U&I Sugar Company dedicates Moses Lake plant on October 23, 1953.

  • By Elizabeth Gibson
  • Posted 9/25/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8281

On October 23, 1953, the U&I Sugar Company, based in Salt Lake City, dedicates a sugar refinery plant at Moses Lake. The refinery is the firm's largest and contains the most modern equipment. It is the first major industry in the Moses Lake area and will process sugar beets grown throughout the Columbia Basin, Walla Walla, Pasco, Ellensburg, and Umatilla (Oregon).  Approximately 12,500 acres of beets have been planted to support the new plant.  Company officials estimate that U&I will bring $25 million in annual business to Washington state.

Early Years

U&I Sugar Company originally formed in 1907 when four independent companies consolidated. The company suffered its ups and downs through the years and struggled through the 1920s and 1930s due to drought and the Great Depression.  Infestations of the beet leafhopper caused massive crop failure from the curly top blight. 

But by the 1940s, the industry had recovered.  World War II increased demand and provided an impetus for mechanization.  U&I returned to the Columbia Basin to investigate crop yields and in 1950, planted 150 acres in sugar beets.  The average yield was 29 tons per acre, an excellent result. 

Moses Lake's Sugar Refinery

In 1952, U&I began construction on the sugar refinery at Moses Lake, located on a 1,600-acre site on Wheeler Road. The plant was one of the firm's five large plants, which exceeded the capacities of dozens of earlier U&I plants.  Some equipment was shipped to Moses Lake from other plants at Chinook, Montana; Spanish Fork, Utah; and Blackfoot and Shelley, Idaho.  The new plant was the first to use the new Steffen house process.  This process extracts sugar from sugar beet pulp, a byproduct of the refining process. 

U&I awarded the $7 million construction contract to J. W. Hardison of Yakima.  A secondary contract was awarded to A. A. Durand and Son of Walla Walla to drill a well.  U&I built several homes in Moses Lake for key personnel.  The Northern Pacific railroad built a spur to the plant from its Wheeler siding. The Milwaukee Railroad also extended a spur line to the plant.  Paul Scalley was appointed the local manager of U&I.

From Sugar Beet to Sugar

The plant officially began operating on October 3, 1953, employing 300 workers.   The first sugar beets reached the cutters in the early morning.  By the end of the day the first sugar flowed into storage bins.  Orville Wilmot, vice president of the Moses Lake Chamber of Commerce and William W. Johnson, project development supervisor of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, had the honor of turning the switch that brought the first beets into the refinery.

The plant was dedicated on October 23.  The Moses Lake Chamber of Commerce and U&I co-sponsored the event.  Delegates came from Seattle, Spokane, Wenatchee, Yakima, and other nearby towns.  U&I officials Arthur Wood, Vice President and Assistant General Manager; D. W. Love, Vice President and General Sales Manager; and T. William Cockayne, Secretary and Treasurer; also attended.  Oregon governor Paul Patterson attended the ceremonies, since Oregon beets would help supply the plant.

Speeches, Music, and a Bag of Sugar

The celebration began at 1 p.m. with a luncheon for 400 at the large warehouse.  During the luncheon, Douglas E. Scalley, Vice President of U&I, introduced several speakers.  Washington Governor Arthur B. Langlie and David O. McKay, president of U&I, talked about the cooperative enterprise and the economic impact of the new plant.  Congressman Hal Holmes of Ellensburg and Robert H. Shields, president of the U.S. Beet Association, also said a few words. Shields spoke of the expected success of the plant due to low costs and high yields.  Officials from the Milwaukee Railroad and the Northern Pacific Railroad gave congratulatory remarks.  The Moses Lake High School band and L. G. Casey of Moses Lake provided music.

After the speeches, plant president Paul Scalley unveiled the first bag of sugar.  Then he invited the crowd to join various plant officials for tours of the factory.  All visitors received souvenir bags of sugar with an authentication card that verified the bag contained a sample of the first sugar grown and refined in the Columbia Basin.  Volunteers handed out souvenirs and refreshments at the tours, which continued throughout the weekend.

The dedication was well attended.  More than 13,000 people from Pasco, Bellingham, Spokane, and many other Pacific Northwest localities attended the tours.  Five thousand people toured on Sunday.  Late Sunday, visitors were still arriving to see the intricate equipment that turns beets into sugar in about eight hours.  The company ran out of sugar samples but promised to send one to anyone who left their name and address in a register.  More than 2,500 signed their names.  The crowd ate 16,500 doughnuts and cookies and 11,000 cups of coffee.

