A look back at the history of the Ontario Sugar Company
Toronto, Boxing Day 1901.
Samuel J. Williams, president of the Berlin Board of Trade, has just telegraphed home.
"We got the beet!" was the essence of his wire and that was the cliffhanger at the end of Flash from the Past last week.
The Ontario Sugar Company has decided to build its new half-million-dollar sugar beet factory in Berlin. Local industrialists, investors, workers and farmers hope to reap some of that investment. Facing stiff competition from other Ontario locales including Guelph, Baden and Galt, Williams had convinced the OSC dragons' denizens to invest in Berlin.
The hard work was just beginning for Williams (now also an OSC director): the syndicate wanted to be refining sugar by fall 1902 — nine months away. Without the necessity of public consultations, environmental assessments and with few governmental regulations, Berlin felt it could meet that deadline.
Professor A.E. Shuttleworth of the Ontario Agricultural College, working alongside the Berlin group from the beginning, had already signed up enough area farmers to guarantee that 5,000 acres of sugar beets would be planted in spring 1902. But where would they be processed?
Williams had first eyed the Kolb property beside the Grand River near the Breslau bridge. However, keeping in mind that there was significant involvement from the Breithaupt family in the project, it isn't surprising that the 49-acre Fries farm overlooking the Grand between Berlin and Bridgeport was selected instead … adjacent was 20 acres of Breithaupt land also for sale. The 69-acre purchase was finalized in March 1902 — just six months to go.
Samuel J. Williams was a multi-tasker and he visited Cleveland's E.H. Dyer Company, the most experienced factory contractor in the United States. Dyer had recently built a 400-ton-capacity sugar beet plant in Benton Harbor, Michigan, but the processing company had failed. Dyer's suggestion? Dismantle that factory's steel framework, then move it and the machinery to Berlin. All Williams had to do was arrange for three million bricks to be made locally!
So, the Benton factory was taken apart, put on a freighter, unloaded at a Lake Erie port, brought to Berlin by rail and re-erected — one month to go. Williams also convinced the Grand Trunk Railway to run a spur to the factory site from Berlin's mainline.
All the pieces fell together as beets began arriving at Berlin's 600-ton-capacity factory. More than one-third of a mile long, the partly-transplanted, partly-new complex contained sugar storage hall, seed sheds, beet storage sheds, processing area, cooperage and main factory.
Wagon loads and train cars full of beets pulled right into the factory from farms around Waterloo County and Southern Ontario. The beets had been hand-harvested by hundreds of labourers who did the back-breaking work of pulling them from the ground, chopping off the leaves and roots then loading into wagons. Once at the plant, the processing was more mechanized and, somehow, by November 1902 the first refined sugar beet product was ready.
The future looked rosy for this exciting new industry but the rose faded quickly.
By 1907, OSC's original directors, including the local contingent headed by Williams, had all departed. Briefly, Berliners J.C. Breithaupt and C.K. Hagedorn ran OSC but things unravelled in 1908. W.H. Breithaupt became president of the short-lived, retitled Berlin Sugar Company. He tried to keep the business operating but courts declared OSC bankrupt. In January 1909 all assets were sold, all capital stock wiped out, all local investors left high and dry, all farmers unpaid. However, debenture charges from the 1901 bonus bylaw continued showing up in Berlin/Kitchener budgets into the 1940s.
A Wallaceburg refinery, Dominion Sugar, purchased the factory and kept some local sugar production going until 1923 when all the equipment was removed and the local sugar beet industry ended.
The subsequent history of the factory building has many facets ranging from corrupt to inspiring to money-making. In the new year, Flash from the Past will bring this remarkable story up to the present. In the meantime, drive out past Lancaster Street to the end of Union, enjoy the look of the modern reincarnation, Hacienda Sierra, and realize it is only one-fifth of the original factory size.
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December 4, 2017 at 05:04PM