The Lehi Beet Sugar Factory

Leonard J. Arrington
Beehive History 10

Lehi Sugar Mill

The Lehi factory of the Utah Sugar Company was the first beet sugar factory in the Mountain West, the first to use beets grown by irrigation, the first to have a systematic program for producing its own beet seed, the first to use American-made machinery, the first to use the “osmose process” of reprocessing molasses, and the first to build auxiliary cutting stations. This factory also served as a training base for many of the technical leaders of the sugar beet industry of the United States.

Arthur Stayner, a Mormon horticulturist from England, received a $5,000 bounty from the territorial legislature in 1887 for the first 7,000 pounds of marketable sugar produced in Utah. This brown sugar was made from grain sorghum at a small plant built at Spanish Fork in 1886. Continuing in his efforts to found an industry, Stayner visited the experimental sorghum cane plant of the federal government at Fort Scott, Kansas, and the pilot beet sugar plant of E. H. Dyer at Alvarado, California, the first successful sugar beet plant in the nation.

Stayner’s efforts finally won the support of church and business leaders to form a company to finance further investigations. On September 4, 1889, the Utah Sugar Company filed incorporation papers in Salt Lake City. After test plantings of sugar beets in different areas of Utah produced beets that seemed to have a high enough sugar content, the company moved ahead with plans to build a factory.

The town of Lehi offered the company a 40 acre building site, perpetual water rights to a millpond sufficient to run the factory, and other incentives to attract the new business to Lehi rather than one of the other locations under consideration.

Designed by the E. H. Dyer Company of California, the main factory building was 172 feet by 86 feet and three stories high. A large annex contained filters, a lime kiln, and a steam plant. Behind the main buildings were six beet sheds with a storage capacity of 14,000 tons, four pulp silos, coal bins, and a millpond fed by natural springs with a capacity of 4 million gallons in 24 hours. The facilities also included a boardinghouse to accommodate 50 people.

Faced with serious financial problems, factory officials, stockholders, creditors, growers, and others anxiously awaited the opening of the plant. Would it actually produce sugar–In an earlier attempt by the Mormons to make sugar the only product had been a syrup so sharp that “it would take the end of your tongue off.” The big moment came on October 15,1891.

The first strike of sugar was watched with great interest and considerable concern. Such a crowd of citizens were present in the pan room while the boiling was going on that it was difficult to get around….Fred Trane was the “doubting Thomas” who repeatedly stated that he wouldn’t be convinced that white sugar could be made from the black syrup until he saw the sugar right in his hand.

It was after midnight when the strike was dropped, but they all waited for that important event. Then everyone rushed to the centrifugal and when the first machine had spun off the molasses, Mr. Dyer could hardly get room enough to perform the washing. However, he soon passed out the clear white sugar, giving each one of his audience some of it “right in his hand.” Immediately “hurrahs” and “hosannas” filled the air—even Fred Trane cried out, “I’m now convinced that sugar can be made from beets!”

General manager Thomas R. Cutler telephoned the Salt Lake Herald: “We have just made the first pound of sugar. By morning we will have 20 tons ready.” That morning 20,000 pounds of sugar were sacked and sent by Union Pacific Railroad to Salt Lake City. The sugar was transferred to large, low wagons called drays. Led by a yoke of oxen to dramatize the pioneering nature of the enterprise, the procession made its way to leading Salt Lake City retailers under the sign “First Carload of Granulated Sugar Made by the Utah Sugar Company.” At the stores “there was almost a riot of people taking the sugar.” Soon the city’s confectioners were displaying signs that read “First Candy Made from Utah Sugar.”

During its first production season of 58 days, the Lehi factory processed some 10,000 tons of beets to produce 12,500 100-bags of sugar. All of the sugar was sold in Utah. Depsite high demand for the product, revenue was hardly enough to pay operating costs. Not until 1897 did the company show a profit. The company’s persistence in working out technical and practical solutions to the many problems involved in growing beets and manufacturing sugar illustrates the innovative contributions of this enterprise.

The only available sugar beet seed in commercial quantities came from France and Germany. These countries tended to keep the best seed for their own use. As a result, much of the seed planted at Lehi during the early years was of inferior quality and fell far below the requisite percentage of sugar content and purity. Company officials spent several weeks in Europe visiting beet seed farms and factories and were able to contract for better seed. However, the uncertain supply, price, and quality led the company to consider growing its own seed.

