The Decline and Fall of the Utah Sugar Beet Empire

Where does your sugar come from?

Americans eat more sugar than any other nation, consuming close to 11 million metric tons of the sweet stuff annually (that’s somewhere around 150 pounds of sugar per person per year – 100 years ago, we ate closer to 18 pounds per person per year). The US alone produces over 8 million metric tons of sugar each year, and the largest sugar producer is…

Minnesota, eh?

Not the place many of us might imagine our sugar coming from, and tropical Florida and Louisiana are top contenders in sugar cane production, but more than half of US sugar actually comes from sugar beets (pictured below).

Sugar Beet Before Topping LOC

Utah is no longer even on the map for sugar production, but for much of the twentieth century, Utah was an important sugar beet producer.

Someone recently asked me, where did the sugar beets go?

After all, Idaho – literally within spitting distance of some of the Utah towns that once ran on the sugar beet industry – is still an important producer of sugar. Some parts of Utah, like the “Sugar House” neighborhood in Salt Lake City, still bear record of their association with the sugar industry. And the sugar beet is the official Utah state historic vegetable. Who knew that was a thing?

So, here’s a short-but-sweet 😉 history of sugar in Utah.

First of all, y’all know that sugar has an ugly history, right? European (and later American) sugar cravings drove perhaps the most brutal slavery-based industry from the 1500s to the 1800s, with generations of enslaved West Africans working and dying on sugar plantations, mostly in the Carribean.

By the 1800s, with international wars and slave revolts disrupting the sugar industry, European scientists developed a process for extracting sugar from beets. Abolitionists and human rights advocates were quick to promote beet sugar (while pro-slavery factions shunned it). Beet sugar also had an economic advantage because sugar beets grow in a much wider variety of climates than sugar cane, meaning France, Russia, Germany, and the non-tropical portions of the United States could all develop their own sugar industries instead of relying on imports.

By 1850, Brigham Young had led the Mormon pioneers to the relative isolation of Utah and was interested in being as self-sufficient as possible. Thus, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints backed an experimental sugar beet factory in Sugar House. It failed miserably, producing a nasty syrup not even independent-minded Brigham Young thought edible.

It took a few decades before American factories got the hang of beet sugar, but by the end of the 1800s, with the social and financial backing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company had factories throughout Utah, and sugar beets became an important part of Utah’s economy. Sugar beets required back-breaking manual labor, but large Utah families had plenty of children to work in the fields. Their work was supplemented by Native Americans displaced by pioneer settlements and later by Latino refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution. The worldwide economic disruptions of World War I saw the peak of the sugar industry in Utah when the state was one of the country’s top sugar producers (like the factory in Lewiston, Utah, pictured below – that’s a big pile of beets!).

Sugar beets in Lewiston LOC

From there, it was a slow downhill slide. An agricultural depression followed WWI, with prices falling into a slump after the previous war-time demand, and after that came the Great Depression. At the same time, beet leafhoppers spread a blight in Utah that damaged crops and led some factories to move away from the state.

The Utah sugar beet industry struggled on, eventually finding a blight-resistant strain of beets, and in World War II, Utah was still a major US sugar producer. Many detained Japanese Americans worked in the sugar beet fields of Utah to keep up with wartime production.

Following World War II, the sugar beet industry saw a number of technological changes that made sugar processing faster and more efficient. Ironically, this would lead to the end of large-scale commercial sugar beets in Utah. The main companies that bought Utah sugar beets, U&I (Utah-Idaho Sugar Company) and Amalgamated Sugar Company, had both started in Utah but expanded their production to Idaho and the Pacific Northwest and eventually moved their headquarters out of state. They faced several antitrust actions by the federal government as well as competition with low-cost cane sugar from overseas during the mid-1900s, which strained their resources. Also during this time, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began selling its interests in the sugar companies.

So, when it came time to update factories, the sugar companies invested in those in Idaho and Oregon. One by one, the outdated Utah factories shut down, with the last one in Garland, Utah, shutting down in 1979. It was not cost-effective for Utah farmers to ship their sugar beets out of state, so most switched to other crops, and Utah fell off the sugar-producing map.

For most of Utah, sugar beets had never been an ideal crop. The soil is too alkaline, the growing season too short, and the labor too intensive. The fact that Utah enjoyed nearly a century of sweet success is a testament to the stubborn self-sufficiency of Utah’s farmers.

