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Ain’t No More Sugar in Sugar Land

There’s a Texas town named for the product it makes. Outside the state it’s known for its powerful Congressman, Tom DeLay, but for generations of Texans, Sugar Land has meant….sugar. Now, things have changed. In December of 2002, Imperial Sugar announced it would close its Texas refinery.As of 2003, there’s no more sugar in Sugar […]

There’s a Texas town named for the product it makes. Outside the state it’s known for its powerful Congressman, Tom DeLay, but for generations of Texans, Sugar Land has meant….sugar. Now, things have changed. In December of 2002, Imperial Sugar announced it would close its Texas refinery.As of 2003, there’s no more sugar in Sugar Land. Our correspondent Wayne Bell puts these historic changes into perspective.

Aired Monday, February 23
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By ironic coincidence, Sugar Land’s other long-time institution is likewise changing, permanently. In September, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson announced the sale of 2000 acres from one of the prisons next to Sugar Land, with more sales to follow. Starting at Sugar Land there is a series of large Texas prison farms along the lower Brazos River. How they got there is an interesting, but dark, story. It begins, as does the Texas sugar industry, with sugarcane.

Leon Anhaiser is a sugar engineer and a native of Sugar Land. He says cane cutting is hard work because it is very think. “There are all sorts of rodents and insects and creatures that love to live in the cane. Long days and long hours because there is only a certain period of time that you have when the sugar content is high and it’s a repetitive job, the swinging of that machete all day long,” Anhaiser said.

Slave labor did the work before the Civil War. That’s what made the sugar plantations possible and profitable. Historian Michael Moore is the director of the Fort Bend Museum. He says the four counties of Fort Bend, Brazoria, Warton and Matagorda County were termed the sugar bowl in the nineteenth century because of the large sugar plantations there. “In these sugar plantations, you see the largest investment in slave labor and nice plantation houses and machinery, steam engines, other things they needed for the sugar production. So, really it had the most developed sense of a plantation economy of virtually any place in Texas,” Moore said. He says Texas was a fairly new plantation economy at the time of the Civil War.

Donald Walker is a professor of history at Texas Tech University. He says the end of slavery left the sugar growers with a dilemma. “They had a crop that was profitable, but it required a great deal of labor so they had to find a substitute source of labor and it was very likely going to cost them some money,” Walker said.

The solution the State and plantation owners came up with would turn out to be controversial, morally dubious, and once again, quite profitable. And Sugar Land was right in the middle of it. That stories continues in Part 2 of Ain’t No More Sugar in Sugar Land.


Click to hear samples of Imperial Sugar television commercials from 1963 or 1964 or Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos performed by Johnny Nicholas, one of Texas’ most authentic bluesmen.
For more information on Johnny Nicholas, click here.

Aired Tuesday, February 24
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The historic town of Sugar Land, Texas was at the center of one of the darkest chapters in Texas history. Part 2 takes us back to Reconstruction and the late 19th Century.

This is prison farmland just west of Sugar Land, Texas. It has recently been sold by the state and will soon sprout houses instead of cotton and sugarcane. There is history here. Go back 120 years and you find Sugar Land and its namesake product totally dependent on the prisons for survival.

Donald Walker is a historian at Texas Tech. He wrote the book on convict leasing. It is called Penology For Profit. He says the revival of the sugar industry coincides very closely with the beginning of the convict-leasing system. In 1867, the state discovered that the number of persons being sentenced to the prison was greater than the prison could house. They then decided to consider the option that had been tried elsewhere to lease the prison inmates to private individuals, many of whom needed a labor supply,” Walker said.

Michael Moore is the director of the Fort Bend Museum. He says the raising of sugar cane is so labor intensive that the planters looked for any source of cheap labor they could find. “The convict leases after the Civil War form a new system of slavery almost,” Moore said.

Prisoner HousingConvicts were housed in camps, in the barest of structures, and they worked sunup to sundown. Walker says if you look at the population on these outside camps, particularly those where the work was the hardest, you find a tremendous racial imbalance. “These growers had no incentive to try and make life particularly pleasant for these convicts. In fact, it was just the opposite, keep your cost to a minimum and get as much work as possible out of the workforce and if it so happened that one of these inmates was killed, then you simply got in touch with the state and they brought out another one and this prison labor was a very important source of revenue for the state,” Walker said. And to maximize that revenue, the state began to buy its own farms.

