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 Saginaw Valley Prairie Farm

One would think significant differences separate conservationists, those interested in the protection of natural resources and the preservation of wilderness areas, and agriculturists, who since the beginning of time have converted forests and savannahs alike into productive farms. In Michigan's Saginaw Valley, however, farmers, urban volunteers, and conservationists represented by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have joined together to protect and restore wetlands and native grasslands, creating an important refuge for nearly three hundred species of wildlife, many of which appear on Michigan's endangered species lists. In addition, ten thousand acres of former swamp became rich farmland of unparalleled productivity devoted to many crops including corn, soybeans and sugarbeets and by 1935 had become the largest single farm east of the Mississippi River.

It wasn't always that way. There was a time, 130 years ago, when the Saginaw Valley swamps bore the stigma of a wasteland. The idea of turning the muck that made up the low-lying marshland seven miles south of a Michigan lumber town, into productive farms seemed outlandish to all except one man. He was Harlan P. Smith, a youthful visionary attorney.

It was hardly an idea that captured much interest because in the 1880s land was cheap. The U.S. government had a keen interest in populating lands secured by the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw when one-third of the state's Lower Peninsula passed forever from the hands of the Chippewa to the federal government. Unoccupied land tended to attract heads of governments. The U.S. had experienced French, English and Spanish flags flying over its Michigan Territory and wanted no more of the costly wars required to thwart the ambitions of European expansionists. To encourage settlement, the federal government handed out 160-acre land grants to veterans of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the war with Mexico. The Land Act of 1820 allowed others to buy eighty acres from the government for $1.25 an acre, meaning that for $100 (about $1,500 in this era); a family could own an 80-acre farm on high ground.

Harlan P. Smith understood the descriptive, swamp, owed to the wet and forbidding nature of the 28-square mile marsh, not only was erroneous but derogatory as well. Spring thaws overflowed the marshes to depths as great as fifteen feet and left behind mud and debris that discouraged farming. From spring until autumn, a coiling miasma of mosquitoes lifted from the foliage to mount relentless attacks on those who dared to intrude upon their domain. Those who stepped boldly out of doors usually developed a form of malaria labeled “ague” which was marked by alternating periods of fever, chills, and sweating. The vicious marauders had caused the abandonment of a military fort at Saginaw in 1823 only one year after its construction, whereupon its commander, Major Daniel Baker, declared in his final report, “Only Indians, muskrats, and bullfrogs can live on the Saginaw River.”

The vast marsh lies south and west of the city of Saginaw, one hundred miles north of Detroit. It is an aftermath of a glacial lake formed during an ice age that ended 10,000 years ago. The glacier left behind a flat terrain situated a few feet above the nearby lake levels, a haven for wildlife and migratory birds: bald eagles, shore and wading birds, song birds, waterfowl, and – people. Navigable by canoes, Native Americans enjoyed game, fish, wild fruits and nuts and wild rice. Sugar-maple trees provided a supply of sweets and corn grew in abundance along the bottom lands. In addition to food, the marsh provided materials for habitation, canoes, weapons, and utensils. There was little to want for the Native Americans who lived among the prairie grasses for nearly five thousand years, according to some estimates, before European settlement.

