Rochester’s Great Sugar Disaster

In 1899, Rochester area residents enthusiastically signed on in support of a new agricultural and industrial venture that they hoped would bring jobs and a rich infusion of capital to the community. Because of their efforts, the chimneys of the imposing Detroit Sugar Company mill rose quickly over Paint Creek, but in only seven years’ time they would be nothing more than a memory.

Old brick building with a pond in front of it.
The Detroit Sugar Company factory at Rochester as it looked while under construction in 1899.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Rochester was still a small village surrounded by family farms. Although the town was prosperous, due in large part to its three railroad connections, it was still susceptible to the “sugar fever” that had begun to infect communities across the middle of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

After a state bounty act passed in 1897 had incentivized the cultivation of sugar beets and the construction of sugar beet processing mills, a very successful one had opened in Bay City. Other Michigan communities were quick to jump on the sugar bandwagon and lobbied for facilities of their own. It was into this climate that the Detroit Sugar Company was born.

The Oakland Sugar Mill Company was organized in 1898 as a vehicle to bring a sugar processing plant to Oakland County. The promoters favored Pontiac as the location for the facility, but in January 1899, the Detroit Sugar Company was organized as a successor to the Oakland Sugar Mill Company, and the new firm took a look at all available options. Franklin H. Walker of the Hiram Walker Distillery and Julius Stroh of Detroit’s Stroh Brewing Company controlled Detroit Sugar Company.

Old brick building with three tall chimneys
Rochester’s sugar mill as seen from the back.

Rochester lobbied hard for Detroit Sugar’s proposed factory. The village purchased a site on Paint Creek and created an access road called “Sugar Avenue.” The town fathers pressed an enthusiastic campaign with Detroit Sugar’s executives and succeeded in convincing the company to locate the mill at Rochester instead of Pontiac.

Construction of the Rochester sugar beet mill began in March 1899, following plans drawn by Detroit architects Spier & Rohns. The plant would be huge by Rochester standards; the footprint of the main building would measure 341 x 130 feet. Several auxiliary buildings including an office, a laboratory, and three 400-foot beet sheds would support it.

The mill was scheduled to begin operation on October 1 – the customary time to receive the fall sugar beet harvest in Michigan – but that target was missed by a month because of construction delays. The shortened first beet campaign concluded on December 30, having only processed a total of 21,276 tons of beets in two months’ time, for an average of about 354 tons per day. The Rochester plant had been designed to process 500 tons per day.

Old newspaper ad from the Detroit Sugar Co.
A newspaper ad soliciting beet crops from local farmers.

The first beet season was somewhat disappointing for Detroit Sugar’s stockholders, but it was even more disturbing for the Rochester-area farmers who had contracted to raise beets for the company. The farmers had expected to simply sow the seed, harvest the crop, haul it to the sugar factory, and be paid handsomely for their efforts. They found out instead that sugar beets had to be carefully cultivated – a process that included labor-intensive thinning of the plants – in order to produce a beet with high sugar content. They also learned that beets of inferior quality brought a much lower price than those with high sugar content. Many local farmers decided that raising sugar beets was not worth the effort and dropped out of the program. Losing local crops forced the Rochester mill to contract with more distant farmers, and that meant that higher freight charges would cut into its profit margin.

Interestingly, a German expert on sugar beets – who had visited Rochester while the factory was under construction in the summer of 1899 – had predicted trouble, before a single beet ever entered the mill. The expert commented that he found the land around Rochester unsuitable because of the rocks and tree stumps that encouraged “islands of weeds,” and the widespread practice of pasturing livestock in the fields. He concluded his report by noting that the Rochester factory was “expensively built and has a miserable crop. It is an uneconomical undertaking.”

The prophetic words proved true in short order. Although the 1900 beet campaign was a better one for the Rochester mill, it still missed productivity benchmarks. The local beet harvest was insufficient and the heavy outlay for freight to bring in outlying crops kept the mill in a deficit position. Adding insult to injury, the courts declared Michigan’s sugar beet bounty unconstitutional in 1900, removing the taxpayer-funded incentive to grow and process beets. Two years after that, the federal government reduced the tariffs on imported sugar, which allowed sugar from Cuba to compete more favorably with the domestic product.

Inside view of the factory with tubes and piping and walkways
An interior view of the Detroit Sugar Company’s Rochester mill.

The Rochester sugar factory closed at the end of the 1903 season, never to run again. The beet crop delivered to the plant in the fall of 1904 was so small that it did not even warrant firing up the mill’s machinery, so the beets were sold to the Mount Clemens sugar factory and processed there. Seeing no future for its Rochester plant, Detroit Sugar pulled the plug.

During its five active years from 1899 to 1903, Rochester’s sugar beet factory processed a grand total of 121,889 tons of beets and produced 25,868,166 pounds of sugar. This was a small output at the turn of the twentieth century and would be considered minuscule in today’s beet sugar industry. For example, the Michigan Sugar Company, which still operates sugar beet mills in Bay City, Caro, Croswell, and Sebewaing, processed 4.1 million tons of sugar beets in 2019 and produced more than one billion pounds of sugar.

The machinery from the Rochester plant was sold to United Sugar in Madison, Wisconsin, and the buildings were demolished, just seven years after they had been built. The Rochester Era published the mill’s obituary on March 16, 1906: “Sections of the sugar factory wall are being torn down by the use of dynamite and jack screws, as sale is made of the brick. But a little while – a few weeks – and the last wall of the handsome and substantial structure will have been razed.”

A two-story red brick home with four white columns at the front of the structure.
The house at 444 West University Drive was built in 1906 of brick salvaged from Rochester’s sugar factory.

Although Rochester’s sugar mill was demolished over a century ago, traces of it still remain in the community. The salvaged bricks from the mill were used to build at least two houses in town, including the ones that stand at 444 West University and 314 West Fourth. Sugar mill brick was also purchased by the W. F. Stewart Company and used to build a new factory on the edge of what became Flint’s Buick City complex.

In 1927, the village of Rochester renamed Sugar Avenue, calling it Woodward Street instead. Detroit Sugar Company deeded the mill site back to the village, and even today, much of the former sugar mill property on Woodward Street is city-owned. It is now the location of the City of Rochester’s public works facility and a community athletic field.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Ilene Hyder says

    Very interesting Deb. I don’t remember hearing about the sugar beet plant, or. I have just forgotten. Keep up the good stories. Love, Aunt Ilene.

  2. Stewart Harris says

    Great articule, as usual. Keep ’em comin.’
    And Happy Holidays.

  3. Always heard this referenced BUT never in this much detail.
    I’m sure R-A. H.S. will have De. give a “talk” when we are finished with lock downs.

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