard work, honesty and the respect of his peers. He would become the sugar company's first treasurer. He was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1859, the son of Francis Blesch, a native of Germany and Antoinette Schneider, a native of Belgium. Gustave became an office boy in the Kellogg National Bank of Green Bay, rising to teller by the age of twenty. Five years later, he moved to Menominee to help establish the First National Bank of Menominee where he began as cashier before becoming the bank's president. He became president of the Menominee Brick Company, vice-president of the Menominee-Marinette Light & Traction Company, and treasurer of the Peninsula Land Company.

In January, 1903, the newly elected board of directors approved an $800,000 (nearly $19 million in current era dollars) construction contract for a Kilby designed and built factory that would slice 1,000 tons of beets per day. Of the 48 beet sugar factories in operation in the United States in 1903, only two were larger than Menominee's new factory, one in Salinas, California and another in Fort Collins, Colorado.

The average sugar factory in Michigan in 1903 could slice six hundred tons of beets in a twenty-four hour period. Four thousand acres of beets would easily supply a season's factory run. Had the investors surveyed the farmers first, surely they would have been advised to build a smaller factory, and perhaps would have been persuaded to build none. Farmers delivered beets from approximately 1,500 acres, well short of the 9,000 acres the investment demanded.

The Menominee factory's first factory run (referred to as a "campaign" in the sugar industry) ended quickly, having received only 14,263 tons, enough for a production run of fourteen days for a factory the investors planned to operate at least one hundred days. However, the farmers had submitted beets containing the highest sugar reported of any company during its first campaign, 15.04 percent - about 20 percent more than average and enough to allow for a small profit from a meager beet supply. Like nearly all the factories, records that would inform us of profit, if any, earned during that first campaign, did not survive the passage of time. However, it would be reasonable to estimate, based on the known cost of supplies of coal, coke, limestone and the cost of labor, that a profit of $36,000 was achievable, especially under a management style that paid close attention to expenditures and especially in light of the very high percentage of sugar in the beets.

The second campaign was better with enough beets for a full month, still well short of a supply needed to generate profits enough to justify the investment. By 1911, the local supply reached a level that allowed steady profits but was insufficient to encourage expansion, a condition that persisted until 1926 when grower apathy fell to a level that required closing the factory until 1933 when it reopened for a final run of twenty years during which the factory lagged behind the industry in technology and growth. Year in and year out, because of an inadequate supply of beets, mostly grown in Wisconsin, the underutilized factory ended its campaign weeks earlier than was needed to produce healthy profits which then could have been reinvested in the factory. Menominee investors learned, as did many other sugar factory investors, that the mantra, "build it and they will come" fell on deaf ears among farmers who often displayed a better understanding of sugar economics than did investors.

The passage of time brought neither harm nor good to the Menominee factory as it was unable to expand or modernize. It settled into the process of graceful aging. Profits awaiting opportunity gradually accumulated thanks to the company's penurious management style and a dedicated cadre of farmers.

George W. McCormick, the company's first manager, inaugurated a careful management style that went a long way toward keeping the company profitable despite annual shortfalls in the beet supply. He managed the company during its first thirty-two years of operation, beginning when he was twenty-four years of age. He met Benjamin Boutell in Bay City when he moved there to take a job as a district manager for Travelers Insurance Company. Boutell thought the young man belonged in the rapidly developing sugar industry and encouraged him to help in the establishment of a sugar factory in Wallaceburg, Ontario. After completing the assignment with success, Boutell recommended him for the manager's job in Menominee.

Menominee was the most difficult place in the United States to process sugarbeets. The low temperatures took a heavy toll on workers, machinery and beets that usually went through the slicing machines like boulders, damaging equipment that robbed the factory of slender resources. It was difficult to find replacement parts because of the distance separating Menominee from suppliers and from Lower Peninsula sugar factories where it was common for factory managers to lend spare parts to one another.

The company's diligent attention to cost control paid off in 1924 when sugar factories located in Green Bay and Menominee Falls, Wisconsin went on the market. Menominee River Sugar Company purchased both and then invested significant sums in restoring the Menominee Falls factory that had been shut for three years immediately preceding its sale.

The renovated Menominee Falls factory combined with the Green Bay and Menominee, Michigan factories created more capacity than was needed for the available acreage. One of the factories would have to close. Menominee won the noose after the accountants counted up the freight costs for hauling beets to each factory. The Menominee factory remained closed until 1933 when Michigan's farmers relented and agreed to return to sugarbeets, a decision that came too late to save the hides of the sugar company's owners who had lost the company to defaulted bonds three years earlier.

Disruptions in Europe beginning in the early part of the 1930s brought a new name to Michigan's beet sugar fields and corporate offices - Flegenheimer. Albert Flegenheimer was the son of Samuel Flegenheimer who had immigrated to the United States in either 1864 or 1866 and became a naturalized citizen in 1873. The next year, however, he returned to Germany, settling in Wurttemberg. He lived out his life there, dying in 1929 at the age of 81. His brief sojourn in the United States and his U.S. citizenship status, however, would one day save his descendants from German death camps.

In February 1939, Albert Flegenheimer carried his family to the safety of Canada and then to the U.S. claiming nationality as the son of a naturalized citizen. He planned to raise his family and devote his time to the sugar industry in both the United States and Canada. His plans met with considerable success and by 1954, he controlled the sugar factory in Menominee and the one in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Despite Albert Flegenheimer's efforts, a lack of interest on the part of farmers kept the factory small and outdated. It struggled year by year until finally in 1955 with its equipment exhausted, its buildings in tattered repair and its farmers pursuing other crops, Menominee River Sugar Company, built on hopes and dreams and operated with fortitude and persistence for more than a half-century, closed its doors forever.