Utah’s official contemporary state vegetable is the sweet onion. And that’s a thing, too, because when it came time to vote on state vegetable, the onion may be important now, but the sugar beet-proponents refused to back down on giving some kind of recognition to the crop that had been so important to Utah’s economy for most of the 1900s.

Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress OWI-FSA collection (public domain).

Sources: U.S. Sugar Industry Association; American Sugar Alliance; New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services; The Diabetes Council; Donald W. Meyers, “Rebirth of former sugar plant is sweet news for Toppenish,” Yakima Herald (Yakima, Washington); Leonard J. Arrington, Beet Sugar in the West;  Twila Van Leer, “Sugar Becomes a Sweet Success,” Deseret News; “Sugar Beets!” Lewiston-North Cache Valley Historical Board; Leonard J. Arrington, “The Sugar Industry in Utah,” Utah History Encyclopedia.

 

 

 

 

Emma Dean Powell: The Explorer’s Wife

2019 is a big year for Utah sesquicentennial celebrations (isn’t that a great word?). May 10, 2019, was the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad linking the East Coast and West Coast at Promontory Point, Utah.  This enormous accomplishment, achieved mainly by such downtrodden groups as the Chinese, Irish, former slaves, former Civil War soldiers, Native Americans, and Latter-day Saints (Mormons), is rightly regarded as a major technological and social achievement in Utah and US history.

On May 24, 1869, another scientific wonder began: an exploratory trip down the wild Colorado River by one-armed geologist and former Civil War soldier, Major John Wesley Powell. With a ten-man crew–none of whom had white-water rafting experience–he set out to map the unexplored regions of the Colorado River through Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. And I don’t just mean unexplored by white men–Native Americans familiar with the area told him his goal was impossible, deadly. Yet he took his scientific equipment in four boats and set off. The fourth boat–his own–was named the Emma Dean after his wife. On August 30, 1869, Major Powell arrived in St. Thomas, Nevada, having lost one boat, a great deal of the scientific information he gathered, and four of his men (all four deserted the expedition, and three of those were lost in the desert, never heard from again). Undeterred by the hardships, he would make the trip again in 1871-1872 to improve his scientific data.

Powell is justly famous for his daring and for his contributions to the understanding of the geology and ethnology of the West, but Emma Dean Powell rarely gets any mention. True, she did not raft down the Colorado (during one of her husband’s Colorado expeditions, she was busy giving birth to their daughter Mary Dean Powell), but the petite Emma had been her husband’s nurse, champion, and scientific partner starting in the Civil War and through his many previous expeditions. She became an ornithology expert in her own right, as well as one of the first women to climb Pike’s Peak in Colorado. Along with her sister-in-law, Nellie Thompson, Emma made important contributions to the work that her husband and the other men of his expedition became famous for, at a time when female scientists were rarely recognized for their work. You can read more about Emma Dean Powell’s quiet but remarkable career in Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets & Politicians.

Photo of Emma Dean Powell courtesy of the USGS.

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Biddy Mason: Utah Pioneer

I’m excited to share the stories I learned while writing Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets, and Politicians, so I’m going to post some “teasers” here on my blog over the next few months leading up to release day.

Today is Pioneer Day in Utah, celebrating the arrival of the Latter-day Saint (Mormon) pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. An often overlooked part of that early pioneer migration are the free and enslaved black people who came to Utah in the westward trek – including Green Flake, one of several slaves in the vanguard company of pioneers and the man who drove Brigham Young’s wagon when the LDS leader uttered his famous (if possibly misquoted) proclamation over the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847: “This is the right place. Drive on.”

Biddy Mason was another early black Utah pioneer. Born a slave in the South, she would end her life as one of the richest women in California: just one of the many remarkable women from Utah’s history!

Below: Biddy Mason, image courtesy of the National Park Sevice.

BiddyMasonNPS

For more on the ongoing efforts to document the lives of black Utah pioneers, check out historian Paul Reeves’ online database, “A Century of Black Mormons.”

Utah Women: Pioneer, Poets & Politicians

I LOVED working on this project – Utah history has so many inspiring stories and amazing women – and I’m excited to have a release date and cover! Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets & Politicians coming November 2019 from The History Press.

