Historians generally agree that Michigan Sugar Company constructed the first beet sugar factory built in Michigan in 1898 in Essexville, a suburb of Bay City, Michigan. It isn't entirely true. The first beet sugar manufactured in the United States occurred simultaneously in the states of Massachusetts and Michigan in 1839. The earlier Michigan effort preceded the Essexville endeavor by sixty years but was doomed to failure when a future governor declared that Michigan was unsuitable for growing sugarbeets.
By the 1830s, the new European practice of extracting sugar identical to cane sugar from beets had captured the interest of like-minded small groups of investors in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Michigan. guillotine doorThe latter group took the name "White Pigeon" after the town in which the company was organized when establishing the White Pigeon Sugar Manufactory.
The Michigan and Massachusetts enterprises predated the construction of factories in Michigan beginning in 1898 that today provide a direct annual contribution of approximately $298 million to the Michigan economy. Adding the indirect effects, the total contribution to business activity approaches nearly one billion dollars annually. Those first factories averaged a modest five tons of sliced sugarbeets per day, an amount processed in less than sixty seconds in today's modern factories.
Early experiments in sugarbeet processing in America were directly related to the formative stages of a bold new economic paradigm taking root in Europe-one which held that commerce and free trade between nations might generate more revenue for governments and more prosperity for the governed than simple taxation. For commerce to demonstrate its superior power as an economic driver, governments dissolved two pivotal institutions, protectionism and slavery.
The realization that commerce could replace taxation as the fount from which governments would draw their means of support did not, however, come without a price. The price was war, actually a series of wars that began with the American Revolution and ended with the American Civil War. The leaders of America's Sons of Liberty, those who first raised the specter of war against England, were men engaged in commerce as traders, warehouse owners, bankers, and lawyers. Their goal was to put an end to trade practices that favored England to the disadvantage of the colonies and to taxation that either limited or prohibited trade. The French Revolution, hard on the heels of the American Revolution, similarly began as a tax revolt before blazing out of control into a bloodbath that turned that nation's aristocracy into fugitives from the guillotine.
When presenting the Declaration of Independence, the thirteen colonies listed among injuries experienced at the hand of King George III "... cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world" and "imposing Taxes on us without our consent." The obstacle to fair trade was protectionism, a practice whereby a country uses tariffs or import quotas to shield its internal commerce from competition by more efficient producers.
Protectionism became a pervasive practice in England in the mid-seventeenth century. At that time a series of parliamentary acts controlled trade by decreeing that only British-owned vessels would convey imported goods from Asia, Africa, and America. Worse yet, the British Navigation Act of 1660 specifically prohibited the colonies from shipping tobacco, sugar, cotton, and other named products to any country other than England.
The American colonies had enjoyed a flourishing trade in the enumerated goods with a number of countries, and strict enforcement of these acts would have caused economic ruin. Fortunately, because England lacked sea dominance, its bark was worse than its bite. In addition to financial losses experienced by the colonists, was the idea that the British could so severely affect the fortunes of nearly two million people in the colonies. It rankled. Nonetheless, in succeeding decades England enacted a succession of additional trade suppression measures, including laws that outlawed the export of corn to England, sharply limited the production of some goods outside of England, and prohibited entirely the manufacture of steel in the American colonies.
The harshest suppression on colonial trade was the Molasses Act of 1733, a law that placed prohibitive duties on molasses and sugar deliveries from the French West Indies to the colonies. The measure held potentially dire consequences for the New England colonies where prosperity relied upon the importation of those commodities. Had England the sea power to enforce the act, the colonies would have been left without a market for the flour, lumber, and fish that was exchanged in trade with the French West Indies. America's war of independence and later the War of 1812 (called by some, the war for "Free Trade and Sailors Rights") ultimately broke the stranglehold of British protectionism.
One further obstacle to the realization of international fair trade remained. That was the institution of slavery. If governments were to achieve the goal of securing recurring revenues from the manufacture and sale of products-sugar for example-then slavery would have to go the way of protectionist measures.
