Sugar Land: from slave labor to 21st Century city

Having spent a few years in two different life segments in Fort Bend County, it’s particularly interesting to me to watch developments there. It has gone from a rural, agrarian lifestyle to a much urbanized suburb of Houston. That includes the city of Sugar Land moving from a company town, begun with sugar plantations’ slave labor in the 1840s, to a sophisticated, upscale 21st Century city.

Sugar Land, of course, derived its name as the headquarters of Imperial Sugar Co. begun in the early 1840s. A collective of sugar cane farmers using some slave labor (Imperial was the original pure cane sugar company) formed a cooperative mill to process the cane and produce sugar. That quickly became Imperial Sugar Co. This year a Dutch agribusiness conglomerate bought Imperial, completing the cycle to 21st Century climes and methods.

For much of the 20th Century, Sugar Land was a company town. In the first half of that century, the sugar company owned all of the land and housing in the town. The company never used the iron-fisted control over the town as 19th Century and early 20th Century companies did over “their towns.” Many often referred to Sugar Land as a “benevolent dictatorship.”

Two companies existed: Imperial Sugar and Sugarland Industries (SI).

In those days as a company town, Imperial concentrated on making and selling sugar. Sugarland Industries, a wholly owned Imperial subsidiary, initially owned and operated a company general store but branched out as growth began slowly. More specialized retail stores were opened in a new Imperial-built shopping center and the company even went into gas station businesses as well as a car dealership.

Company script (paper money issued by Imperial and its SI sister) was widely used well into the second half of the 1900s. Imperial leaders recognized that Houston was ultimately coming that way and began to slowly divest itself of the “company housing,” selling to the employees. Independent builders also began constructing housing on the city’s south side. That was followed by SI selling land on the southeast side of the city to an independent developer who dug a series of connected canals and created “Venetian Estates,” which was quickly filled by the initial rush of urban flight from Houston.

A few independent manufacturing concerns opened facilities in Sugar Land and it began to take on the look of any growing suburban community.

Growth brought changes in the educational system as well, for all of eastern Fort Bend County. The Sugar Land Independent School District consolidated with the old Stafford-Missouri City district to form the Fort Bend ISD. Agreement was reached to have a seven-person school board with three positions being filled from the “old Stafford-Missouri City district” and three from the “old Sugar Land district.” The seventh post, an at-large berth, was conceded by a verbal agreement to Sugar Land because it possessed a majority of the property valuation in the newly formed district.

Nothing existed in writing about that representation split because it was and is illegal, so it was a ‘gentlemen’s agreement.’

Over time, particularly with the burgeoning growth instigated by Houston spillover, all vestiges of any initial agreements disappeared. Today’s East Fort Bend County resident will know little if any about such an arrangement.

Some solid argument can be proffered as to the legality of those early agreements but that smooth, controlled approach led to well-managed growth for school facilities, a couple of mavericks notwithstanding, as well as for East Fort Bend’s cities.

While it may have been necessary for a couple of decades in the latter half of the 1900s, no vestige of a company town operation can be found today. And, for a time, Fort Bend County was the fastest growing county in the U.S.

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2012-06-21 digital edition

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