U.S. Recognizes Need for Fish and Wildlife Protection

Today, under the protection of the U.S. Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service since 1953, 9,620 acres or about one-half of the swamp that early settlers avoided is under the care of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Its legal designation is the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and is home to deer, beaver, muskrats, turtles, rattlesnakes and flocks of Canadian Geese, often numbering 25,000, many of which remain year around.
According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Conservation Planning, the Refuge's major habitat types include nearly 3,800 acres of wetlands, 3,500 acres of forests, 1,200 acres set aside for agriculture, and more than 500 acres set aside for grasslands. The Division of Conservation Planning relates: "This diversity of habitats supports an abundance of plant, mammal, reptile, amphibian, and fish species. The Refuge is home to a variety of species that are federally listed or state-listed as threatened or endangered. These species include the Eastern fox snake, the short-eared owl, the Peregrine falcon and the least bittern. Fish found in Refuge waters or expected to inhabit refuge waters include the lake sturgeon, state-listed as a threatened species in Michigan, and the river darter, a state-listed endangered species."
The Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge is a busy place year around. It is under the care of Steve Kahl, Refuge Manager and Assistant Manager Ed De Vries. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that "It provides food, nesting and roosting areas for more than 40 species of shore and wading birds. Average peak numbers range from 1,800 to 2,000 for shorebirds and from 400 to 500 for wading birds. Portions of the waterfowl flights from both the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways use the area each spring and fall. Peak waterfowl numbers on the Refuge exceed 40,000 to 50,000 ducks, 20,000 to 30,000 geese, and 700 to 1,200 swans. The American black duck and Canada geese are common on the Refuge in the fall, winter and early spring."
An important adjunct to Shiawassee is the Green Point Environmental Learning Center, a 76-acre tract within the city limits of Saginaw. Green Point, managed by Rebecca Goche, teems with wildlife observed by visitors who stroll along well-maintained trails. Friendly U.S. Wildlife Service Park Rangers, one of whom is Tom Horb, a retired school principal, guide groups, large and small, along rustic trails where they point out animals, birds, types of foliage, and conservation methods, all subjects of keen interest to eco-aware visitors. Tom spent ten years as a volunteer before accepting a full time position in 2007, thus knows all 76 acres as well as most of us know our backyards. He is on hand many summer weekends to give tours, hand out fishing rods, and answer questions all to the purpose of introducing visitors to the pleasures of the forest.
Early Settlers Focused on Immediate Needs
During the 19th century, however, America's settlers had less interest in wetland and wildlife preservation than in turning land into productive economic units. The marsh was viewed as a useless swamp because it could not easily drain, causing water to remain on the ground well past planting season. Seven-foot high grass and deep muck made farming the prairie beyond the capability of ordinary men and draining such a large expanse would require organization, capital, and management skill beyond the means of an individual farmer.
To turn a swamp into agricultural land, a visionary was needed. One arrived in the person of Harlan P. Smith. He was born Livingston County, Michigan on April 3, 1843, one of eight children. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a law degree in 1867 and then moved to Saginaw to join his brother Irving, older by thirteen years, in the practice of law. Quickly, his interest fell to timber lands, a hot growth industry because of the escalation of lumber mills throughout the American Midwest.
The nation's thirst for lumber brought thousands of men and women into Michigan's white pine forests, creating for the first time, a significant local market for mid-Michigan farm products. Smith looked at the wetlands south of Saginaw and saw opportunity in the fertile muck where others saw problems. He began acquiring title to the unwanted marshlands and induced others to join him in the undertaking. Eventually, he and his partners, fellow attorneys, Charles H. Camp and George B. Brooks, acquired approximately 10,000 acres situated in Albee and St. Charles Townships, south and east of the Flint and Shiawassee Rivers, and then began the development of what would become the largest privately owned contiguous farm in the state. Drainage became an immediate and demanding project. To that end, Smith and company cut a ditch from the northern section of the prairie to the Flint River, a distance of about two miles and in that way drained nearly 400 acres for immediate farming, a small but critical beginning. Out of the muck and the germ of an idea, a great farm was born and would carry the name Prairie Farm from its birth to the present.
The Prairie Farm would eventually encompass more than 10,000 acres. First, more drainage was needed and then roads, farmhouses and laborers. In many places, planks accommodated the movement of men, horses, and equipment. Even then, men had to leave boots and shovels mired as they escaped the sucking mud, leaving in their wake to die, horses too exhausted to extricate themselves from the ooze. Farm laborers demurred when offered jobs on the prairie.
Despite the horrors that descended on those who actually performed the farm labor, a case had been made economically for the further development of the prairie. Smith and his partners, however, decided to pass it on to others. They sold the farm in its entirety to the Saginaw Realty Company that then consisted of the Wickes brothers, Harry T and William J, successful machinery manufacturers, who both were well acquainted with the potential of sugarbeets. The new owners had watched with growing interest the construction of beet sugar factories in nearby Bay City and Saginaw. Partnered with them was the unheralded early promoter of the sugarbeet industry, Samuel G. Higgins, a Saginaw attorney.
The new owners found drainage costly, however, which made the land unattractive to farmers, especially when more suitable land was present in abundance. Several square miles of the marsh lay only a little more than three feet above the level of Saginaw Bay where for a half million years it had been a settling basin for rich alluvium carried by rivers from heights of 600 to 800 feet, flowing a hundred miles and more through fertile mid-Michigan regions. Rich as it was, farmers had no wish to contend with floods, remoteness and harsh farming conditions when better opportunities lay near at hand.
A Sugar Company Begins Massive Development of the Prairie
The investment languished while the wildlife thrived. Area residents used it as a hunting preserve and sometimes a source of wild hay and probably shook their heads in wonder at the city investors who sank good money into land development when nearby land cost a fraction of that amount needed to drain the prairie. The lure, however, was the superior productivity of the land and the knowledge that reclamation was a one-time cost for which one could win an inestimable prize. Carmen Smith, no relation to Harlan P. Smith, an executive with the Owosso Sugar Company, a subsidiary of the Michigan Chemical Company, owned by Pittsburgh Plate Glass, founded and controlled by John Pitcairn, searched for a large tract in which to install a demonstration sugarbeet farm and enough acreage to assure the factory that it would have all the beets it would want. He quickly targeted the Prairie Farm and its disillusioned owners.
Smith completed the purchase from the Saginaw Realty Company 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. The sugar company laid out the land much like a giant checkerboard in twelve lines of sixteen forty-acre parcels with additional land set aside for growing peppermint and sheep grazing. 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.
Alicia – A Farm Town on the Prairie