Those who operated sugar plantations in the world's tropical and subtropical regions held a marketing advantage in that the labor-intensive process of planting, harvesting, and manufacturing sugar was provided without labor cost other that which was associated with acquiring and maintaining slaves. The terrible human cost notwithstanding, from the point of view of an economist slavery retarded technological advancement of every kind and thus deterred the establishment of sugarbeets in the northern latitudes of Europe and North America.
On the European continent, a twenty-two year struggle between France and England that began in 1793, during which each tried to starve the other of foreign trade, showed the wastefulness of protectionist policies. It was that struggle, however, that gave sugarbeets the opportunity to climb onto the world stage when, in response to an embargo, France began to extract sugar from sugarbeets which until then had been confined to laboratory experiments. For the first time in world history, sugar, the only commodity that grows with equal success in both temperate and tropical regions, could cleanse itself of the twin blemishes of protectionism and slavery. Europeans, having learned during the Napoleonic era, the disadvantages of depending upon imported cane sugar, adopted with enthusiasm the new sugarbeet technology.
Attracted by reports of new settlers that sugarbeets had gained popularity in France, some Pennsylvania investors headed by James Ronaldson organized the Beet Sugar Society of Philadelphia and in 1830 sent James Pedder to France to study the industry. Pedder subsequently shipped six hundred pounds of seed for distribution to farmers near Enfield, Pennsylvania, where for the first time in American history, the sugarbeet was grown. Nonetheless, while Ronaldson and Pedder vigorously promoted the idea, they were unable to develop a sufficient number of adherents to support a manufacturing process.
In Massachusetts, attorney David Lee Child acquired a farm in Northhampton which became the nucleus for the sugar factory he organized in partnership with others. Child visited Europe in 1836 to study the sugarbeet industry. He came away from the experience filled with enthusiasm that led to the founding of the factory in partnership with Edward Church and Maximin Isnard, an early developer of the beet sugar industry in France. Child, however, was handicapped in his effort to persuade prospective investors of the promise he had seen in the European sugarbeet factories because of a reputation for personal improvidence. For an income, he relied upon his wife, Lydia B. Child, at the time the country's foremost woman author who was noted for penning, in addition to more serious works, the still popular poem that begins "Over the river and through the woods to grandfather's house we go." Equally troubling was his altruistic preference for defending clients who could not pay a fee--not to mention a six-month stint once spent in jail on a charge of libel.
Perhaps of greater concern to potential creditors was Child's inclination to take up causes that were ahead of the times or in opposition to public sentiment and then meld these social concerns with his business interests. He fought on the side of Spain in that country's war with France, opposed ill treatment of Native Americans, and protested the annexation of Texas. More pertinent to Child's promotion of a sugarbeet enterprise, both Childs made known their ardent opposition to slavery and in public speeches, writings, and personal actions amply demonstrated a determination to help dismantle an evil system. Child aimed to secure the freedom of slaves in the South then take them to Massachusetts where he would employ them in his sugar factory, thus relieving the North's dependence on slave-labored cane sugar while at the same time providing a means of independence for freed slaves. Confidence in the Childs couple withered. Lydia's brilliant writing career dived into oblivion; David's less spectacular presence in the business community became unwelcome.
David Lee Child's inability to secure financial support caused the Northhampton sugar factory to close after two seasons of operation. Eventually Child authored a technical book on sugar manufacture, corresponded with other Americans who shared his interest, proposed a school in which he would train technicians, and in 1839 won a silver medal at the Massachusetts State Exposition for the first manufacture of beet sugar in the United States, having produced thirteen hundred pounds of sugar.
The Northhampton factory, short of capital and a credible manager, struggled for two years before closing its doors forever in 1841, ending the dream of David Lee Childs and those who had come to depend upon him. Childs' struggles rung a familiar note in Michigan where investors sought to found an industry that would enjoy success similar to that enjoyed by the French. The White Pigeon firm announced the Niles Intelligencer, that it would commence operations on March 14, 1839, confidently promising the availability of sugar for coffee the following morning.
Michigan achieved statehood in January 1837 and immediately found itself in desperate need of an economic underpinning. A tripling of the state's population between 1830 and 1834 caused by the westward movement of New Englanders created new demands for economic activity, demands that would not be met by the state's primary industries, agricultural, mining and fur trapping. It cast about for new industries. One which was showing great potential in Europe was the manufacture of sugar from sugarbeets.