(Editor’s note: This is the first part of a three-part story about the history of Sugar Land. The second installment is scheduled for Jan. 31 and the third on 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.)
The old company town known today as Sugar Land is a city with a sweet history.
As the name implies, production of sugar was the driving force behind the city from its plantation days as far back as 1828 through the shuttering of the Imperial Sugar refinery in 2003. Located in Fort Bend County, Sugar Land is southwest of Houston and northeast of the county seat in Richmond. It is located on Oyster Creek and now, after annexation in December 2017, will extend west of the Brazos River.
The area’s early history shows it to be the territory of indigenous people and then the Spanish, French, and Mexican governments before becoming part of the nation and then state of Texas. The land was awarded by Stephen F. Austin to Samuel M. Williams in 1828 in recognition of his services as Austin’s secretary. Ten years later – two years after the Texas Revolution – Williams sold the property to his brothers, Nathaniel F. and Matthew R. Williams. On what was then called Oakland Plantation (in recognition of the many varieties of oaks that grow in the area) they grew cotton, corn, and, of course, sugar cane.
The sugar cane came to Texas when S.M. Swinson, captain of a small freight boat who was trading commodities as he traveled along the U.S. coast, sold the stalks he had picked up in Cuba to Samuel Williams. On this next trip, he saw that Williams had sugar cane growing “as high as a man on a horse.”
The Williams brothers built a raw-sugar mill in 1843. In 1849, Benjamin Franklin “Frank” Terry and William J. Kyle left Texas for California during the gold rush. Successful at prospecting for gold, the two returned to Texas in 1852 as very wealthy men. They purchased 2,400 acres of Oakland Plantation from Nathaniel Williams for an undisclosed sum of money.
On Jan. 1, 1853, they bought the remainder of the plantation from Matthew Williams for $57,165. The purchase included 2,000 acres, several buildings – including the sugar mill and outbuildings – 19 slaves, 500 head of cattle, 30 mules and horses, 15 yoke of oxen, and a herd of hogs. The purchase included many production ready fields of cotton, corn, and cane.
Shortly after purchasing Oakland, they renamed it Sugar Land, but it took several years for the new name to stick. In the ensuing years the partners purchased other adjacent plantations and grew their small empire. By 1858 the Sugar Land Plantation had grown to 12,500 acres and was one of the largest plantations in Texas. Using their wealth and influence, Kyle and Terry had the new Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway (the first in Texas) being extended from Stafford to Richmond make a northerly loop past their mill in Sugar Land.
During this time the partners mechanized the milling process and further refined the sugar. Even with mechanization, the production and processing of sugar cane required extensive slave labor. With pressure mounting from northern states calling for the abolition of slavery, Kyle and Terry joined other southerners in resisting the abolitionist movement. When Texas held a Secessionist Convention in 1861, Terry was chosen as one of the Fort Bend County’s two delegates. On March 2, 1861, exactly 25 years after Texas declared independence from Mexico, the state voted to leave the United States and join the Confederate States of America.
After war broke out the next month, eager, young Texans flocked to fight, leaving the plantations in a precarious situation. They were under-staffed, poorly supplied and often mismanaged. Terry received a commission to form what became known as Terry’s Texas Rangers. Col. Terry made his headquarters in Houston where he commissioned 10 captains to each recruit a company of 100 men. In August, nine companies totaling 1,176 men left to join the fight in the east. The 40-year-old Terry was killed leading his men in their first charge in Kentucky.
Near the end of the war, Kyle died in 1864 at age 61. His brother, Robert, and Terry’s son, A.J., took over management of the Sugar Land plantation. Times were hard and maintaining a plantation anywhere in the South became difficult, especially with the end of slavery. In Fort Bend County, it was estimated that 70 percent of the white men between the ages of 17 and 50 were gone during the war with less than half returning.
For a quarter century after the war, Fort Bend County saw many of its plantations go under. Sugar Land was one of the few that survived, but barely. The labor was supplied by freed slaves and, in 1871 with the passage of a new law, convict laborers were contracted to work the fields and mills. After struggling for a long time, the heirs of Kyle and Terry sold off their plantation to Col. Edward H. Cunningham. A friend of Cunningham, Littleberry Ellis, whose father and uncle were signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence, began buying nearby plantations. Eventually the two men joined their properties and formed a partnership.
Roger Bollinger, the great-great-grandson of Ellis, said he was surprised to learn that his ancestor utilized convict labor to work the plantation. Although legal, the practice was unscrupulous and unethical.
“It wasn’t just Cunningham and Ellis using convicts, that’s for sure,” he said.
According to the Sugar Land Heritage Foundation, “The inmates worked in the wet sugar cane fields, many falling victim to the periodic epidemics of fevers. The brutal working conditions caused bitter convicts to call Sugar Land the ‘Hell hole on the Brazos.’”
Bollinger, 67, lives in Pennsylvania but his roots are deep in Sugar Land. His mother was Rita Handly, who was the daughter of Rita Lenore Turner, who was the daughter of Pink Ellis, who was one of the twin children of Littleberry Ellis. Pink’s twin brother died shortly after birth, as did their mother.
Cunningham invested more than $1 million in a sugar refinery, a new raw-sugar mill, a paper mill, and the fourteen-mile Sugar Land Railroad in the 1890s. One of the mills built by Cunningham and Ellis became known as the Imperial mill. The partnership eventually dissolved with each man retaining his original property and Ellis getting the Imperial mill. In 1884, Ellis’s health began to fail and he turned control of his plantation over to his sons, Will and C.G. Ellis. The two brothers were not exactly good stewards of the land.
Will Ellis was killed in a gunfight in 1896 and his brother was shot to death in 1906 in a gunfight with a sergeant of his convict guards. The death of C.G. Ellis left the plantation and a $240,000 debt to his wife and mother. Now bankrupt, the properties of Ellis and Cunningham were eventually purchased by I.H. Kempner and W.T. Eldridge in 1907. At that time the sugar refining process was expanded to what is now known as Imperial Holly Corp.
(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.)