The History of U&I Sugar: A Beet Sugar Powerhouse

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U&I Sugar was essentially founded by Mormon pioneers in Utah and Idaho; the industry expanded to six states and sold to 24 states.

For many years, one of the most recognizable brands on store shelves in the West was U&I sugar. U&I produced sugar extracted from sugar beets. In the 1850s, Mormon John Taylor formed the Deseret Manufacturing Company, predecessor to U&I. It built its first factory at Salt Lake City, but it failed. Further studies were made and the Utah Sugar Company formed on September 4, 1889. The factory made its first sugar on October 15, 1891.

The Utah Sugar Company expanded into the Bear River Valley in 1901 and built a factory at Garland, which was completed in 1903. Four smaller sugar companies built plants at Lincoln (near Idaho Falls), Sugar City, Nampa, and Blackfoot, all in Idaho, in 1903-05. On July 18, 1907, these four companies merged with the Utah Sugar Company to form the U&I Sugar Company with $13 million in capital. In Utah, U&I built plants at Elsinore and Payson.

The beet sugar industry was threatened in 1913, when the U.S. removed tariffs from cane sugar imported from Cuba, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Phillippines. U&I reduced salaries by 10% of many staff to stay even. Then World War I broke out in 1914 and prices went up. New plants were built at Spanish Fork and West Jordan, Utah, in 1916. E. H. Dyer & Company of Cleveland built these two plants, as they did most of U&I’s plants.

Other factories built during this time with varying degrees of success were Brigham City, Moroni, Delta, Springville, and Centerfield, Utah; Grants Pass, Oregon; Rigby and Shelley, Idaho; and North Yakima, Toppenish, and Sunnyside, Washington.

After the war, prices dropped again and U&I struggled to get by. The Mormon church bought some stock to help. The War Finance Corporation loaned the company $10 million. Throughout the pre-Depression years, the company suffered from curly top, a disease spread by an white fly. The North Yakima and Sunnyside plants were closed and never re-opened. In 1924, the entire district was hit and the Lehi, Elsinore, Rigby, and Payson plants were dismantled.

The devastation caused the USDA to devote more money to research in 1928 to find insect resistant varieties. By 1934, crop plantings were the best they had been in years. Things were going good enough to rebuild at Toppenish. In 1934, U&I owned 15 factories.

During World War II, mechanization changed the industry. A cross blocking device was developed to thin beet plants. Another device was used to split seed clusters. Mechanical loaders saved time loading beets into trucks. In 1946, 12% of the crop was harvested by machine. By 1950, 66% of the crop was harvested mechanically. In 1953, U&I built a new plant at Moses Lake, Washington. 262,500 tons of beets were processed in the first year for 763,000 hundredweight of sugar. Further expansions allowed the plant to process 6,250 tons of beets per day.

By 1966, there were only five factories left: Garland, Idaho Falls, West Jordan, Toppenish, and Moses Lake. These produced five plants produced 2-3 times the volume of the earlier plants. The company also established sugar distribution centers at Seattle, Omaha, Kansas City, Missouri, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Tigard, Oregon. Nearly all the seed came from a beet seed processing plant at St. George, Utah.

Beginning in the late 1970s, U&I began to shut down its business. Factories were sold or dismantled. Former beet acreage lay fallow or was planted with other crops. Beet sugar could no longer compete with increasing imports of cane sugar as well as super cheap corn syrup. Slowly the U&I brand disappeared from the stores.

Source:

  1. Beet Sugar in the West: A History of the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, 1891-1966, Leonard J. Arrington, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1966
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