The Metamorphosis

Once upon a time, Sugar Land was a fading company town on the banks of the Brazos River and Tom DeLay was a young exterminator in a state dominated by Democratic rule. How did we get from there to here?

IN 1974 AMERICAN THEATERS WERE briefly graced by a movie called The Sugarland Express. Based on a true story, the film proposed the adventure of a fugitive Texas convict and his spunky harebrained wife. The two hijack a rookie state trooper in a desperate attempt to keep the state from declaring them unfit parents and putting their infant son in a foster home. Along the way, the captors and captive become buddies, and there are all sorts of other action-picture clichés—car chases, wrecks, explosions, a convincingly bewildering gunfight. But the movie stands out because the director had the good sense to slow it down. The old rodeo cowboy and character actor Ben Johnson played a highway patrol captain doing his best to rescue his dumb rookie and keep the hapless outlaws from coming to the unhappy end proposed by Texas Ranger snipers. No Dirty Harry, this guy. “I’ve been on the force eighteen years,” drawls Johnson’s cop. “It’s been my good fortune not to have killed anybody in that time. That’s the way I’d like to keep it.” Eventually, yahoos with a “Register Communists, Not Firearms” bumper sticker intervene and pitch the story into its inevitable dark turn, but most of the movie is a comic foreshadowing of O. J. Simpson and the white Bronco.

The Sugarland Express is a minor classic, the first feature of a young director named Steven Spielberg. The filmmaker seemed to be smitten by the name “Sugarland.” The town where the runaways mean to reclaim their baby is held off-camera, always luring them on, some sweet place where their family can be redeemed. When the fictional Sugarland finally materializes onscreen, it is an ordinary Southern town with broad streets and swings on front porches and a sprawling junk yard on the outskirts. It was, in fact, nothing like the real Sugar Land. Since the time Spielberg was exploring the place as a metaphor, the former company town has transformed its murky bayous into high-spurting fountains, and the malls along the highways make the town look like the world capital of Bed Bath & Beyond. It has dozens of churches, and golf courses are its parks. Middle-class voters with no stake in the Texas ways of old, nor much knowledge of or interest in the town’s curious past, have poured into its massive subdivisions. Large numbers of them aren’t Texans; jobs brought them to Houston. In its suburban rebirth, Sugar Land rapidly shed whatever resemblance to the one Spielberg imagined and became one of the most Republican-dominated towns in the country.

Around the time The Sugarland Express hit theaters, future congressman Tom DeLay started doing business in the real Sugar Land; he later made his home there. The coincidence is noteworthy. The House majority leader is now widely considered the most powerful member of Congress, the orchestrator of Texas’s fierce redistricting battle and a fundraising goliath. But DeLay might have remained just another irked young conservative if not for the sea change in Texas politics over the past three decades, one that shifted power from rural areas to the new suburbs, from single-party Democratic control to overwhelming Republican dominance. The transformation in Texas politics is embedded in the history of Tom DeLay’s Sugar Land.

IN THE 1820’S THE COASTAL PRAIRIE and savannah along the Brazos River lured the first settlers from the United States to the Texas colony of Stephen F. Austin, in what was then a Mexican province. Austin granted the area on Oyster Creek to his secretary in 1828. Some residents of DeLay’s congressional district still proudly claim heritage as descendants of Austin’s Three Hundred, those first families of Texans. The Brazos bottomlands get abundant rain—one legendary flood reached eight miles across—and the heavily silted, dark gumbo soil is extraordinarily fertile. Many of Texas’s first and richest plantations sprawled across the valley in rows of cotton, corn, and sugarcane. A mill that ground cane into sugar opened in 1843; the village of Sugar Land grew around it.

The Civil War and its aftermath killed off most of the plantations, but another thing the countryside nourished was prisons. State penitentiaries were flung out in all directions—a culture of dog boys and horseback-riding guards and convicts in white coveralls marching off into the haze with ten-pound hoes. The convicts were leased as labor to the remaining sugarcane farmers. De facto slavery was alive and well, legal and just as brutal. Prisoners suffered malaria and tuberculosis and yellow fever. They called Sugar Land “the Hell Hole on the Brazos.”

The non-penal settlement almost became a ghost town, but in the first decade of the new century, a partnership of investors bought up two of the old plantations and built a sugar-processing plant. They named their enterprise the Imperial Sugar Company after the Imperial Hotel in New York. After the First World War, one of Imperial’s founding partners devoted himself to building Sugar Land as a company town. Imperial greatly enlarged the plant, and ethnic Germans and Czechs moved in and gave the area a stable population. Outside town, the planters’ labor pool and the convicts’ bitterness went unchanged. The company sold one of the sugar plantations to the Texas prison system, which continued to run it like the farmers, for a profit. The pioneering blues singer Leadbelly—better known to wardens in the twenties as the murderer Huddie Ledbetter—composed a classic song called “The Midnight Special” while incarcerated in Sugar Land. The Midnight Special was a train that each night passed by the prison. For the convicts it was a symbol of freedom.

By 1932 Imperial was the last sugar manufacturer in Texas. The company diversified into vinegar and pickles, mattresses and warehousing, and the sprawling plant held on by refining Cuban sugar. After cold war politics eliminated that supply, the refinery endured a long, slow death. The small town it had spawned differed from neighbors only in its unusual origins. Until Spielberg came along, the most fame ever bestowed on Sugar Land was the blessing and curse of a fifties high school

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