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A look back on the inception of Ontario's sugarbeet industry!
By Rych Mills | Waterloo Region Record
Thirty-five years ago, the Go-Go's sang "We got the beat!"
Eight decades before that, go-getters in busy Berlin shouted "We got the beet!"
The 1982 hit was rhythmic; 1901's refrain was sweet money music.
Back on March 25, Flash from the Past drew attention to a derelict pump house along the Grand River which had supplied water to a huge sugar beet factory. This week and next, we'll examine a remarkable example of innovative Berlin business hustling, a physical part of which remains at the end of today's Union Street. That it failed within two decades was due mainly to global market forces — sound familiar?
At the end of the 19th century, each Canadian consumed 60 pounds of sugar a year. Ontario produced zero pounds of sugar. Six million dollars flowed out of the country to places such as Belgium, the U.S.A. and Germany; in return, processed sugar poured into Ontario.
Guelph's Ontario Agricultural College reported that locally-grown sugar beets yielded 11 to 17 per cent saccharine, similar to foreign beets. Each acre of local farmland could produce 15 to 20 tons of beets at a cost to the farmer of two dollars. Sold at four dollars per ton, farmers stood to rake in handsome cash. Investors, middlemen and processors could also harvest some of that $6 million. That's the sugar beet factory story's "why" … the "how" is more complicated.
In those years, Berlin's Board of Trade and its town council were virtually interchangeable: what was good for business was deemed good for Berlin. Board of Trade president Samuel J. Williams, Berlin mayor Dr. G.H. Bowlby, MPP Louis J. Breithaupt and Waterloo Township reeve and prominent farmer Tilman Shantz were the go-getters quarterbacking Berlin's sugar beet game plan.
Breithaupt used his political muscle in Toronto to get the Berlin area included in a 1901 OAC Beet Sugar Cultivation Test. A purity of 80 per cent was considered minimum: Berlin rated at 85, still behind other locales. However, in pounds-of-beets-per acre, this area topped all 12 test plots.
A factory site had to have good railway connections; plenty of limestone; three million gallons of water daily during refining season; easy drainage into a river for effluent (which would destroy the fish stock); and 200 men to work around the clock during refining season. Berlin wasn't perfect but those conditions could be met.
In September 1901, Toronto investors formed the Ontario Sugar Company and visited Berlin dangling a possible $500,000 factory. OSC said Berlin's deficiencies might be overlooked for some financial considerations — tens of thousands of dollars as a bonus, a free factory site and significant tax exemptions. Such stipulations didn't shock Berlin! For years that council/Board of Trade combination had been using those methods to attract businesses. Ironically, in 1886, that's exactly how S.J. Williams' own firm, WG & R Shirt & Collar, had been lured to Berlin from Toronto.
A bylaw was prepared to provide a $20,000 bonus, tax exemptions and $5,000 to purchase farmland near the Grand River. The go-getters went to work buttonholing voters, arranging excursions to Michigan's prosperous sugar beet factories, lining up local investors and persuading farmers to grow sugar beets. The 40-year debenture was approved by voters on Nov. 1. Convinced county farmers joined in by promising a rebate of 33 cents per ton of delivered beets.
It was looking good for Berlin until two dissenting OSC investors departed, leaving the concern $100,000 short. S.J. Williams stepped forward and, over the next few weeks, convinced Berlin and Waterloo business friends to open their wallets. Crucial meetings were held in Toronto on Dec. 25 and 26 between Williams and OSC directors. In many Waterloo County homes, a huge question mark hovered over Christmas celebrations: would OSC approve building its factory in Berlin?
Following Boxing Day meetings, S.J. Williams wired to Berlin: "The directors have decided unanimously in favour of locating in Berlin."
This go-getter was really saying: "We Got the Beet!"
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November 29, 2017 at 11:50AM