Grand Island, Nebraska, the Site of the First Successful Sugar Beet Factory in the United States
Robert M. Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist University of Nebraska, Panhandle REC, Scottsbluff
After gaining a place in Europe, numerous attempts were made to introduce sugar beet production into the United States. The first effort to grow sugar beets was in 1830 in Philadelphia but no factory was ever built, and the idea was abandoned. The first factory built in the U. S. was at Northampton, Massachusetts in 1838, but ceased operating after 1840. Additional attempts were made to establish factories in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and later in Utah by the Mormon pioneers, but all were closed within a short period of time due to lack of profitability.
These failures are typical of the problems experienced with beginning the cultivation and processing of sugar beets in America. Throughout the history of the sugar beet industry this trend continued. These start-up efforts at establishing sugar processing factories often were done on a trial and error basis, moving around frequently from place to place, trying to find that right combination of factors that would result in greater long term success.
California Beet Sugar Company
Many historians credit the first successful sugar beet processing plant to the California Beet Sugar Company founded by Ebenezer Dyer in central California - (Alvarado, now known as Union City). Alvarado was a small town founded in 1850 between San Jose and Oakland on San Francisco Bay’s eastern shore. Dyer was an entrepreneur who became interested in a potential sugar factory as a business venture, after he learned that the majority (>90%) of sugar in the U.S. was imported. He then purchased sugar beet seeds for Germany and planted about 150 acres of test plots in Alvarado. The crop grew so well that he began to investigate the possibility of building a processing plant.
At this same time 3 German businessmen (A. D. Bonesteel, Andreas Otto, and Ewald Kleinau) decided to build a sugar factory in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. This site was chosen due the fact that the climate there was similar to Germany, and the area had been settled with German immigrants with sugar beet experience. Dyer learned of this factory and sent beets from the 1869 crop in Alvarado for analysis. Because these beets had such impressive sugar content, the 3 Germans agreed to come to California and with their help and numerous other investors, ground was broken at a site on the farm of Ebenezer Dyer in May 1870. The factory was completed and began processing roots after the growing season on November 15, 1870.
After the 1873 season, due to financial problems and disagreements among investors, the factory closed and the company liquidated. The land and buildings were sold back to Dyer while Bonesteel, Otto, and Kleinau purchased the factory processing equipment and moved the operation to a new site south of Alvarado near Santa Cruz.
Oxnard Beet Sugar Company
In 1887, a resident of Grand Island, NE, Henry Koenig and several friends became interested in exploring sugar beet production in that area. It was decided that the land in the vicinity of Grand Island would be well suited to the cultivation of high quality sugar beets. Grand Island was a community largely settled by the ethnic group referred to as German-Russians. Many of these “Germans from Russia” (as they are often referred to in Nebraska) eventually migrated to the U.S., settling in several specific areas, including California, Nebraska, and North Dakota. Accompanying them was their knowledge and experience for agriculture and the sugar beet industry in Germany and France, thus assisting the introduction of this crop into their chosen locations of settlement in North America.
Seeds were imported from Germany and preliminary trials were conducted over a 3-year period (1887-1889) with the help of Professor H. H. Nicholson with the Nebraska State College of Agriculture (now University of Nebraska). These studies indicated that profitable sugar beet production was possible, obtaining sugar concentrations between16 and 18%. The results were so satisfactory that it was decided to build a factory in this area. Koenig and his investors raised $100,000 to begin the process, purchasing equipment from a closed factory in Canada at a cost of $210,000.
In 1889 H. F. Oxnard was hired as the general manager in December, and to help supervise the design and construction of a new plant with the equipment obtained from Canada. The plant was completed in late summer of 1890 with the first campaign occurring in autumn of 1890, resulting in the production of 20,000 one hundred pound bags of sugar. The factory became known as the Oxnard Beet Sugar Company, and that named remained until 1934 when it was bought by the American Crystal Sugar Company. It continued operating through the 1964 campaign.
Other factories in Nebraska were started in Norfolk and Ames later in the 1890s, but interest began to wane in these locations due acreage decreases and sharp declines in sugar yields. Around 1900, interest in sugar beet production began to shift toward western Nebraska due to several reasons: 1) the development of new irrigation systems, 2) expansion of the railroads, 3) and a more arid climate that discouraged many disease problems suffered in the higher humidity characteristic of the eastern half of the state.
Although the Alvarado, California plant is often considered the first successful factory established in the U.S., the Oxnard/American Crystal factory in Grand Island can also make a strong case to share this honor. The California Beet Sugar Company ceased operations in 1873 after only three years of operation. Despite the fact that much of the industry moved to western Nebraska after 1910, the Grand Island plant operated every year on the same site between 1890 and 1964, a total of 74 years, thus making it arguably the first “successful” sugar beet factory in the U.S.
Magnuson, T. A. 1918. History of the sugar beet industry in California. Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California 11: 68-79.
Rapp, W. F. 1984. Nebraska claims honor of first successful sugarbeet factory in the United States. Sugarbeet Grower, January 1984, pages 16-18.
Swenson, T. 2015. Alvarado sugar beet factory, and the Dyer family that founded it. Museum of Local History, Fremont CA, 112 pp.