Because the Prairie Farm lay seven miles southwest of Saginaw at the nearest point and seventeen to the farthest point, it would become important to the farm’s success to achieve as much independence as was practical. For that reason, Carmen Smith established the village of Alicia to act as the organizing center of the farm and soon added two more, Pitcairnia and Clausedale. Pitcairnia, smaller than Alicia, was established in the center of the Prairie Farm’s peppermint region. Its principal activity was the operation of a peppermint distillery and housing for the laborers committed to that operation. Clausdale served the needs of the farm’s sheep operation.
Alicia served as the hub for hired workers and their foremen. Not only would the Prairie Farm represent one of the largest beet estates in the world but at the same time would be one of the most modern. A generator and water plant provided electricity and water to the farm’s inhabitants. Telephones were available as was, beginning in 1904, the U.S. postal service.
Homes for workers and their families were set on posts and reposed on a half-mile long stretch of road. Nearby were two large dormitories for single workers and barns for implements, feed and horses. Sheep pens, surrounded by a blacksmith shop, a grain elevator, fuel tanks, and a community store completed the picture. A six-mile long rail siding afforded easy removal of sugarbeets and an economical method of importing supplies to the massive undertaking.
In 1900, horses and mules served as motive power for an extensive variety of farm implements, including plows, disks, harrows, planters, cultivators, mowers, and reapers. On the prairie, horses tended to bog down in the muck. In addition, since the greatest amount of needed power was for plowing, horse-pulled plows required the maintenance of a large number of plow horses year around for work that would take only weeks. Just three years after Chauncey W. Penoyar motored about Saginaw in the first horseless carriage seen on Saginaw streets (and shortly thereafter became involved in the city’s first traffic fatality), the Prairie Farm introduced steam tractors and twelve-blade gang plows to overcome the dense soil. Plow horses, nevertheless, would have a place at the Prairie Farm for the next quarter century as they would throughout American agriculture. In 1910, there were more than 24 million horses and mules on American farms. Plow horses, moreover, drew more national and international attention to the Prairie Farm than did the raising of sugarbeets.
The Prairie Farm – Breeds Champion Draft Horses

