Texas History 101
Nearly one hundred years after its founding, the Imperial Sugar Company remains sweet on Texas.
As children we all played the ever-popular game of Candy Land. We traveled through Peppermint Forest and frolicked along Gumdrop Pass. But alas, a trip through such sweetness was only a fantasy.
In Texas, however, we have an alternative, and we don’t limit ourselves to candy. Though not quite as magical, this sweet-tooth haven is Sugar Land. Located in Fort Bend County just outside Houston, this city owes its name and legacy to the Imperial Sugar Company. Sugar Land’s story started with a trip led by Stephen F. Austin, a journey far predating the adventures of Gramma Nutt or Lord Licorice.
The path toward sweet success began in 1828 when Austin granted land east of the Brazos River to his secretary, Samuel M. Williams, a member of one of the first three hundred families that Austin brought to Texas. Williams named the area Oakland Plantation because of the numerous types of oak trees. William J. Kyle and Benjamin F. Terry purchased the land and its sugar mill from the Williams family in the early 1850’s. They advocated railroad construction, improved the mill, and named the new town Sugar Land.
In the years following the Civil War, E. H. Cunningham of San Antonio bought more than 12,000 acres of the property. Investing more than $1 million, Cunningham financed the construction of a raw-sugar mill, a sugar refinery, a paper mill, and the Sugar Land Railroad.
The next players in the sugar production process were Isaac H. Kempner of Galveston and William T. Eldridge of Eagle Lake. In 1906 they acquired the Ellis Plantation, a system of tenant farms managed by Will Ellis, and in 1908 they bought the Cunningham Plantation. They founded the Imperial Sugar Company, in 1907, with Kempner naming the business after the Imperial Hotel in New York. The Ellis Plantation mill had also been called Imperial Mill. As Kempner’s grandson Denny said in a KUFH-FM Houston radio documentary, “[Sugar Land] was the Hellhole of the Brazos because there were no streets, the area was prone to flooding, there were no houses to speak of except the local whorehouse.” Prison labor supplied the growing industry with cheap workers through the state’s convict-leasing system.
In 1926 Imperial sugar was pre-packaged in cotton bags, an alternative to scooping sugar from a barrel. Two years later, Imperial Sugar processed the last sugarcane crop grown in Sugar Land. The company struggled during the thirties, but a loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation helped Imperial Sugar weather the Great Depression. Its shaky fortunes turned upward during World War II. Although the Sugar Act had implemented quotas on sugar production, these limitations were put on hold during the war. Imperial Sugar supplied soldiers with its product and provided all the sugar in Texas and Oklahoma. In the fifties the company produced more than two million pounds of sugar per day.
But this productivity didn’t guarantee success. Although many bottlers and candy companies reliant on sugar moved to the Sunbelt states in the fifties and sixties, makers of corn sweeteners and other sugar alternatives threatened Imperial’s role in the market. Shipping costs also limited its potential for expansion beyond Kansas. Yet the company continued playing the game.
Imperial acquired the Holly Sugar Corporation in the late eighties, and over the next decade it added Spreckels Sugar Company and Savannah Foods and Industries to its list of subsidiaries, becoming one of the nation’s largest companies. By 2001, Imperial owed banks and lenders hundreds of millions of dollars and filed for bankruptcy. The company reorganized its structure, including selling some of its facilities in Michigan and Wyoming, and emerged from bankruptcy in 2002.
The Sugar Land refinery closed in May 2003, but the city remains the site for the corporate headquarters. The Imperial Sugar Company now markets products under the brand names Imperial, Dixie Crystals, Spreckels, Pioneer, Holly, and Wholesome Sweeteners.
Maybe there’s no Candy Castle on the end of this historical trail, but with more than $1 billion in net sales in 2003, the Imperial Sugar Company still can be proclaimed a winner.