Thursday, February 18, 2010

Vanished Rochester: Detroit Sugar Company

In 1899, the Detroit Sugar Company accepted the proposal of a citizens' committee from Rochester to locate a beet sugar processing plant in the village. Detroit Sugar Company was controlled by Julius Stroh of the Stroh brewing family, and Franklin Walker of the Hiram Walker distillery family, both of whom recognized an opportunity when changes were made to state law that benefited the industry. Beet sugar plants were popping up all over lower Michigan in 1899 – eight of them, in fact – due to the incentive provided by P.A. 48 of 1897, which authorized the state to pay a penny per pound “bounty” to Michigan manufacturers who produced sugar from Michigan grown beets. Coupled with a high tariff that made Cuban sugar more expensive, the sugar bounty offered a highly favorable economic climate for producing beet sugar in Michigan.

The Rochester plant was announced in the Detroit Free Press on January 18, 1899 with a headline that screamed “Rochester Gets It.” Additional news articles quoted Pontiac officials who were lamenting the fact that the county seat had lost out on the factory to sleepy little Rochester, but the Free Press pointed out that Rochester's leaders had “hustled” where Pontiac's had not, and therefore Rochester was reaping the rewards.

The Detroit architecture firm of Spier and Rohns was contracted to built the sugar factory on a site along Paint Creek in the northwest corner of the village, conveniently adjacent to the Michigan Central railroad tracks. A new street, appropriately named Sugar Avenue, was opened between North Main and Ludlow streets to serve the plant, and the interurban line ran a spur from the main track to the plant site. Very quickly, a large and imposing factory was rising against the village skyline.

The Free Press described the plans drawn by the architects in March:
The main building will be 341 by 139 feet in size and of first-class fire-proof construction, the only wood used in the building being in the window frames. The materials to be used are stone, brick, iron and terra cotta. All the floors are to be of Michigan Portland cement and the roof of cement with a covering of asphalt. A gallery will be provided from which visitors will be enabled to see the methods of manufacturing and refining. In addition to the main building there will be an office building, a laboratory 50 by 150 feet in size, and three beet sheds, each 400 feet long, from which the beets will be floated into the factory. The cost of the entire plant will be $500,000.

Sugar beets were harvested and processed in the fall of each year, and the processing season, which typically ran from October to December, was called a “campaign.” Detroit Sugar's 1899 campaign at Rochester was a small one, having gotten a late start because the factory was not quite ready for operation on October 1 as originally planned. The campaign of 1900 was stronger, but after that, a perfect storm of economic factors converged to write a swift death sentence for the new plant.

The rapid demise of Detroit Sugar Company's Rochester factory cannot be assigned to a single cause. Several developments in a short period of time acted in concert to bring the company down. For one, local farmers who had signed on enthusiastically to place their beet fields under contract to Detroit Sugar when the factory was planned began to lose interest fairly quickly. Many had not realized how labor-intensive the cultivation of sugar beets would be, and when they discovered that it required far more effort than putting seed into the ground, they began to drop out of the program. Further, the hilly terrain of Oakland County was less suited to sugar beet cultivation that the the rich, flat, open land of Michigan's Thumb region, which was producing far more product per acre than the Rochester area could. Faced with declining deliveries from local farmers, Detroit Sugar had to cast a wider net for sugar beets, thereby forcing the company to pay higher freight charges and lowering its profit margin. At the same time that the freight expenses were kicking in, another blow was dealt in 1900 when the state's sugar bounty was declared unconstitutional. For smaller plants, such as Rochester's, whose success was predicated fairly heavily upon the revenue from these subsidy payments, the blow was a serious one. The knock-out punch came in 1902, when the federal government significantly reduced the Cuban sugar tariff, allowing the imported sugar product to compete more favorably with domestic sugar.

As a capstone to the entire debacle, Thomas E. Neely of Rochester filed a lawsuit against Detroit Sugar in the spring of 1903. Neely operated a flour mill on Paint Creek, downstream from the sugar factory (near the site of today's Rochester Athletic Club on North Main), and claimed that the sugar company was discharging lime, dirt, sand, refuse, beets and beet tops into the waterway, diminishing the size of his millpond by one half. At trial, Neely was awarded $2010.64 in damages, but Detroit Sugar appealed the case all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court. The high court affirmed the lower court ruling in 1904 and Neely prevailed.

The fifth and final campaign at the Rochester factory closed at the end of 1903. The harvest delivered to the plant in 1904 was too small to make powering up the centrifuges worthwhile, so it was sold to the Mount Clemens Sugar Company for processing and the Rochester plant sat idle. A local organization of farmers made an attempt to guarantee an adequate harvest for 1905 if Detroit Sugar would re-open the plant, but their efforts failed and the factory remained dormant for the 1905 campaign as well. During its five campaigns, the Rochester plant had processed a grand total of 121,000 tons of beets and produced 25.8 million pounds of sugar.

In 1906, Detroit Sugar threw in the towel on the Rochester plant. The machinery was salvaged and sold to a company in Madison, Wisconsin, while the building, only seven years old, was demolished and the brick sold for other construction projects – some local, and others as far away as Flint. The property on which the sugar factory had stood was deeded back to the village of Rochester. Finally, in November 1927, the village fathers officially erased the last reminder of the Detroit Sugar Company when they voted to change the name of Sugar Avenue to Woodward Street, thereby consigning Detroit Sugar to the pages of Vanished Rochester.

This view of the Detroit Sugar Company factory, located on today's Woodward Street, was taken in 1899 and shows the plant still under construction.


  1. The final chapter, as it was told in one of the Rochester historical videos, was that bricks used in the sugar factory were reused to build some of the homes in Downtown Rochester, including one magnificent one on Fourth Street, which looks to have been recently rennovated. Seems like a "sweet" ending to a bittersweet tale.

  2. Do you know which buildings were constructed from Sugar mill bricks? Weren't both the brick buildings at 4th and Main constructed before the Detroit Suger Co. was demolished?


  3. The McCafferty House on West Fourth ( ) and the Griffey house at 444 W. University ( ) were both built with sugar mill bricks. The buildings at 4th & Main have nothing to do with the sugar mill.