By the time it became a major beet farm, the planting, cultivating, and harvesting of several crops in addition to sugarbeets, the Prairie Farm required three hundred head of heavy draft horses. Throughout each summer, about 75 teams, sometimes consisting of three horses, were in constant use. The farm was managed by Jacob DeGeus. He had been born in the Netherlands in 1854 and immigrated to America in 1888. His introduction to the American beet sugar industry occurred in Kalamazoo where he had been hired as an agriculturist. Later, he held the same position for a factory scheduled for Mount Pleasant. The Mount Pleasant project faded, however, so he moved on to Owosso, where he installed his wife Johanna and their four sons and a daughter on the Prairie Farm. While beet farming was his occupation, horses were his passion. He went to Belgium where he purchased the offspring of champion sires and mares and then spent years breeding champions that earned their living in the harness and winning awards at state fairs. One of them, Sans Peur de Hamal, was champion at the Michigan State Fair in 1915 and 1916 and was named grand champion of all breeds in 1916 and again in 1917. Another, Rubis, was awarded a silver medal by the King of Belgium in 1913.
The Prairie Farm Falls on Hard Times
By 1928, a faltering economy and dissatisfied farmers darkened the fortunes of beet sugar factory owners. The Owosso Sugar Company factory was in mothballs, its ownership now in the hands of Michigan Sugar Company, and the Prairie Farm, still in the hands of Pittsburgh Plate Glass, waited for new opportunities that came slowly as the country slid into the Great Depression.

In 1933, in the depths of a great depression, hope for the country's future reached a low ebb. John Pitcairn’s heirs decided to sell the Prairie Farm. It was then that another visionary came on the scene, this one an adherent of the concept of collectivism. His name was Joseph J. Cohn. He leaped at the opportunity to build a society based on voluntary agreement and mutual cooperation. Born in Russia in 1878, Cohn arrived in the United States in 1902 whereupon he embarked upon a crusade that carried him across the country lecturing to socialist and labor groups. The land, means of production and other objects of common use should, he proclaimed, be vested in the community as a whole and all should work according to their ability and derive an equal share of the rewards of labor.
Cohn named the project the Sunshine Cooperative Farm Community. He said, “The farm is a highly productive one and can easily feed a thousand families…no one will have to work too hard and the community will have an abundance of things that are needed to make life attractive and worthwhile.” At Sunshine there would be no worries about rent, food bills, and installment payments…"We will leave behind us all worry and care about a job and all fear of being thrown out on the dung-hill of derelict humanity”.
The first of the 150 families that joined him in his dream entered the property on June 26, 1933. There they discovered a virtual paradise consisting of 2,000 sheep, 1,000 lambs, 200 pigs, a cow, five tractors three trucks, one old Buick and fields of peppermint, oats, barley, hay, alfalfa, timothy, clover, sweet corn, soybeans and 2,000 acres of sugarbeets. There were no farmers among them and all were poor. The community possessed one thousand dollars and owed four thousand to the few backers that had come to their aid.
Since the settlers lacked farming skills, Cohn turned to former employees, a move that then created a payroll, a feature of life that Cohn had hoped to avoid. Two thousand acres of sugarbeets demanded intensive labor, up to 350 laborers in a season. Sunrise Farms hired hundreds of workers. The hoped for profit from the first crop went instead to the overhead section of the income statement. The vast network of drainage ditches, Cohn learned in further disillusionment, required constant maintenance less it become clogged with weeds and trees. The crops for the next year looked promising until hoards of armyworms abetted by heavy rains and inexperience destroyed the corn and soybean crops. Sugarbeets usually achieved 10 tons to the acre at the Prairie Farm but in 1935, they averaged only five tons.
Dissent soon filled the air. Charges of corruption and incompetence flared along with anger, hatred and resentment that accumulated in concert with weeds that robbed the fields of productivity. Groups broke into factions and argued one with the other throughout the days and nights over matters large and small, sometimes ending in the exchange of physical blows. Formal complaints, investigations, and lawsuits followed. There was no peace for Cohn or his appointed managers.
By 1936, the weight of debt persuaded Cohn to sell Sunrise Farms to the Rural Rehabilitation Corporation, a branch of the federal government. The government paid $277,630, most of which was used to retire the debt of Sunrise. The Rural Rehabilitation Corporation's plan, an outgrowth of ideas encouraged by Rexford Guy Tugwell, an economist who became part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, was to create a resettlement area for destitute farmers who would lease parcels of 40 acres according to one plan, and 80 acres according to another.
The Prairie Farm, under this plan, would no longer exist as a single farm but as a cooperative consisting of anywhere from 125 to 250 farmers most of whom would have limited capital and little or no experience with the complex nature of the Prairie Farm. Within a year of purchasing the property, however, the government changed course and gave up the idea of founding a cooperative that would in many respects differ not a great deal from the failed Sunrise Farms experiment. Instead, the government leased land to twenty-five families who remained behind when the Sunrise occupants decamped. They stayed for two years before they carried their idea to Samos, Virginia where they set up a similar community that also lasted a few years.
Prairie Farm Returned to Professional Farmers
The next eight years, under government ownership was a period of neglect. Buildings fell into disrepair as did the drainage ditches. On March 1, 1945, a group of farmers purchased the prairie for the bargain price of $265,000 with the understanding that the Prairie Farm would have separate ownership in parcels of approximately 600 acres. The government had lost faith in the collectivist idea, bringing to an end the Prairie Farm's identity as a single farm. There was no objection, however, to maintaining a cooperative for the purpose of purchasing supplies, maintaining dikes, and selling farm products. The new owners, thirteen in number, took ownership of individual parcels. They had been operating since 1944 as the Saginaw Prairie Co-Operative Farmers, Incorporated under the leadership of its President, Paul Albosta, Vice-President, Richard Price, and Jacob Spindler, Secretary-Treasurer. Now individually owned, the farmland quickly recovered from its period of neglect, becoming one of Michigan’s most productive farm regions.
More than a century after a young visionary gazed upon a swamp and dreamed of productive farms, a visitor can see the that the combined efforts of conservationists and farmers has resulted in thousands of acres of useful crops, among them, sugarbeets, corn, soybeans, and wheat while at the same time preserving a wetland habitat that is of vital importance to waterfowl and other migratory birds and to humans on many levels.
BETZOLD, Michael, Detroit Free Press Magazine, December 26, 1993, Utopia Revisited