Trailblazing in Untamed Territory

Representing lawmakers and lawbreakers, artists and adventurers or scholars and activists, the women of Utah defied stereotypes. At the crossroads of the West, they found new challenges and opportunities to forge their own paths. Emma Dean explored the Rocky Mountains with her famous spouse John Wesley Powell. Martha Hughes Cannon defeated her husband to become the first female state senator. Maud Fitch drove an ambulance under German artillery fire to rescue downed pilots in World War I. Author Emily Brooksby Wheeler celebrates the remarkable Utah women who, whether racing into danger or nurturing those who fell behind, changed their world and ours.

UtahWomenFrontCover

The Bone Map

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the meeting of the Transcontinental Railroad lines from east and west at Promontory Point, Utah. The Bone Map has been in the works a long time, but this felt like the right time to release it. Pioneers and polygamy are interesting parts of Utah history, but there’s much more to the state than that!

If Huang-Fu doesn’t find gold, he won’t make it out of the Utah desert alive.

Huang-Fu just wants to survive his job digging for gold with Eugene Hansen so he can go home to California or maybe even China. But when outlaws shoot Eugene, the old prospector sends Huang-Fu running with a map carved in bone. The map may lead Huang-Fu to an incredible treasure, but everyone else who carried the map has died. The outlaws are on his trail, and his only allies also want the treasure. Will Huang-Fu survive the curse of the bone map?

Fans of Treasure Island will enjoy this treasure hunt set among the gold miners, gunslingers, and Pony Express riders of the Old West.

BoneMap_frontcover copy

Japanese in World War I Utah

One of the reasons I’ll never run out of writing ideas is that every time I work on a project, I come across new awesome stories that don’t quite fit with the current project. The Japanese who fought in World War I are an example of that. As I was scanning lists of Utah veterans who fought in “The Great War,” looking for character names for No Peace with the Dawn, I came across one from Brigham City, Utah that stood out from the Williams, Johns, and even the Alonzos and LaMonds that pop up in Utah: Moichi Kuramoto.

My co-author Jeff Bateman and I were interested in including minorities as we wrote about Utah’s experience in the Great War, but Mr. Kuramoto didn’t quite fit with the story we were telling, so all he gets is a brief cameo. Still, here is what I was able to find about him, using census and war records, and general research on the Japanese who came to Utah.

Moichi Kuramoto was born in Hawaii. His parents probably moved there to work in agriculture, then made their way to California in the early 1900s, where anti-Asian sentiments were burning hot. Some Japanese had already come to Utah to work on the railroads after the Exclusion Act prevented more Chinese from emigrating, and they were followed by their countrymen who wanted agricultural jobs. I would guess Kuramoto’s family was among these. Though nativism and racial prejudice were everywhere at this time, the Japanese seem to have not been discriminated against as severely as other groups in Utah, such as the Greeks.

Moichi Kuramoto was drafted from Perry, Box Elder Country, Utah, according to his draft registration card. His being drafted was illegal, since he would have been denied American citizenship at the time (this also affected other groups in WWI, such as some Native Americans who served). Nevertheless, he answered the call. He doesn’t seem to have gone overseas during the war, serving instead as a private in a Depot Brigade in New York, which helped to train and equip troops going “Over There.” Perhaps the army didn’t quite know what to do with Japanese draftees? They wouldn’t have served in segregated units at any rate, since those were reserved for African Americans – all other racial groups were integrated.

The 1920 U.S. Census shows that Kuramoto survived the influenza epidemic that ravaged the East Coast training camps, and was married and farming in Payson, Utah. Again following him through census records, he and his large family moved to California during the Great Depression (a very difficult time for all farmers in Utah), and were still living there in 1940. If, like me, you know the history of the Japanese in California during WWII, you probably feel the same sick sense of foreboding I did as I read through the records.

Kuramoto died in California in April 1941, early enough to miss Pearl Harbor, but his wife, Ichiyo, and his Utah- and California-born children were imprisoned in Rohwer War Relocation Camp in Arkansas. On one hand, I was relieved that this veteran was spared the ordeal of being imprisoned, but on the other, I hurt for his widowed wife and her children, who had to suffer doubly from his lose and the lose of everything else. At about the time his family was sent to live behind barbed wire as potential enemy aliens, his military veteran headstone was delivered to the Lodi Cemetery in California where he was buried.

Kuramoto’s wife and children returned to California after World War II to pick up what was left of their lives, but I can only imagine their thoughts toward the country that could illegally draft Japanese in one war and imprison them in the next. And while Kuramoto’s death saved him the humiliation of being declared an enemy of the country he had served, I wonder about other Japanese veterans of WWI who ended up in relocation camps.