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Sweeter Times Barely a Memory in Texas Town

A sugar plant, once 'the core of this community,' shuts down after 160 years. The Houston suburb now relies more on the energy industry.

June 03, 2003|Scott Gold and Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writers

SUGAR LAND, Texas — When Shakespeare wrote that parting is such sweet sorrow, he didn't have Sugar Land in mind.

And then, on Monday, the Imperial Sugar Co. -- once so dominant in this town that the entire place smelled like dessert -- shut down its packaging and distribution operations after 160 years.

"It was the core of this community," said Leon Anhaiser, Imperial's former vice president of operations, who left the company in 1994. "It was a company town, a family of 2,000 people who grew up together and pulled for each other.... It's tough to see it go."

Monday's closing was the final step in a long phaseout of services, said city spokeswoman Barbara Brescian.

The company, one of the longest continuously operating businesses in the Houston area, had long ago shifted its production line to neighboring Louisiana as part of a consolidation program. In December, the company closed its historic 10-story refinery, leaving a skeleton staff to tie up the loose ends. Imperial's corporate headquarters will be all that remains.

About 400 people lost their jobs.

For decades, the faded brick landmark known as the Pink Lady was an enormous source of pride -- and a generator of as much as 3 million pounds of sugar each day.

Wayne Boehm spent 46 years at the refinery, mostly as a welder and pipe fitter. As it was for many families here, working at Imperial was a Boehm family tradition: His grandfather, four uncles, an aunt and a passel of cousins spent their days among the vats of boiling syrup and filtering machines. During the plant's final days, Boehm manned the front gate.

"You can be as nostalgic as you want to be, but it don't pay the light bill," said Boehm, 65. "They say it's not economic to keep the plant open. I worked here, and they gave me a check. I figure we're even."

Sugar Land, home to about 65,000 people, is now considered a suburb of Houston, Texas' largest city. Most of Sugar Land's biggest employers -- such as Schlumberger Cos., the energy exploration technology firm, and Unocal Corp., the oil and gas exploration and production firm -- now are affiliated with Houston's energy industry. The sugar cane fields have long been replaced with tract homes.

"Used to be, everyone who lived here worked here," Boehm said. "Now most people don't have a connection to [the refinery]. It means about as much to most people now as it does to the people who shut this place down. Nothing."

Sugar Land had its roots in a bit of 1800s serendipity, when the captain of a small freighter picked up a handful of sugar canes in Cuba and brought them to an associate in Texas. The crop, it turned out, took well to the swampy climes of South Texas, and a mill was soon built to process the stalks.

Two friends who struck gold in California in the 1840s moved to Texas in 1853, bought the plantation, named it "Sugar Land" and put the town's mule-operated mill into overdrive.

The company, which once owned and leased every housing lot in the city, became known as Imperial shortly after the turn of the century, according to city officials, and is now publicly traded.

A citizens committee has been formed and has begun gathering Imperial documents and artifacts -- original tools, for example, and plantation maps. The committee will determine the best way to preserve the relics, Brescian said.

"They had downsized quite a bit over the years. They are not considered a major employer," she said.

"But clearly they are our history and our foundation."

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