In 1895 Henry Vallez selected the best beet fields in the Lehi area and saw that they were given good care. Thirty tons of the best beets were selected for size, shape, and sugar content. The following spring these “mother beets” were planted by hand in the first attempt to grow beet seed in a semiarid, irrigated region. Although the plants bloomed in profusion, the seed on the outside branches ripened first and had to be cut by hand. When the seed was threshed there was a crop of nine to ten tons of seed showing high germination. When Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson visited the Lehi sugar works in 1897 he “expressed astonishment” at the magnitude of Utah Sugar’s seed planting activity, which he said was “the only one of the kind in America.”

In 1899 the company produced more than 70,000 pounds of beet seed and sold some to other companies. When other companies took up seed growing on a large scale in 1901, Utah Sugar’s seed production became less important. Experiments continued, however, to produce a monogerm beet seed to replace the multigerm seed that caused several plants to come up in one spot. Not until two Russian-born scientists, V. F. and Helen Savitsky, came to Utah in the late 1940s was research completed that produced genetically bred monogerm seeds.

Sugar beets are a relatively temperamental crop. They require special care and intensive cultivation. The ground must be well prepared. Good stands depend upon proper planting, irrigation, and cultivation. Until the mechanization of recent years, the heavy labor required at thinning, weeding, and harvest times discouraged all but the hardiest farmers.

When George Austin planted the first sugar beet seed on the farm of George Comer in Lehi in 1891, virtually nothing was known about the culture of sugar beets in this area. Based on experiments conducted elsewhere, farmers were instructed not to irrigate the beets more than once or twice a year and not to fertilize.

During the first season the company contracted with 556 farmers to grow 1,800 acres of beets. Under company direction growers used hand planters, hand-push hoes as cultivators, and pull hoes to make ditches. Since the rate of germination of beet seed was not high, seed was planted in almost a continuous stream to insure a good stand. With multigerm seed many plants often sprouted from a particular cluster. But beets would not mature if they did not have sufficient room, and so the plants had to be blocked and thinned. When the plants were two or three inches high–about the time school let out in May–brigades of boys from Lehi and other villages would congregate at the meetinghouse at 6 a.m. and ride horses or wagons out to the fields. T. F. Kirkham and Al Yates recalled their experience thinning beets in their early teens.

We aimed to be in the fields to begin work at seven in the morning, took an hour out for noon, and quit at six in the evening. For that day of ten hours we received 50 cents–5 cents per hour–and were very glad for the job. The beet gang consisted of a group of men and boys. Older boys with long-handled 4-inch hoes would block the beets, that is, chop the compact row of plants into bunches. The younger boys crawled behind on their hands and knees, with a short-handled hoe, thinning each block to a single good plant. To save wear and tear most of the boys wore knee pads–sack-like cushions tied with strings above and below the knee. Every thinner had for his highest ambition the time when he would have a crawler following him on hands and knees. Twenty rows of 40 rods long was a good day’s work and parents had no trouble getting boys to bed by suppertime. One person could thin from a fourth to a half of an acre per day.

Boys were also used for hoeing out ditches down each row for irrigation and hoeing weeds in midsummer. Many hoeings were regarded as indispensable, and it was not uncommon to hear a farmer urge on the boys by repeating the German admonition, “The sugar must be hoed into the beets.”

The beet harvest approached in late September and early October. The original technique of digging was to use a horse-driven sub-soil plow with mold board and share removed. It would dig into the ground and loosen the beets without bruising them. Older boys, let out of school for a two-week “beet vacation,” followed the plow with large butcher knives or machetes. Reaching down and grabbing the leaves with one hand, they whacked off the crown of the beet with one blow. The tops would be dropped to the ground to be plowed under or eaten by sheep, and the beet would be tossed into a pile. Others would throw the beets into horse-drawn wagon boxes that were hauled by team to the factory and unloaded by hand. After the first few years local blacksmiths fashioned beet forks for unloading.

The average yield for the 1891 seasons was only 5.3 tons per acre for a cash value of approximately $24.00 per acre. It was a great disappointment to both farmers and the factory men. Much of the problem lay in the company’s insistence on only one or two waterings and its refusal to accept beets that weighed more than three and a half pounds. New contracts issued to farmers omitted some of the ill-advised instructions of the first two years. However, the company would not accept beets under 12 percent sugar and 80 percent purity. With better seed, greater knowledge of beet growing, more care in thinning, more frequent waterings, and better implements for planting, cultivating, and harvesting, the 1893 crop totaled 26,800 tons–an average of 9.7 tons per acre.