GUTLEBEN, Dan, The Sugar Tramp-1954- Michigan, Printed by: Bay City Duplicating Co, San Francisco, 1954

1962 TWIN CITY COMMUNITY RESOURCES WORKSHOP, section entitled Famous Leaders Who Helped Build Menominee, prepared by Irene Swain, Dr. Leo J. Alilunas, Director.

HENLEY, ROBERT L., Sweet Success . . .The Story of Michigan's Beet Sugar Industry 1898 - 1974, Michigan Historical Center, Department of History, Arts and Libraries

INFLATION ADJUSTMENTS: The pre-1975 data are the Consumer Price Index statistics from Historical Statistics of the United States (USGPO, 1975). All data since then are from the annual Statistical Abstracts of the United States. Recorded at http://www.westegg.com/inflation

MICHIGAN ANNUAL REPORTS, Michigan Archives, Lansing, Michigan
©2009 Thomas Mahar

About the Author:
Thomas Mahar served as Executive Vice President of Monitor Sugar Company between 1984 and 1999 and as President of Gala Food Processing, a sugar packaging company, from 1993-1998. He retired in 1999 and now devotes his free time to writing about the history of the sugar industry. He authored, Sweet Energy, The Story of Monitor Sugar Company in 2001.
Contact: Thomas Mahar E-mail tkmahar@aol.com

The Owosso Sugar Company - A History

By Thomas Mahar

No sooner had Saginaw's lumber tycoon, Wellington R. Burt, celebrated his 70th birthday on August 26, 1901 than did he set out to employ a portion of his lumber wealth in the awakening beet sugar industry.

The mantra of real estate agents everywhere is "location, location, location." However, in the business world in general it should be, "timing, timing, timing." Wellington Burt's timing so far as his interest in sugar was concerned, was poor.

Like others who had filled their days in the once fast-paced but now moribund lumber industry, he had time on his hands and money in the bank. At first, also as had others, he devoted some years to politics. He had served a term in the state senate (1893-1894) then sought a U.S. Congressional seat but had the ill fortune to run as a Democrat in 1900, the year the Republican star was rising. Ranked as one of America's wealthiest men, Burt cast about for new investment ideas and then homed in on the sugar industry. His set his eyes on Owosso, Michigan, a village situated some thirty miles southwest of Saginaw where several holdovers from the lumber industry resided in mansions arrayed along Washington Avenue. Among Owosso's many attributes was the influence of Joseph Kohn, a sugarbeet technologist residing in Bay City, Michigan. Kohn presided over the Michigan Chemical Company which had been put in place to purchase and then process molasses generated by that city's growing number of sugar beet factories. His success at Michigan Chemical encouraged investors to draw close when he spoke of investing in beet sugar factories.

For Kohn it was simple, the more sugar beet factories the more molasses for Michigan Chemical, which could be distilled into alcohol, a circumstance that built enthusiasm for the construction of another factory. Fat with profits, Michigan Chemical and its parent, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, sought to build a factory in Owosso on its own and didn't need the interference of another millionaire with time on his hands and money in his pocket. Wellington R. Burt was not invited to join in a venture with Michigan Chemical and his ambitions to go on his own languished behind a curtain of international events

The United States had agreed upon the conclusion of the Spanish-American War to reduce the import duty on Philippine sugar 75 percent of the general rate and to allow the importation of sugar from Puerto Rico, a U.S. possession, entirely free of duty. The Philippines had the additional advantage of shipping up to 300,000 tons duty free and Congress was dithering with proposed legislation that if passed, would approve a treaty of reciprocity with Cuba. The agreement would grant that country a 20 percent tariff preferential.

The nation’s newspapers devoted considerable space to the plan, dampening the spirits of those who had at first shown much excitement about Burt’s proposed factory. He could find few others to join him in a venture in Owosso, although he pledged $200,000 of his personal fortune and claimed others had subscribed another $50,000 in stock. He had convinced farmers to sign up to grow sugarbeets on three thousand acres and contracted with the experienced firm of Fuehrman and Hapke to begin construction when it fell apart because investors had not come forth with the balance of the required investment – about $600,000.

Michigan Chemical Company waited in the wings while additional investors failed to materialize. Elsewhere, excitement for beet sugar factories hardly slowed. Sixteen were built in the United States between 1900 and 1902, eight in Michigan. Burt's attention turned to Alma, Michigan where he met more success by combining his money and talents with those of Aimee Wright, another Saginaw industrialist.

Owosso, in 1902, was as good a candidate for a beet factory as any town in Michigan, perhaps better. It had rail lines, established industry, a managerial class and trained workers in addition to an excellent farming region. Burt stepped aside, allowing the project to die stillborn. Fuehrman and Hapke went on to construct the Sebewaing factory in the next year, creating one of the most successful beet factories of the era. Michigan Chemical emerged from the shadows and picked up the reins.

Owosso was home to two families with notable achievements in American politics. Both would play various roles in the establishment of a beet sugar factory in Owosso. The Bentley family, headed by Alvin Bentley, whose grandson, also named Alvin, achieved fame at great personal expense in 1954 when as a junior Congressman, he became the most seriously injured of five victims of an armed assault on Congress while it was in session. Four Puerto Rican terrorists discharged thirty rounds from the visitor’s gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives to the floor of that chamber while the Representatives were debating an immigration bill.

The Dewey family had been engaged in Republican politics since the party’s formation in nearby Jackson, Michigan in 1854. In Owosso, in accordance with tradition, a leading representative of the political party then in power held the postmaster’s position. Edmund O. Dewey, uncle to Thomas Edmund Dewey, a future New York governor and twice an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. presidency, held that position beginning with the presidency of William McKinley and ending with the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. His brother George, the father of Thomas Edmund Dewey, secured the appointment in 1921.

Edmund Dewey, in 1902, revived Wellington Burt’s plan for a beet sugar factory in Owosso. He arranged the purchase of a suitable 40-acre site at the west end of Oliver Street, raised $10,000 and urged the county board of commissioners to pass a bond issue sufficient to meet the cost of the land. The county denied the bond, causing the idea to fail for a second time and for the same reason – a lack of enthusiasm.

