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

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.