Farmer enthusiasm over beet growing led to the construction of satellite factories called cutting stations–the only such system in American experience. Built at a cost of about $150,000 each, these slicing plants cut the beets, produced the juice, and pumped it through a pipeline to the parent factory. The first cutting station was erected at Springville in 1899 and was connected to the Lehi factory by means of a five inch pipeline–the first such facility in the United States. Additional slicing plants and connecting pipelines were built in 1900 at Bingham Junction (West Jordan) and in 1901 at Provo. A fourth plant at Spanish Fork was connected with Lehi by a 22-mile pipe, the longest beet pipeline in the world. The four auxiliary slicers, each with a capacity of 350 tons of beets per day, expanded the territory of the Lehi plant. Beets from as far north as the Bear River Valley and from as far south as the Sevier River Basin were ultimately transformed into sugar at Lehi.

During the early years at Lehi the factory recommended that farmers plant their crops on land that had been planted to sugar beets the preceding year. They reasoned that this land was already “worked up”—leveled, harrowed, and prepared for the intensive cultivation sugar beets require. Thus, the importance of crop rotation in maintaining soil fertility was overlooked. In addition, a parasite—the beet nematode—began to infest fields where beets were grown year after year. Yields declined and eventually whole fields were not worth digging. Years passed before factory officials became aware of these problems and began advocating crop rotation.

Beets stored in sheds at Lehi were conveyed into the factory for processing by means of a wooden flume. Thrown by hand into the flume the beets were carried on a current of warm water to the washer. Later, in 1900, a V-shaped wooden floor was put in the sheds and sloped so that the beets would naturally roll toward the flume. This saved the labor of five men.) The beets were raised from the flume to the washer by a large 16-foot “beet wheel,” designed by chief engineer Merrill Ingalls especially for the Lehi factory and later standard equipment in all factories. From the washer the beets were conveyed by a bucket elevator to a cutter where special triangular knives cut the beets into long slender slices (“cossettes”) that looked something like shoestring potatoes.

A revolving chute dropped the cossettes into 12 wrought-iron diffusers with a capacity of two and one-half tons each. These cooked the “noodles” to extract the sugar. The dark colored sweet juice was sent to carbonators and the pulp dumped from the diffuser so another batch of beets could be cooked. In the carbonators, milk of lime and carbon dioxide gas were added to the juice. They combined with impurities which were then filtered out through canvas cloth. The lime cake was then washed out of the factory as a useless waste. The thin juice was now ready for the evaporator where excess water was removed to thicken the juice.

Relying upon European information, E. H. Dyer had installed 20 large bone black filters in the Lehi plant. After two years the company learned that these expensive filters were not necessary to make good white sugar if the juice was in good condition. The filters were removed and not used again in American factories. This production of superior white sugar directly from the juice was “a triumph of American industrial chemistry over the long experience of Europe.”

After being treated with sulphur gas to clarify the juice and improve the crystallization, the “thick liquor” was pumped to the 35-ton capacity vacuum pan. After each strike the centrifugals spun out the molasses, and the wet sugar went through a drier and out where it was sacked in a white cotton bag placed inside a burlap bag. The molasses was later made into brown sugar. Approximately 36 hours elapsed between the time the beets left the shed and the moment that glistening sugar was ready to sweeten Lehi’s economy.

Lehi mechanics made important changes in the centrifugals or spinners. Although these machines ran at 1,200 revolutions per minute, they were unloaded by hand with a wooden paddle—a hot, sticky, dangerous job. Eugene Roberts, a young Lehi mechanic, developed mechanical unloaders and other improvements and eventually spent his life installing new machinery in sugar factories in many parts of the world.

Work at the factory went on night and day during each production campaign. Two 12-hour shifts operated in the 1890s. Many of the workers were farmers who had raised beets during the summer. Factory work was exacting, but there was something fascinating if not miraculous about the making of sugar. Those who worked in the plant were regarded with a certain awe. “The whole process of beet sugar making,” wrote Walter Webb, “was considered a mystery. The boiling of the syrup was the greatest mystery of all. The sugar boiler was almost a superman.”

Beginning with the 1897 season, the Lehi plant was doing well enough to be regarded as a technical and financial success. A large cattle feeding program made use of the pulp byproduct, and improved agricultural and industrial practices improved efficiency. Faced with many difficult problems, Lehi technicians had acquired a special capacity to find imaginative solutions.

In the 20 years after Lehi’s success, 116 sugar factories were built in the United States, including 17 in Utah and 10 in Idaho. Factories from New York to Oregon employed Lehi “alumni” to pass on the benefit of their experiences. While its “graduates” were distinguishing themselves, the Lehi factory was gradually becoming the little old red school house of the industry. Larger and more modern factories were erected. The Utah-Idaho Sugar Company built a new plant at West Jordan in 1916. After the 1924 season the Lehi facility ceased production, and its final dismantling took place in 1939. Nevertheless, as late as the 1960s in Toppenish, Washington, some of the Lehi machinery continued to produce the sparkling white crystals.