Joseph Kohn stepped forward and in doing so introduced into Michigan's fired up sugar industry one the nation's wealthiest families, the Pitcairn family of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pitcairn family controlled the Pittsburg Plate Glass Company (today known as PPG Industries) headquartered in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. The glass company had all but ended America’s dependence on Europe for large sheets of glass suitable for storefronts, display cases and mirrors. During the opening days of the 20th century, the company produced 20-million square feet of glass annually.

In seeking a source of potash for its glassworks, Pittsburgh Plate Glass turned to Kohn who made an effort to extract it from beet sugar molasses and instead found he could earn assured profits by converting molasses into alcohol. He had also served the German-American Sugar Company (later named Monitor Sugar Company) as a consultant and before that held a similar position with Kilby Manufacturing who was much involved in turnkey beet sugar factory construction projects. Kohn’s Bay City distillery, owing to the large volume of molasses emerging from three sugar factories and more promised from the German-American Sugar Company’s factory then under construction, was turning over substantial profits to Pittsburgh Plate Glass.

John Pitcairn saw America’s shores first as five-year old immigrant brought to America by his parents John and Agnes along with two sisters and a brother. Pitcairn accumulated a personal fortune in railroads, coalmines, oil, and in the founding of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company in partnership with John Ford. He was sixty-years old when Kohn drew his attention to the potential in Owosso and the failed effort of first Wellington Burt, then Edmund Dewey to form a beet sugar company.

Three’s the charm for Owosso. On October 29, 1902, the Owosso Sugar Company came into existence, capitalized at one million dollars. More than 75 percent of the shares were owned by members of the Pitcairn family and friends. John Pitcairn owned 62,500 of the outstanding shares outright. A handful of Owosso residents added their names to the shareholder list, including the aforementioned Alvin Bentley and the brothers Edmund and George Dewey. George Dewey’s son, Tom, the future presidential candidate, would one day spend school vacations working in the new sugar company’s packaging room.

The company presidency was turned over to Charles W. Brown, the owner of newly minted 5,600 shares of stock. Brown was also the president of Pittsburgh Plate Glass. Day to day financial duties went to 36-year old Edward Pitcairn, one of John Pitcairn’s many nephews. Edward would, by 1910, become treasurer of Pittsburgh Plate Glass, a position he would hold for the balance of his career. Carmen Smith, an attorney with a long association with Charles Brown, stemming from a period when the pair resided in Minneapolis, assumed responsibility for the general management of the new firm. In addition, he assumed the title of Secretary-Treasurer. He had recently moved his wife Isabella and three children, Margaret, Carmen, and Cedric to Bay City where he served as the treasurer of Michigan Chemical Company. Joseph Kohn accepted the role of general factory superintendent.

Educated at the Prague Institute of Technology, Kohn graduated in 1883 with degrees in mechanical and chemical engineering. Following his schooling, he was employed at Breitfeld-Danek of Prague and later gained experience at a sugar factory in Moravia, a region in what is now the Czech Republic but was then a part of the Austrian-Hungary empire, and also worked with the evaporator designer, Hugo Jelenik. In Moravia, he worked with Carl Steffen, the inventor of the molasses desugarization process that carries his name. While employed by Kilby Manufacturing Company, Kohn developed the Kilby standard factory arrangement.

Kilby Manufacturing won contracts to construct two 1,000-ton factories in Michigan; one at Owosso and another at Menominee. The two would hold the record as the largest beet factories built in Michigan until a 1,200-ton factory was built at Mount Pleasant in 1920. In addition to the two 1,000-ton factories, Kilby had an order for a standard 600-ton factory for East Tawas. It would be a busy year for Kilby who had also received orders for three factories in Colorado, one each for Fort Collins, Longmont, and Windsor with Fort Collins gaining the largest factory built by Kilby-1,200 tons a day slicing capacity. The price for the Owosso factory, at $675,000, on a per ton of sugarbeets sliced basis, was low at $675 compared $1,197 at East Tawas and $785 at Menominee. In fact, the Owosso factory cost less per ton of slice than any factory built in Michigan.

The Owosso factory came to life on December 9, 1903 without the usual fanfare assigned to new beet sugar factories which usually included marching bands, parades, and much merriment followed by speaking opportunities for local luminaries and politicians. In a quieter fashion, Charles W. Brown, arrived from Pittsburgh and brought with him as an honored guest, James Wilson, the Secretary of Agriculture. He rose to national prominence when President William McKinley appointed him Secretary of Agriculture in 1897. His stature was such that presidents Roosevelt and Taft retained him as secretary, and it was only when in 1912 in a move to sweep Republican appointees from office, Woodrow Wilson ended his tenure. He had served as Secretary of Agriculture from March 4, 1897 to March 3, 1913, the longest duration served by any American cabinet official.

After a brief ceremony, Secretary Wilson pulled the whistle cord that called forth the beets from the flumes. Unlike many of the beet factories built in Michigan, there was no central local figure that had put his money and reputation on the line for the factory. The majority ownership was far away in Pennsylvania, its officers and guiding management lived elsewhere, Bay City in the case of Joseph Kohn and Carmen Smith and the environs of Pittsburgh for Brown and Pitcairn. It was not unusual for absentee owners to overlook the obvious – input from farmers. When a lack of farmer interest made itself known, it caused no palpitations in the boardroom of Pittsburgh Plate Glass. After all, twenty years earlier John Pitcairn had forged a new American industry out of the rubble of similar but failed efforts when he wrestled the plate glass market away from the Europeans and developed one of the world’s largest and most modern factories of its kind.