CATTON, Bruce, Michigan, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. and American Association for State and Local History, p. 72, referring to Major Daniel Baker, who declared in his final report, “Only Indians, muskrats, and bullfrogs can live on the Saginaw River.” Ibid. reference to government price for 80 acres of land.

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

JEZIERSKI, John V and ROSS, G. Alexander, Saginaw Valley State University, SAGINAW VALLEY DOCUMENTS II , 1990, concerning activities of Native Americans in Saginaw County during historic times.

LE CUREUX, Keith, Albee Township History, Saginaw, County, Michigan, Chapter V, Prairie

MC DONALD, TOM, A Parade of Saginaw Folks I Wish I had Known, Part II, 1989, self-published, regarding Joseph J. Cohen, the founder of Sunrise Cooperative Farm Community.

MILLS, James Cooke, History of Saginaw County, Michigan, Volume I, Chapter XXII, Development of Agriculture and Volume II, for biographies, 1918, Seemann & Peters, Saginaw, Michigan.

THE SAGINAW EVENING NEWS, Wednesday, September 25, 1907, p.7 concerning the death of Harlan P. Smith
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Conservation Planning, Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan 2009-2013, some of which was copied verbatim for this article.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Conservation Planning, Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, sundry pamphlets and booklets concerning conservation and wildlife management.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Conservation Planning, Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge – Interview with Ed De Vries, Assistant Refuge Manager, July 20, 2009

Copyright, 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, and Michigan's Beet Sugar History (Newsbeet, Fall, 2006).