The 20th Century brought change. In 1901, Texas struck oil at Spindletop and that brought new revenues. Walker says when the public outcry developed against the way prisoners were treated, the state was beginning to have other sources of income that could replace the prison labor.

The new century also brought the social conscience of the Progressive Era, and its muckraking journalists. “There was a series of revelation stories in the San Antonio papers about horrible conditions in the prison. These stories generated such an outcry that the legislature had to conduct an investigation and some legislation passed in a special session in the summer of 1910,” Walker said.

And that ended convict leasing, though it would be 20 years before the prison farms began to modernize. One legacy form that era is musical. We’ll explore that tomorrow, as we continue with Ain’t No More Sugar In Sugar Land.


Aired Wednesday, February 25
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A hit song from Sugar Land, Texas? It’s true! Part of this old Texas town’s history is musical, as we will see here in part three of Ain’t No More Sugar In Sugar Land, a radio documentary we are airing all this week.

Trains have always been the sound of Sugar Land. These rails are on the route of the oldest railroad in Texas. It went right through the middle of town, by the sugar refinery, and west of town, through the heart of what used to be known as the Imperial State Prison Farm. In the 1920’s they had a prisoner there who would enshrine this railroad in song. History knows him as Leadbelly.

Kip Lornell is co-author of the most recent Leadbelly biography. He says Leadbelly is a critical figure in American music because he introduced so many people in the 1930s to live southern rural black music. Midnight Special is a song that Leadbelly picked up while he was incarcerated at Sugar Land. The title eludes to a Southern Pacific train that left Houston every night right around 11 bound for San Antonio and points west,” he said. Lornell says so many people have recorded Midnight Special over the years that it has become an American classic During his time in Sugar Land, Leadbelly would learn many of the songs that would later make him famous.

Another person who discovered the rich vein of song flowing through Sugar Land’s prison was Austin folklorist John Lomax, recording for the Library of Congress. Lornell says Lomax was important because he realized in the early twentieth century that prison songs and cowboy songs were an important part of American folk culture. “He not only studied them, he actually brought equipment out and went to these prisons to record black prisoners and some of his first stops included Sugar Land, which was one of the most notorious places for a black prisoner to go in the 1920s and one of the songs he comes up with was Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos, which has become one of the most enduring songs in American folk music,” Lomax said.

The song’s title refers to yet another momentous change in Sugar Land’s history: sugarcane disappeared! Why? Leon Anhaiser says it was because of the economics of labor. He says sugar is a labor-intensive crop. “At the time that it phased out, that was in the 20s, the state of Texas was not doing prison labor for that type of activity any longer. Labor would have to come from somewhere else and it just wasn’t available,” he said.

And yet Sugar Land and its parent company, Imperial Sugar, both continued to thrive! That remarkable success story tomorrow, as we continue with Ain’t No More Sugar In Sugar Land.


Click to hear a sample of Midnight Special performed by Leadbelly.


Aired Thursday, February 26
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Company towns generally have a bad reputation, and Sugar Land was Texas’ best known company town, but with a difference, as we’ll see here in part four of Ain’t No More Sugar In Sugar Land, our weeklong long into Sugar Land’s surprising history.

At the close of the 19th Century Sugar Land’s owner was in trouble. Colonel Ed Cunningham’s new sugar refinery was in debt, his labor force was mostly convicts, and his town had quite the pejorative nickname.

I.H. KempnerDenny Kempner’s grandfather, I. H. Kempner, founded the Imperial Sugar Company and would be the person most responsible for bringing Sugar Land out of its dark past. “It was the Hellhole of the Brazos because there were no streets, the area was prone to flooding, there were no houses to speak of except the local whorehouse, and its was not a place for anybody to work. It was a terrible place,” he said. Kempner says his grandfather saw this opportunity in Sugar Land “Cunningham was bankrupt. Somehow he developed a relationship with W. T. Eldridge and they went into a 50/50 partnership. The Kempner family put up the money,” he added.

The Kempners of Galveston were quite wealthy, and had recently been tested by storm: the Great Galveston Storm of 1900. In the aftermath, I. H. Kempner was instrumental in rebuilding the city and constructing the Seawall. And now, he brought that same kind of commitment to Sugar Land.