Farmer apathy was a mild inconvenience, not a crushing blow to someone who had turned the making of plate glass into a unique American industry. The answer lay near at hand and Carmen Smith, his appointed emissary, had probed the possibilities even as the factory walls reached toward the sky to the amazement of Owossians who had gathered on weekends throughout the summer of 1903 to take in the breadth and dimensions of the industrial goliath growing in their midst. Clearly, the Pittsburgh Plate Glass people thought big. They thought even bigger than the factory’s sidewalk superintendents imagined, bigger than had any beet factory organizer up until that time. Not only were they building a beet factory destined to be twice the size of nearly all the sugar factories in the United States, they were at the same time on the verge of establishing the largest sugarbeet farm in the United States and the largest single farm operation east of the Mississippi River.

South and west of Saginaw, Michigan lay a vast marsh formed during the last ice age. The marsh adjoined the convergence of several large river systems that became the Saginaw River that then and now flows 22 miles northward to Lake Huron. The eighteen thousand acre marsh served as an important stopover point and brooding ground for migrating waterfowl, ducks, geese, swans. It was the largest natural wildlife habitat in the American Midwest. It was protected by characteristics that made it unappealing to farmers – frequent flooding. But that changed when Harlan B. Smith, a Saginaw buggy manufacturer who also speculated in real estate, entered into a partnership with two attorneys Charles H. Camp and George B. Brooks, to acquire and then develop approximately 10,000 acres of the marsh. Their efforts, spanning fifteen years, resulted in a large drainage ditch that extended nearly two miles across the prairie, permitting them to convert hundreds of acres of marsh into farmland.

When Carmen Smith searched for a large tract in which to install a demonstration sugarbeet farm while at the same time assuring the Owosso factory would have all the beets it would want, he quickly targeted the Prairie Farm. Smith completed the purchase on February 22, 1903 and soon, a steam-powered dredge, a monster designed for digging into mucky earth, was soon barged down the Saginaw River to the prairie. It bit into the earth in the front, forming a 20-foot high dike and creating a canal, which it used to transport itself until acre-by acre, it claimed land that had waited a half a million years for the arrival of the mechanical behemoth.

Eventually, Owosso Sugar Company created thirty-six miles of dikes, some of them eighty feet wide at the bottom, forty at the top and twenty feet high. Others were of lesser dimensions but all designed for the same purpose – draining and then keeping the land dry. Roads crowned the tops of the dikes and the sides turned to grass for use as a sheep pasture. Half the land was drained via open ditches and half was drained with the aid of large pumps that sent their burden to the nearby Flint River. Once it was dry, the reclaimed land was laid out much like a giant checkerboard in twelve lines of sixteen forty-acre parcels. Almost overnight, for a capital outlay of $400,000, Smith transformed the Prairie Farm from a losing proposition into the largest beet sugar estate in Michigan, and probably in the United States, if not the world – ten thousand acres. The new factory could now set aside worry about an adequate supply of beets.

Owosso Sugar Company’s First Campaign

The first operating campaign for the Owosso Sugar Company, as was customary with Kilby designed turnkey factories, achieved the guaranteed slice rate of 1,000 tons of sliced beets each twenty-four hours. Construction contracts typically required that a new factory meet its guaranteed rate for a specified period of time, set by negotiation, at between one and ten days and usually occurred under the supervision of Kilby’s engineers some days after the startup. The same engineers would withdraw once the new owner signed the certificate of completion, handing the factory over to the company’s management staff. The slice rate at Owosso declined after the factory reached the guaranteed rate most likely for the same reasons slice rates in most new beet factories declined – inexperienced operators.

Because the Prairie Farm was yet in its infancy, it produced fewer beets than it would in the following years causing the processing period, referred to as a "campaign" by the industry, to last only 48 days, ending on January 26, 1904. During its maiden run the new factory sliced an average of 542 tons, well short of the scheduled 1,000 tons per day. The second campaign was five days shorter but the slice rate nearly doubled, reaching 930 tons per day for 43 days.

While the Owosso factory was under construction, the Lansing beet factory, built by Benjamin Boutell, a major investor in several Michigan beet sugar factories, and others two years earlier, suffered from a lack of managerial oversight. Diagnosed with cancer early in 1902, Boutell’s wife, Amelia died on November 27 at the age of 52 despite his best efforts to discover a cure. Having no heart for his business interests, he sold the Lansing factory to the Owosso Sugar Company.

Kohn and Smith now had four major operations: two sugar factories, the Prairie Farm, and Bay City’s Michigan Chemical Company under their control whereas one year earlier they had only the chemical company to occupy their time and thoughts. The Prairie Farm employed 160 workers and 58 teams of draft horses and each of the two beet factories employed hundreds more in addition to workers at the chemical factory and in the Bay City headquarters. The two managers, each 45 years old, were in constant motion, visiting the properties, the corporate office in Pittsburgh, and attending industry conventions in addition to meeting with members of Congress and the Department of Agriculture. In 1910, Joseph Kohn was the first to reckon the cost of such a pace. He suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 52.

In the year preceding Kohn's death, 8,500 Prairie Farm acres had been diked and equipped with gravity drainage and pumping systems and for the first time, grew a square mile of sugarbeets. Peppermint provided additional revenue (35,000 pounds of peppermint oil in 1909) while cabbage followed in importance behind sugarbeets.

For the six years following Kohn’s death, Carmen Smith continued on as before, shouldering Kohn’s responsibilities in addition to his own, until 1916 when he placed the two sugar factories under the supervision of Charles D. Bell who had served as the factory manager at Alma before joining the Owosso staff in 1907. Bell remained at Owosso for sixteen years, leaving only after Michigan Sugar Company acquired the Owosso and Lansing factories in 1924 whereupon he returned to the family ranch in Los Alamos, California where he promptly discovered oil and retired in wealth.

