Living History: A sugar high never lasts — just ask the Mormon church

By Pat Bagley

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: August 24, 2013 07:37PM
Updated: February 14, 2014 11:33PM
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Pat Bagley, Tribune editorial cartoonist

Mormons have a sweet tooth. You might even call it an addiction.

In fact, the history of sugar and the Latter-day Saints sounds a little like “Breaking Bad,” the hit TV show about the production and distribution of meth.

One of the staples Mormon pioneers packed on their trek west was sugar. Where every ounce counted, a prominent place was found for sugar.

The Nauvoo Neighbor published a “Bill of Particulars” detailing the items a family of five needed for the crossing. After flour (1,000 pounds), sugar held pride of place in pioneer wagons (100 pounds). Coffee and tea were also recommended (5 and 1 pounds each), as was alcohol (one gallon).

Once here, President Brigham Young envisioned a kingdom where people provided for themselves. The need for sugar from “Babylon” was an expensive reminder the Saints still had ties to those who wanted to destroy them.

Young’s solution was simple: They would cook their own. It was a complicated chemical process developed in France that involved beets, CO2, lime and a vacuum chamber.

The 50-foot obelisk that now graces the Sugar House neighborhood is a monument to a glorious failure. Young’s investment in technology and techniques that worked in Europe proved to be a disaster in Utah. French sugar beets took one taste of Salt Lake soil and screamed “Quelle horreur!” and refused to cooperate.

After spending a ton of money and only producing something that would “take the end of your tongue off,” Young finally gave up. The factory that gave Sugar House its name was turned to other purposes.

But Mormons weren’t done with sugar. In the late 1880s, a gifted horticulturist, Arthur Stayner, with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, collected a $5,000 incentive from the Utah Legislature for being the first person to coax enough sugar into Utah-grown beets to make granulated sugar possible.

Having developed a way to make “crystal” sugar, mass production needed two things: capital and a reliable supply of sugar precursor (beets). Stayner convinced church leaders of the virtue of the project, who in turn cajoled the faithful into investing in the venture and/or planting beets. Lehi leaders won the new factory site with lavish promises of free land and tax breaks.

The LDS Church, almost to its own surprise, found itself with a sugar factory that actually made sugar. Satellite plants were built in Provo, West Jordan and Spanish Fork, where beets were crushed and the juice transported in pipelines to the main Lehi facility.

As in China today, cheap labor in the 1890s made Utah attractive to American capital. To gain access to the national market, the church cut a deal with an Eastern sugar baron, who chose Utah over Colorado to expand his own empire because “the Mormons could control their people.”

Faithful Mormon farmers were willing to accept less than half for their beet harvest than farmers outside of the Intermountain West.

In the days before progressive reforms, child labor was common and safety regulations rare. A German sugar maker visiting the Lehi facility was horrified.

“If you were in Germany, you would be thrown in jail,” he cried. “You’ve got exposed machinery all over the place. You’ve got hazards every way you turn.”

The Utah and Idaho Sugar Co. thrived. World War I drove up the price of sugar and it became an expression of faith, reinforced over the pulpit, for Mormons to have a bag of U&I Sugar in the pantry.

Stake presidents discouraged faithful farmers from selling to competitors, even when offered much better prices. A church that had flirted with bankruptcy for most of its existence was suddenly flush.

If it weren’t for the self-dealing, conflicts of interest, monopolistic practices, kickbacks, stock-watering, speculation, price-gouging and abuse of labor, the federal government might have never taken an interest.

LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith had endured the indignity of the Smoot hearings only to find himself once again in his least favorite place on Earth — in Washington, D.C., answering for the faith before a government investigative committee.

Just when business-friendly Republican administrations in the 1920s took some of the heat off U&I Sugar and the church, the business found itself in trouble. Prices for sugar had plummeted, and U&I was millions of dollars in debt, and, ironically, the sugar industry would come to depend on government policies to continue.

Until the LDS Church sold its sugar operation in the 1980s, the faith found the sugar business anything but sweet. It endured financial ups and downs, blight, labor trouble and the rise of foreign sugar cane and domestic corn syrup.

For a more complete history of the church’s early troubles with the government over sugar, read “Religion, Politics, and Sugar: The Mormon Church, the Federal Government, and the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, 1907–1921,” by Matthew C. Godfrey.

Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune. Reach him at bagley@sltrib.com.