Nestled below the spectacular gorge of Parleys Canyon, Sugar House is one of Salt Lake City's most charming and historic neighborhoods. The Donner Party camped there in 1846, and many Utahns proudly claim ancestors who, as polygamists, spent a season or two in Sugar House Park when it housed the territorial penitentiary. This pleasant bedroom community was also home to one of Utah's earliest technological ventures, the Sugar House that launched the commercial district at today's intersection of 2100 South and 1100 East. Despite an enormous investment and an astonishing human effort, the Sugar House never produced so much as a spoonful of sugar.
The project began in 1850 as part of Territorial Governor Brigham Young's plan to make Deseret economically self-sufficient. Like similar attempts to manufacture silk and iron in southern Utah, the Mormon prophet's reach exceeded his grasp. In the 19th century, sugar was almost as precious as gold. Wars were fought over sugar, and the Caribbean cane plantations that produced most of the supply for Europe and America relied on an especially brutal form of slavery to create the white elixir. After France lost its West Indian Empire to slave revolts and the British Navy, its engineers developed a secret technology that turned sugar beets into granulated sucrose.
LDS apostle John Taylor, president of the LDS French mission, was assigned to buy the complicated machinery needed to build a sugar factory in the Great Basin. As one of the most brilliant and capable followers of Joseph Smith, the assignment could not have gone to a man more likely to make it succeed. "We need sugar," said Taylor, an Englishman by birth. "The sisters won't like to get along without their tea. I care nothing about it without sugar myself"
Taylor founded the Deseret Manufacturing Company and shipped 500 bushels of beet seeds to Utah in 1851. He hired an English firm to build the machinery, recruited sugar industry experts and by April 1852, he and Joseph Vernon, his chief engineer, had the equipment on the docks at New Orleans. They shipped it by riverboat to Fort Leavenworth, and fifty-two ox teams hauled the heavy boilers, vacuum pans, pumps and raspers across the plains. Much of the material wintered in the Wasatch Mountains before stopping briefly in Provo and Temple Square en route to its ultimate destination. Aggravated at the delay, Young dismissed Taylor and took over the plagued project. He assigned Salt Lake Temple architect Truman Angell to design the Sugar House on Parley's Creek.
The factory finally started processing beets in February 1855. Over the next month, it ground 22,000 bushels into a poor-quality syrup. The goo was sweet, but as historian Charles Schmaltz noted, it "could hardly be classed as edible." Drought doomed subsequent beet crops and the factory managers never mastered the secrets of transforming beets into sugar.
Ironically, except for Young's rough handling, Taylor could have converted a disgruntled French worker who knew the process and brought him to Utah. Both men were devoted to the Mormon cause, but they simply did not get along and their mutual hostility doomed the sugar factory. Young mocked the dapper and intellectual Taylor as "Prince John" and "Beau Brummel." He was never sure if the witty apostle was praising or needling him.
Mormons weren't alone in their problems making beet sugar: The first fourteen American attempts ended in failure. Ultimately, in 1887 Arthur Stayner won the $5,000 bounty for producing beet sugar in Utah, the year Taylor, the third president of the LDS Church, died.
Will Bagley's mother was a Granite Farmer, not a Jordan Beetdigger.