(Editor’s note: This is the second part of a three-part story about the history of Sugar Land. The first installment ran Nov. 29 and the conclusion is scheduled for May 30. This is part of a new series appearing in the Fort Bend Star called Those Were the Days. The series will run in each month with a fifth Wednesday.)
Picking up tracts of land through the bankruptcies of the estates of Edward H. Cunningham and Littleberry Ellis in 1907, I.H. Kempner and W.T. Eldridge embarked on a program that transformed this plantation community into the company town of Sugar Land.
In order to fashion their dream, the men had some serious cleaning up to do. With the end of slavery after the Civil War, the former owners of the plantation and sugar mill turned to the legal but highly unethical use of leased convict labor. Working conditions in the sugar cane fields were so horrendous that the convicts dubbed Sugar Land the “Hell hole of the Brazos.”
Kempner and Eldridge started phasing out the use of convict labor before the ink was dry on the purchase contracts and built housing for the 400 inmates and guards on the site of the Ellis Plantation. They started replacing inmate labor with tenant and contract laborers. In 1914 the men sold the Ellis property to the state and for many decades the Texas Department of Corrections ran a prison farm there. At the same time they began taking over the neighboring Cunningham Plantation.
By 1908, Kempner and Eldridge completed the purchase of the land and modernized the refinery, giving it the Imperial name. The year 1914 was set as a deadline by the Texas Legislature to end the leasing of convict labor. Not only did the men want no association with the practice, they also moved to end itinerant labor as quickly as they could. That meant building a community to attract and house the permanent labor force they needed for the Imperial Sugar Co. Many German and Czech immigrants were recruited to move to Sugar Land.
In addition to building a town, Kempner and Eldridge constructed eight miles of levees and 20 miles of drainage ditches to protect their enterprise from floods from the Brazos River. According to the Sugar Land Heritage Foundation, between 1917 and 1928, “dredging of the many shallow pools, lakes, creeks, and Oyster Creek reclaimed acreage to provide necessary drainage and more farmland.”
By 1917, the town had 400 homes and a population of 1,200. To support the isolated community, support services such as stores, a bank and other amenities were constructed or upgraded from existing structures. In 1918 Imperial Sugar built Lakeview Elementary School. By 1923, a hospital and fire station were added to the growing town.
At this time Sugar Land was reasonably self-sufficient, albeit isolated from its nearest neighbors – Houston, 28 miles to the east, and Richmond, seven miles to the southwest.
“Citizens could travel the 28 miles to Houston or the seven miles to Richmond in a passenger coach often attached to a freight train; travel by buggy was slow but sure; and the automobiles of the 1920s often had difficulties with the roads available at the time,” R.M. Armstrong wrote in his book, “Sugar Land, Texas and Imperial Sugar Company.” “Sugar Land was connected to Houston by a narrow, high-centered two-lane road made of crushed shell and it was generally passable if a bit rough by today’s standards. Going the other way, to Richmond, was seven miles of dirt road, rough but passable in dry weather.”
By the end of the 1920s, things were changing quickly in Sugar Land.
“The last sugarcane crop in Fort Bend County was harvested in 1928,” according to the Sugar Land Heritage Foundation. “Plant disease and the high federal protective tax on cane sugar ended local cane farming, and thereafter raw sugar was imported for the refinery.”
At this point, the sugar mill was closed and only the refinery remained in operation until it ceased operations in 2003.
In 1925 Sugar Land’s population was down to 1,000. Within four years, however, later the population exploded to 2,500. During the Great Depression years of the 1930s, the town lost residents. In 1936, the population was estimated at 1,500, where it remained through the 1940s.
The Depression hit Sugarland Industries hard in 1931 and 1932, with the company having to borrow $1.2 million to keep Imperial Sugar afloat. In August 1932, Eldridge died of an illness at the age of 69. His death came as a huge blow to the companies and community that had depended so heavily on his leadership.
Sugarland Industries and Imperial Sugar managed to survive the Depression and by 1941 were on solid financial footing again.
“Early in 1942, marketing and import quotas of raw cane sugar under the Sugar Act were suspended and unlimited imports were invited. Limitations on production of beet and cane sugar from farms in the United States were removed, and incentives in the form of subsidies to U.S. beet and cane growers were expanded,” Armstrong wrote in his book.
Rationing of sugar during World War II, however, led to “zoning” regulations, which made Imperial Sugar the nearly exclusive sugar sold in most of Texas (excluding West Texas) and Oklahoma.
As many of Sugar Land’s young men went to fight in the war, those who remained behind and the women of the community suddenly found themselves going from short work weeks during the Depression to working 12-16 hours a day to keep up with wartime demand.
In 1946, after the war was over, the Kempner family became sole owners of the town. In 1949, both Imperial and the Sugarland Industries were operating profitably. Under the Kempner ownership the town was again prospering.
As Sugar Land entered the 1950s, Imperial Sugar had become immensely prosperous and capacity at the refinery was increased to 2.8 million pounds per day. Two eight-hour shifts were eventually not enough to keep up with growth. To help bring in enough labor to staff a third shift, the Kempners offered property ownership in the town for the first time to employees. New residents tended to buy lots in subdivisions that were sprouting up around town. It’s also important to note that the Kempners encouraged home ownership in Mayfield Park. They offered sweet deals to minorities, so they could own their homes.
Throughout the 1950s, Sugar Land developed a reputation as a good place to live and work with an excellent school system that made family life attractive.
By 1956, 2,285 people made their home in Sugar Land. The era of the company town came to an end in 1959 when Sugar Land was incorporated as a city. Imperial Sugar and Sugarland Industries, also owned by the Kempner family, began selling the businesses, homes, and land for development. T.E. Harman was elected the first mayor.
(Editor’s note: Information for this story came from the book “Sugar Land, Texas and Imperial Sugar Company” by R.M. Armstrong, and the websites of the Sugar Land Heritage Foundation and the City of Sugar Land. Special thanks to Chuck Kelly for his assistance.)