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Michigan’s Sugar Beet Boom, 1884-1913

The first man in Michigan to attempt to grow sugar beets is believed to have been potato farmer Lucius Lyon in 1839. He had good crops of beets, but it was too early in the century before manufacturing abilities were improved.

(The following information was acquired by Michigan Sugar.com)
Once Michigan depleted most of its timber thanks to the 1800s lumber boom, a new source of income was necessary. So the idea of growing sugar beets was revived in 1884. A Saginaw man, Joseph Seeman, visited Germany and noticed their success with sugar beets. He sent a sample of seeds to a friend, who in turn sent them to a professor at Michigan State University (called Michigan Agricultural College at the time). That professor was Robert Kedzie, who got the ball rolling by distributing 1,500 pounds of beet seeds from France directly to Michigan farmers.

The excitement caused by the income possibilities from growing beets got the local farmers and their families out in the fields, ripping up the old tree stumps from the lumber days and preparing the land for farming.

In 1897, the Pioneer Michigan Sugar Company was set in Essexville, near Bay City.

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Michigan’s first beet-growing season produced 32,047 tons of sugar beets, with the farmers reaping $4.51 per ton. With 15 acres of sugar beets per farmer, the income would feed, clothe, and care for an entire family for a year.

Soon, more sugar beet factories popped up. From 1899-1913, factories appeared in many more Michigan towns, including Alma, Benton Harbor, Caro, Charlevoix, Croswell, Holland, Kalamazoo, Marine City, Menominee, Rochester, and West Bay City. From all corners of Michigan’s Mitten, beets were being grown and loaded onto wagons, trains, and sent to the factories.

FAST FACTS:
1905: Factories in Benton Harbor, East Tawas, Essexville, Kalamazoo, Marine City, Rochester, and Saginaw closed down.
1906: Six Michigan sugar companies merged (Alma, Bay City, Caro, Carrollton, Croswell, Sebewaing), forming the Michigan Sugar Company.
1924: Lansing and Owosso factories join the merger.
1948: The Mount Pleasant factory gets on board.
1954: Three more closings in Blissfield, Menominee, and St. Louis.
1984: Michigan Sugar Company bought by Savannah Foods in Georgia.
2004: Michigan Sugar Company buys the Bay City factory.

These days, Michigan Sugar Company is the only one left in our state and is the third largest in the U.S. They produce over 1.1 billion pounds of sugar annually, under brand names you know: Big Chief and Pioneer.

And it’s possible we can thank one lone guy for the inspiration:
Potato farmer Lucius Lyon, back in 1839.

(This is just a brief synopsis. You can read many more details at Michigan Sugar.com.)

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