In 1920, at age 62, Carmen Smith, much like his friend and associate, Joseph Kohn, succumbed suddenly to a heart attack while traveling home by train from Chicago. With Carmen Smith passed a pioneering era. Joseph Kohn in 1910, Joseph Kilby in 1914, John Pitcairn in 1916, and Carmen Smith in 1920 - those who had lived the dream of building one of the world’s largest and most modern beet sugar factories and then topping it with the country’s single largest beet farm, had passed from the scene. Sadly, what they had wrought would not last.

According to Daniel Gutleben’s history of the Michigan beet sugar industry (The Sugar Tramp -1954), Pittsburgh Plate Glass, likely concerned that Michigan’s beet factories, built too small to compete with major refineries designed to process raw sugar imported in quantity, couldn’t compete against the volume of duty-free sugar entering the country. It opted to sell both the Owosso and Lansing factories to Michigan Sugar Company at a price reported in the press at $2,000,000 plus preferred stock. The Prairie Farm remained in the hands of John Pitcairn’s heirs.

Michigan Sugar Company operated Owosso for the next four years until diminishing interest on the part of farmers combined with the flood of imported sugar caused the factory to close in 1928. Michigan Sugar lacked the chief advantage once held by the former owners - the Prairie Farm thus could not command farmers to grow beets when other crops, corn and soybeans attracted favorable prices for less investment and less work. It re-opened again for one year in 1933, then shut down but was kept in hopeful readiness. Hope finally surrendered to reality that the farmers would not return. The factory and buildings were sold in 1948. Proof that the eventual failure of the Owosso Sugar Company did not rest upon the shoulders of management lay in the appointment of Owosso's secretary, Edward Bostock, to the chairmanship of the board of directors of Michigan Sugar Company.


DENSLOW, William R, and TRUMAN, Harry S., 10,000 Famous Freemasons from A to J Part One (in reference to Charles W. Brown career with Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company)

MILLER, Ed, and BEACH, Jean R.., The Saginaw Hall of Fame, Published by the Saginaw Hall of Fame, 2000. (In reference to Wellington R. Burt)

GUTTLEBEN, Daniel, The Sugar Tramp – 1954 printed by Bay Cities Duplicating Company, San Francisco, California

LE CUREUX, KEITH, Albee Township History, Saginaw, County, Michigan, Chapter V, Prairie Farm.

BETZOLD, Michael, Detroit Free Press Magazine, December 26, 1993, Utopia Revisited – an article describing the history of the Prairie Farm.

Copyright, 2009, All Rights Reserved

About the Author: Thomas Mahar served as Executive Vice President of Monitor Sugar Company between 1984 and 1999 and as President of Gala Food Processing, a sugar packaging company, from 1993-1998. He retired in 1999 and now devotes his free time to writing about the history of the sugar industry. He authored, Sweet Energy, The Story of Monitor Sugar Company in 2001, and Michigan's Beet Sugar History (Newsbeet, Fall, 2006).Contact: Thomas Mahar E-mail tkmahar@aol.com

Benjamin Boutell - A True Son of Michigan

Benjamin Boutell, Amelia Boutell and her twin sister, Cornelia M. Duttlinger about 1900

By Thomas Mahar

A flat-bottomed boat lazed along the river’s bank on a summer day in 1860. An observer could be forgiven for not realizing the lone occupant was a youth who would grow to dominate two Michigan industries, log towing and sugar manufacturing and foster a number of companies in other industries that would add immeasurable wealth to Michigan’s developing economy.

The skiff bobbed in a ceaseless to-and-fro motion, influenced by waves that washed against the bank and then receded in accordance with the movement of steamers and sloops that churned the Saginaw River’s channel. Its skipper, sixteen-year-old Benjamin Boutell, sighed in sleepy contentment. The rocking motion of the river lulled him deeper into slumber as he basked in the sun’s warmth, dreaming of sea adventures in which he was the central figure.

He did not hear the sounds of sawing and hammering, the hailing of ships from shore, and other boisterous dock activity common to Bay City, Michigan in 1860. In ten years, the city’s population had exploded from a mere fifty souls to more than three thousand, with more arriving each day from Canada or Detroit to take jobs in one of fifteen sawmills clustered on the riverbank. Before the lumber drew to a close forty years later, thirty thousand people would call Bay City home and more than one hundred sawmills lined the riverbanks from Bay City to Saginaw, twelve miles distant.

His father, Daniel Boutell, owned one of the hotels situated within hailing distance at the southeast corner of Water and Third streets. Not long before it had been the Sherman House. Situated across from the Detroit Steamboat Company’s landing, it was often the first stop for newcomers to the city. Daniel Boutell had moved his family thirty miles north from Birch Run to take over the hotel, and after extensive renovations hung a new shingle near the entrance. Now it was the Boutell House, a home away from home for Great Lakes sailors who were made to feel more like family guests than hotel patrons because many of the Boutells’ nine children shared the hotel with them.

Fascinated by the stories the sailors told, Ben grew to love the river and the great Saginaw Bay, the doorway to the Great Lakes, a doorway he planned to pass through one day. Meanwhile, he earned his way by remaining on call to the Protection Fire Company where he served as first assistant foreman and helped his father at the hotel where he badgered sailors with questions about schooners, sloops, barges, and tugboats. An infectious grin and a sincere interest loosened tongues of sailors who enjoyed Ben’s enthusiasm; they gladly shared accounts of their adventures and knowledge of all things nautical.

Having learned much about the nature of goods that moved from port to port on the Great Lakes, he began to pay special attention to the movement of logs towed by powerful tugboats. The task of moving felled trees to mills situated in one of the state’s principal sawmill towns, Saginaw, Bay City, or Muskegon, was critical to the success of the timber industry. Water transport provided the least costly solution. Logs carved from Michigan’s forests were floated downstream, collected at river mouths, sorted into floating corrals, called “booms,” and towed by tugboats to sawmills that lined the river from Saginaw to Bay City. From forests along Canada’s Georgian Bay shoreline, tugboats towed booms containing thousands of logs across Lake Huron and into the Saginaw Bay for shipment to waiting sawmills.

