Town grew up around sugar mill
The history of Sugar Land is bound up with the history of the Imperial Sugar Company. What had once been a plantation and mill that relied on forced labor became a model company town. Imperial Sugar was the leading employer in Sugar Land for nearly a century, and the vision of its founders—Isaac Kempner and W.T. Eldridge—would shape the community's growth for years.
"Kempner and Eldridge were visionary in creating an education system, good paved roads, good housing and access to clean water," said Dennis Parmer, executive director of the Sugar Land Heritage Foundation. "They saw the need for infrastructure, and they created a town where people would want to live."
The earliest settlers of Stephen F. Austin's colony found that sugar cane flourished in the area of the Brazos and Colorado rivers and local creeks. Austin granted land along Oyster Creek to an assistant, Samuel M. Williams, that would later become the site of the distinctive Imperial refinery. Williams and his brothers established the Oakland plantation in 1828 and began producing brown sugar.
By 1855 there were 40 raw sugar mills in the area of Fort Bend, Matagorda, Brazoria and Wharton counties and exports of sugar were sent to the eastern and southern U.S. through Galveston. In 1853, the Williams brothers sold their plantation to W.J. Kyle and B.F. Terry, who renamed it "Sugar Land."
Sugar cane was labor-intensive and early plantations relied heavily on slave labor. With the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, many plantations lay dormant. Kyle and Terry's plantation survived in part by providing better living conditions for former slaves and by taking advantage of convict labor—a practice which thrived for about 40 years before its abolition in 1914.
In 1882 E.H. Cunningham began acquiring Sugar Land from Kyle and Terry's heirs and increased the use of convict labor. According to R.M. Armstrong, the area was described at the time as "the hell-hole of the Brazos," in which "convicts labored barelegged in wet sugar cane fields, dying like flies in the periodic epidemics of fevers."
Cunningham began refining sugar cane into the familiar free-flowing white sugar at what would become the Imperial Sugar Company mill. However, financial trouble would lead to the sale of the company to Kempner and Eldridge in 1905.
The two men radically transformed the enterprise from a system that exploited forced labor to one that provided quality working and living conditions to stable families. They renovated the factory so that it would function year-round, using locally-grown sugar when it was harvested and foreign-grown sugar during the remainder of the year. They helped develop and diversify the local economy and built levees to protect the land from the flooding of the Brazos River.
The company town of Sugar Land soon became a model enterprise. By the mid-1920s, 1,500 residents lived in comfortable company homes. Imperial prospered in the post-World War II era, becoming the dominant sugar producer in the south central U.S. for decades. The refinery closed in 2003, and the company was sold to foreign ownership in 2012.
Source: "Sugar Land, Texas and The Imperial Sugar Company" by R. M. Armstrong