“My grandfather and Eldridge decided that if they were going to have decent people working for them they had to have decent conditions for them, which was a pretty progressive point of view in those days. So there was, in fact, constructed a town for people to live in. The farms were levied, which reduced the threat of flooding to the farms and to the community. Houses were built; decent homes for the people to work in, white and black. Shell streets were put down, which was almost height of the art in the time. They built schools. They built a hospital. It was a self-contained unit,” Kempner said.

It was, in short, a company town and company towns have a bad reputation. Historian Diane Ware has extensively researched Sugar Land and recorded many hours of oral histories. She says oddity about Sugar Land as a company town is that people were not trying to get out; they were trying to get in. “People who lived here LOVED the town. I can name several families, many families in Sugar Land, that their grandparents were here and then they worked or their children worked here,” she said. Ware says one of the most telling facts about Sugar Land is that children were never allowed in the factory to work. They provided schools for them and they were focused on the long term.

Sugar Land was one of the most progressive towns in Texas. And by all accounts, credit goes to I. H. Kempner Sr. “My grandfather had a great regard for people who worked for him, great respect for them,” Kempner said. I. H. Kempner died in 1967 at age 94. His town, and the business he built, were both going strong…although it was clear that, with Houston’s relentless growth, Sugar Land’s days as a small town were numbered. As for Imperial Sugar, well, that story tomorrow, as we conclude Ain’t No More Sugar In Sugar Land.

Aired Friday, February 27
Click here to listen to the story

Last year Imperial Sugar closed its refinery in Sugar Land Texas. You may wonder what happened, but a better question might be ‘How did it last so long?’, as you’ll hear in the conclusion of our documentary series Ain’t No More Sugar In Sugar Land. As of 1928, sugarcane was, indeed, no longer commercially grown along the lower Brazos. That left the Imperial Sugar refinery in Sugar Land stranded.

Imperial was a Kempner family business. “Well in retrospect, when the cane went out, the refinery should have been moved to deep water,” said Denny Kempner. In this case, ‘deep water’ means deepwater port. “Relatively speaking, Sugar Land is an expensive refinery because it’s inland, and the sugar had to be railed from Galveston,” Kempner said.

Former plant manager Al Bartolo says they had a very efficient unloading operation in Galveston. He says they could sometimes unload the ship in one day. “Efficient facilities helped offset Imperial’s location problem, but the real asset was a talented and loyal workforce, cultivated by I. H. Kempner in his company town,” Bartolo said.

Leon Anhaiser was born in Sugar Land and was at one time head of refinery operations at Imperial. “Sugar manufacturing and refining was more of an art. This was something people learned by experience,” he said. “So I. H’s choices were, very simply, to make sure that the people of Sugar Land had every need met, that they wanted to stay,” he added

They did stay, and Imperial prospered. Government policy helped during World War II, but more recently, has hurt, favoring sugar growers over refiners, and in the late 80’s Imperial was at a crossroads.

On a recent rainy afternoon, Denny Kempner explained the situation the company faced. “We were a single refinery, operating inland, in Sugar Land, Texas. We owned Texas pretty well, but with the deregulation of trucking and rail, that, and back to sugar policy in Washington, we were made very vulnerable. Denny KempnerWe were not an isolated patch the way we had been. So we got into debt, because the alternative was to die a slow death if we didn’t do something different,” he said.

They bought one of their competitors, Holly Sugar, a beet sugar refiner, which helped for a while. But in the 90’s, with a new company president, more acquisitions, more debt, until bankruptcy. But employees had already noticed a telling change.

Historian and Sugar Land resident Diane Ware says there was a decision made at the corporate level that there would be no more nepotism. Nepotism is the negative term for what Sugar Land had known as a muti-generational, family business. “Unfortunately, they didn’t take into account the actual history of Sugar Land, that nepotism had worked very well. It had unified a community and had resulted in great production and great worker loyalty,” Ware said.

Imperial Sugar is on the rebound now, though it’s no longer part of the Kempner family. The refinery is closed for good, but the company headquarters is still in town, though no one can say for how long. But the ‘sugar’ part of ‘Sugar Land’ is now history.

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