Tugboat captains faced many perils: sudden storms that would threaten to shatter the delicate lacing of logs that formed the boom, shipboard disasters, exploding boilers, and fires that could leave crews abandoned to chilling water far from rocky shores. The idea of taking the helm of such a craft fired the imagination of the hotelkeeper’s son.

His ambition gained impetus in his twenty-first year when fire destroyed the Boutell House. Dan Boutell fought the blaze until only smoldering rubble remained. His lungs seared by smoke, he declined in health until death claimed him the following year. The family’s livelihood in peril, Ben immediately signed on as a full-time sailor on the steam tug Wave. Within the year, he was the Wave’s mate and in the following year earned papers conferring upon him the responsibilities of a ship’s master.

As Captain Boutell, he assumed command of the Ajax, a steam tug that had lately become the property of the First National Bank of Bay City. The bank had acquired it in the manner banks often acquire assets – via defaulted notes. The twenty-two-year-old novice captain enlisted the aid of an engineer named Samuel Jones, whose salary, like the captain's, was conditional upon the ship's revenue, and a cook he addressed with affection as Aunt Kitty and who possessed both an impressive girth and a disposition for adventure. Ben, Jones, and Aunt Kitty ran the tug that fall with Ben handling with equal ease mundane chores such as cutting wood for its boiler and management of the boat’s business. The trio cleared for the owners $6,000 (about $84 thousand in 2009 dollars), giving the young captain a reputation as a can-do ship’s master with a first-rate knowledge of the Great Lakes.

Bold competence won the attention of Captain William Mitchell, master of the tug Union. Mitchell admired the rangy youth with the engaging smile whose energy seemed to expand to meet any challenge. The two became fast friends and business partners, acquiring over time a fleet of tugboats, barges, schooners, and freight haulers that eventually numbered more than fifty. Boutell organized great rafts containing as much as four million board feet of lumber, making him the single greatest hauler of timber of the lumber era. Altogether, log rafting and other towing work for his tugs employed the services of five hundred people. He counted himself among them. Even as his assets and his reputation grew, he stayed on at the helm of one tug or another, five years alone as captain of the Annie Moiles, until finally responsibilities created by his rapidly growing wealth kept him on shore.

Although Ben never left behind the boy who probed the riverbanks aboard a small skiff, the capital he amassed as boat owner and captain on Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and the Georgian Bay would eventually generate additional fortunes. When Ben Boutell, William Mitchell, and future partner, Peter Smith linked themselves to the lumber industry they had tied themselves to a star that would rise but a little distance before flaming out. When the white pine forests melted under the onslaught of axes and saws, the need for Boutell’s tugs disappeared. For a time it was his plan to continue where he had begun, hauling logs from Canada. However, prohibitive duties ended any hope of profiting from Canadian timber. With a sinking heart, Ben, who once transported an average of one hundred million board feet of timber in a season, watched his boats loiter at the docks.

So it was that Captain Benjamin Boutell, in 1897, at the age of fifty-three, found himself wealthy, but unemployed and eager for new opportunities. Though he no longer was the trim youth that inspired legends, he was still affable, easy-going, and, as always, attired in rumpled clothing. A shaggy moustache was all that was remained of a once prominent beard, and though he paid close attention to the weekly sermon at the Madison Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, he peppered his speech with impious phrases that would have brought deep furrows to its minister’s features had they been uttered in his presence. A general portliness, the outcome of too many dinners prepared under the direction of Amelia, his wife of nearly thirty years, robbed him of his once athletic build. Though the body had become rounder, fuller, and less capable of single-handedly managing a schooner’s rigging, the inquisitive youth was still present in eyes that sparkled at the suggestion of adventure.

With the passing of the lumber era, some thirty years after Ben towed his first raft of logs, many who had garnered riches in Michigan’s forests departed, carrying their wealth to distant cities. Ben Boutell stayed put, reinvesting most of his wealth in Michigan. He opened his mind to possibilities in many industries. Knowing little about any of them, insatiable curiosity guided his direction. Soon, he owned major shares of coalmines, shipping companies, machinery shops, cement factories, banks, a telephone company, foundries, and sugar factories. His interests spanned the country from Boston where he owned sea-going barges to Redwood City, California, where he co-founded that state’s first Portland cement factory. He eventually served as an officer or director in thirty-two companies, nine of them in Michigan’s beet sugar industry. He also co-founded the Colorado and Canadian beet sugar industries, presiding over two sugar companies in Colorado and serving on the boards of two Canadian companies that later became the foundation for the Canadian-Dominion Sugar Company. Additionally, he owned large farms where he grew sugarbeets as well as a 4,000-acre ranch in the state’s northern reaches.

His sugar interests alone would have been enough to keep two or three executives busy year around. No single individual in Michigan devoted as much of his wealth and time to the state’s evolving sugarbeet industry as did Captain Benjamin Boutell. He was one of the founders of Michigan’s first beet sugar company, Michigan Sugar Company, where he served as a director and vice-president. He served in similar capacities at the Bay City Sugar Company. He co-founded the Saginaw Sugar Company where he served as treasurer and held a directorship. He was president of the Lansing Sugar Company and treasurer of the Marine City Sugar Company and held directorships in the Mount Clemens, Carrollton, and Menominee sugar companies.

The vast Sugar Trust, an organization that held the country’s supply of sugar in a steel grip for decades did not have his support. As the Trust grew in power, he sold his stock in companies that fell under its control and invested in independent companies, maintaining distance from a form of business organization that was losing favor in America.

Captain Boutell commanded the deck of sailing sloops and boardrooms with equal ease, routinely making investments that impelled the formation of companies employing hundreds. But, when he passed through the portal of his home, he entered a matriarchal society governed by his wife, Amelia, and her identical twin sister, Cornelia.