Making Sugar

Plant officials set up 10 stations throughout the plant to explain the process of extracting sugar from beets. They explained that the refining process began with washing the beets and removing leaves and weeds.  Then beets were sliced and mixed with water.  The pulp was removed, dried, and used as feed for cattle and other livestock.  The remaining liquid was heated and mixed with lime and carbon dioxide to remove impurities.  The lime mixture was further processed into a solid product that was shipped offsite to make into flavor enhancers such as Accent. 

The sugar juice was then sent through heavy canvas for filtering. After filtering, the juice was sent through an evaporator to remove liquid and concentrate the sugar.  It was filtered one more time through diatomaceous earth to remove impurities.  The liquid was allowed to settle into pans where the sugar crystallized.  The remaining syrup was separated from the crystals by centrifuges.  The crystals were then washed to remove traces of syrup.  The sugar was then dried, sifted, and binned until it was packaged. 

Plant officials explained that the factory would run until February or March of each year.  About 12,500 acres of beets would be processed here.  Approximately 6,900 acres were located in the Columbia Basin and the rest would come from Pasco, Ellensburg, Walla Walla, and Umatilla, Oregon.  Beets from the Columbia Basin and Walla Walla areas would be processed first, followed by those from Pasco.  During  the four- to five-month campaign, the plant would consume about 30,000 tons of coal, about 200 tons per day.  In the same period, the plant would also use about 21,000 tons of limestone.   

Prior to World War II, 70 percent of sugar was sold to households and 30 percent was sold for commercial uses.  By the time the Moses Lake plant was operating, the trend had reversed.  About 65 percent of refined sugar was purchased by bakers, candy makers, ice cream companies, and pop bottlers.  There was also a sugar distribution center and sales office in Seattle that helped the Moses Lake plant get its product to market.  By then, U&I was supplying 24 western states. 

A Successful Enterprise

The plant was a success from the beginning.  In the first year, 262,500 tons of beets were processed in 132 days for 75,000,000 pounds of sugar at 2,000 tons per day.  After the first year, U&I expanded the plant to handle 2,800 tons per day.  Further expansions led to a capacity of 6,250 tons per day.   Beet yield was good too, weighing in at 23 tons per acre in the Columbia Basin and Pasco areas, about 10 tons per acre above the national average. 

The trend continued over the next 25 years. For example, in 1965, 807 farmers delivered 828,000 tons of beets, producing 2.3 million hundredweight of sugar.  This was enough for the entire state of Washington for a whole year.  Production kept expanding as U&I put more acreage into production.  In 1971, U&I purchased 35,000 acres at Patterson, Washington, in southern Benton County.  More than 10,000 acres were producing beets by 1975.

End of an Era

By 1979, increasing competition from overseas growers, depressed sugar prices, and the production of cheap corn syrup forced U&I out of business.  About 450 workers from the Moses Lake plant and from another plant at Toppenish were laid off.  That would be the last year that the plant refined sugar. 

Sugar beet growers attempted to form a cooperative to buy the plants, but were unsuccessful.  By the time the plant closed, farmers had to convert about 42,000 acres to new crops.

Sources: "Excavation and Grading is Started," Columbia Basin Herald (Moses Lake), June 12, 1952, p. 1; “Big Dedication Program Set at Sugar Plant,” Ibid., October 6, 1953, p. 1; “Complete Program for Dedication Announced by U-I,” Ibid.,  October 23, 1953, p. 3; “Sugar Plant Finally in Operation,” Ibid.,  p.  3; “New Sugar Plant to Receive Pasco Beets Next Week,” Ibid.,  October 13, 1953, p. 8; “Speakers are Announced for U-I Plant Dedication,” Ibid.,  October 20, 1953, p. 1; “Here's What You'll See at Sugar Plant Open House,” Ibid.,  October 20, 1953, p. 3; “Ceremony Friday Afternoon to Start 3-Day Open House,” Ibid.,  October 23, 1953, p. 1; “13,000 Mob U&I Plant,” Ibid.,  October 27, 1953, p. 1; “U&I to Irrigate 3,000 More Acres,” Tri-City Herald (Kennewick), October 12, 1973, p. 1; “U&I to Lay Off 450 Sugar Plant Workers,” Tri-City Herald (Kennewick), February 25, 1979, p. 4; Arrington, Leonard J., Beet Sugar in the West: A History of the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, 1891-1966 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966).

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