Amelia Charlotte Duttlinger and her sister were born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1850 or 1851. Tragedy came early to the twins. Their father died when they were three-months old, causing their mother, Catharine, to move to Bay County. There, she operated a hotel with the aid of the twins when they were old enough, two servants, and a bartender. Among the guests in 1869 was Ben Boutell, a dashing young sailor who at twenty-four had already become the stuff of legends and a man of means. That he was a catch surely did not escape the notice of Amelia and Cornelia, or their widowed mother.

Amelia was possessed of a genial personality and good looks and although physically identical to her twin sister, she somehow presented a difference to Ben. Perhaps it was friendlier disposition and an unwary attitude that brought merriment to her eyes and the kind of smile that will linger in a man's memory. Her auburn hair cascaded long and full across her shoulders, ending in ringlets that bounced with each step she took. Cornelia seemed, by comparison, more guarded and often critical of the hotel’s guests, many of whom fell short of her rigid standards of dress and deportment. Amelia’s non-stop references to Ben began to sound like wedding bells to Cornelia. She hinted at a budding love affair of her own.

The courtship was brief, shaped by the busy schedule of a Great Lakes seaman. The two were in love and although the term had yet to come into usage, they were soul mates. Each had lost a father at a young age, each had spent formative years bearing adult responsibilities assisting in the operation of a hotel, and each aspired to a life measured in achievement. The marriage occurred on December 22, 1869, after the sea lanes closed for the winter. Ben and Amelia looked forward to a long honeymoon that would end when the Great Lakes thawed in March.

Before the honeymoon was over, however, Cornelia, in great distress, landed on their doorstep to recuperate from a tragic turn of events in her love life. After that, the sisters became inseparable; one would go nowhere without the other. At Amelia’s insistence, Ben bought two of everything, coats, dresses, and hats monogrammed to identify the twin to whom it belonged. In a nod of acceptance of the permanence of Cornelia’s presence in their lives, he named one of his ore-carrying barges “Twin Sisters.” The twin he loved he called “Meil”.

The only distinction between the twins was a small mole on Amelia’s neck behind one ear. Ben, however, possessed a secret method for distinguishing one from the other: Amelia’s features generally depicted contentment while Cornelia’s aspect was sour and irritable. The birth of three sons, Frederick, William, and Bennie, gave special purpose to Amelia’s life while supervision of their development into cultured gentlemen in the coarse riverside lumber town became a special mission for Cornelia. She had surrendered any hope of doing the same for her brother-in-law. His bulk combined with restlessness made every delicate object within his reach vulnerable to breakage; teacups, spectacles, jewelry clasps, and fine furniture seemed to fracture and break in his presence.

The sisters determined that the time had come for the captain to establish a residence sized and embellished in a manner that properly announced the breadth of his life’s achievements. At their behest, he purchased four contiguous lots in Bay City on Fifth and Madison Streets, a block off Center Avenue. Today, Center Avenue reveals a spectacular display of late nineteenth and early twentieth century residential architecture for which it has won a place on the National Register of Historic Places. For Bay City’s prominent citizens in the 1890’s and the next half-century, it was the right place to live. Lumbermen and leaders in beet sugar, coal, shipbuilding, and other industries built stylish homes that reflected their substantial fortunes.

Phillip C. Floeter, a distinguished architect who had a few years earlier designed the Trinity Episcopal Church was engaged to draw up the plans and then build a mansion calculated to dwarf Center Avenue homes in both magnitude and ornamentation.

Floeter imported Italian tile and marble for eleven fireplaces and ordered substantial quantities of mahogany, maple, birch, and pine for both the house and interior paneling. The parlor showed Ben’s love of the Great Lakes. It was in the shape of the bow of a boat, and at the far end stood a floor-to-ceiling mirror flanked on each side by tall, mirrored cabinets. Another tribute to the Great Lakes–bright stones carried from Lake Erie and installed within a front looking gable--attracted the attention of passers-by. Panels covered the interior walls to a height of five feet with the area above them covered first with canvas and then decorated with gold leaf. Lighting fixtures were made of sterling silver.

In addition to storage rooms, the basement contained a kitchen and dining rooms where Ben entertained business associates and friends who preferred to puff on cigars while paying Bacchic tribute to one another, activities prohibited elsewhere on the premises. Two private balconies opened off bedrooms on the second floor, and a first-floor porch ran the full length of two sides of the house. From that vantage point, one could glimpse the river and hear the sigh of sloops passing in the night. The house was painted green with white trim--with marine paint, of course. A large barn, which housed four driving horses and a carriage, stood behind the house.

Boutell was low-keyed. He avoided the limelight often favored by business executives and community leaders, foregoing speeches, the holding of public office or any of the other trappings that accompany success. With the exception of his mansion, a concession to his wife to whom he refused nothing, he avoided public displays of wealth. He was more likely to give encouragement to children who congregated on his spacious lawn where he built a toboggan slide for them, than to engage in politics and more likely to spend time with his family than at business conventions.

January in the Saginaw Bay region is a cold time. The ice thickens on the bay and the river’s pace slows to a crawl and then finally stops altogether. Each day brings forewarning of colder days to come as winter settles in to hold the region in a cold embrace until spring. It was 1902 and Bay City was no longer imprisoned by frozen waterways five months of each year; railroads now allowed travel to those places where Ben did business. He took frequent advantage of them to travel within the United States and Canada where he attended boards of directors meetings and shareholder meetings or to appraise new investment opportunities.

When he returned from one such excursion in late January 1902, he entered his home where he found Amelia and Cornelia together in the sitting room. Cornelia’s hands were busy knitting a shawl, one of many gifts she and Amelia made throughout the year for family and church members. Amelia’s hands were in her lap, one folded over the other, an unusual posture for Amelia, who, like Ben, was generally busy from dawn to dusk.

Something else captured his attention, sending a cold shiver along his spine. The twins were no longer identical! True, their dresses, as always, were the same, fashionable Edwardian afternoon dresses, black, and in keeping with strait-laced Methodist views, unadorned with jewelry. Each now wore her hair pulled back tightly and secured in a chignon at the back of the head. But, Amelia’s features had changed during the few weeks he had been away, or at any rate, he noticed an accumulation of changes that had escaped his attention when he saw her each day.

She had lost weight, her face was drawn and narrow; her shoulders sloped as if in defeat, and, worst of all, the luster had left her eyes. He swung his head to his left and noticed a pair of kid gloves sitting on the hallstand and droplets of moisture on the floor. Despite their settled appearance, he guessed the two had reached home shortly before him and had hurriedly arranged themselves to deceive him into believing they had been there the daylong. Knitting needles flashed in Cornelia’s busy hands. Her gaze flew first to Amelia, and then to Ben. Amelia made as if to rise to greet her husband but Ben, seeing her distress, rushed across the small space between them and took her in his arms.

He summoned specialists to her side and took her to those who could not visit her at home. She grew worse. Cancer was the sixth cause of death in Michigan in that period, behind tuberculosis, heart disease, pneumonia, cholera, and influenza. Despite Ben’s ferocious efforts to save her, she grew steadily worse.

By Thanksgiving, Ben realized Amelia understood the end was near. He drew his chair close to her bed when with a frail motion she beckoned him to draw close. With a voice too thin to travel more than a few feet, she made known her final wishes. Cornelia, she reminded him, had been a part of her life from the moment of her birth and a part of Ben’s from the moment of his marriage. She implored him to marry Cornelia to protect the family's wealth which would be threatened with division or total loss in the event Benjamin married another. Marry, Cornelia, she said, and it all stays together where it belongs.

She gripped Ben’s hand with the little strength that remained and asked that he promise her now. In thirty-three years of marriage, Ben had yielded to her every wish; he saw no reason to demur now. He made the promise, then smiled and told her it was an easy promise to make because she would be right as rain by Christmas, at the latest!

Amelia died five days later on November 25, 1902. Ben kept his deathbed vow and married Cornelia fourteen months later on February 11, 1904.

Ben increased the pace of his activities, forming companies, expanding others, and devoting additional time to community projects, such as the founding of the YMCA and the YWCA, serving as a church trustee, and giving freely of his time and money to local needs.

In April 1912, he attended a meeting of the stockholders of Wallaceburg Sugar Company in Wallaceburg, Ontario. At the meeting’s conclusion, he arrived at the railway station in Chatham for the return trip just as the engine was warming. Black smoke billowed from the smokestack. The chugging engine seemed to shout Hurry! Hurry! The conductor, impatient to have a last-second boarder, leaned forward as if to remove the small wooden step used by passengers to board the train. Ben broke into a lope. Just as he grasped the bar that would allow him to swing aboard, the train suddenly lurched forward. He held on with one hand, scrambling to board but lacked the strength to complete the maneuver. He loosened his grip and fell to the platform. At first, he believed himself no more than badly shaken. Upon returning home, he began to feel discomfort, then pain, then agony. Within a short time, he fell into a semi-conscious state from which he drifted into death on October 26, 1912.

When Benjamin Boutell passed into history, Michigan lost a member of a cadre of daring men and women born near the time the state came into existence. He injected vigor and a risk-taking attitude into the frontier state making of himself a pioneer on the Great Lakes and in Michigan’s farm fields and in the fostering of several industrial concerns. When Michigan faced economic distress during the phasing out of the lumber industry, he ignored safer paths and plunged instead, into new industries that expanded economic opportunity in Michigan’s smaller cities at the risk of uncertain financial return for himself while others in his situation carried profits won in Michigan to distant, safer harbors, New York, Cleveland, Boston. For that alone, he is remembered as a true son of Michigan.

Butterfield, George, Bay County Past and Present, Centennial Edition, George Butterfield, Board of Education, Bay City, Michigan ,1957, pages 117, 195 (photo of mansion), 89, 118, and 142.
Gansser, Augustus, History of Bay County, MI and Representative Citizens, Richmond & Arnold, Chicago, IL, 1905, pages 491-2.
Gutleben, Dan, The Sugar Tramp – 1954, Bay Cities Duplicating Co, San Francisco, California, 1954.
Mansfield, J. B. History of the Great Lakes, Vol 1, Freshwater Press, Cleveland, Ohio, 1972
Evening Press, West Bay City, Bay, MI, Friday, 26 Nov 1880, relating to the death of Benjamin Boutell's mother.
Cyclopedia of Michigan: Historical and Biographical Synopsis of General History of the State and Biographical Sketches of Men who have, in their various spheres, contributed toward its development., Western Publishing and Engraving Co., New York and Detroit, 227-8, 230-1, Bay City Public Library, Bay, Michigan
History of the Great Lakes with Illus., J. H. Beers & Co., Chicago, 1899. Vol. II, pages 18-22.
INFLATION ADJUSTMENTS: The pre-1975 data are the Consumer Price Index statistics from Historical Statistics of the United States (USGPO, 1975). All data since then are from the annual Statistical Abstracts of the United States. Recorded at http://www.westegg.com/inflation
MICHIGAN ANNUAL REPORTS, Michigan Archives, Lansing, Michigan

©2009 Thomas Mahar All Rights Reserved.

About the Author:Thomas Mahar served as Executive Vice President of Monitor Sugar Company between 1984 and 1999 and as President of Gala Food Processing, a sugar packaging company, from 1993-1998. He retired in 1999 and now devotes his free time to writing about the history of the sugar industry. He authored, Sweet Energy, The Story of Monitor Sugar Company in 2001.Contact: Thomas Mahar E-mail tkmahar@aol.com