Union Gaps Sugar Factory
By Robert E. Pace
| This 1939 photo shows the old location of the U&I Sugar plant in Union Gap. Washington State Highway Department now occupies the site. The road through the center of the photo is Main Street.
The growing of sugar beets in the Yakima valley was discussed among farmers and promoters as early as 1894. The farmers, always mindful of a single crop failure, were looking for ways to diversify their crops and insure an income for the year. Sugar beets were an option that seemed viable and the test plantings were very encouraging as tests concluded that Yakima beets were showing a purity of 90.2%, rating the highest in the state. With all the interest throughout the years, mass planting of sugar beets was not to be. The growers lacked a processing plant.
On September 30, 1897 the Yakima Herald reported that there was a gentleman in town who "has a matter in hand that means more to the people of this city than any other proposition that has ever been placed before us." This man was F. E. Deeringhoff, a representative of the Northern Pacific Railway Company, and he was here to check the results of a test planting of beets by different farmers. If the results proved satisfactory, he would look into the question of locating a factory south of North Yakima. The test plantings were better than expected, but no factory was built.
In 1899, another attempt was made to build a factory in the valley, but again, went nowhere. It was stipulated that at least 5,000 acres of beets would have to be planted yearly to warrant a processing plant. This goal could not be achieved locally, however, a plant was built at Waverly, Washington, near Spokane, at a cost of $350,000. Those who wished to grow sugar beets could ship, by rail, to that facility. However, this did not prove profitable and the beet industry for the Yakima valley again proved not to be viable.
Twenty-five years would go by before the growing of sugar beets in the Yakima valley was again taken into serious consideration. The Utah-Idaho (U & I) Sugar Company, a Mormon owned company out of Salt Lake City, was willing to invest the capital needed to contract farmers to grow beets as well as purchase their own land to assure a sufficient supply of beets to keep their factories operating. They would build three factories to process the beets, one in Union Gap, one in Sunnyside and one in Toppenish.
The first factory built in the Yakima Valley was at Union Gap. Work was commenced in the spring of 1917 and the plant was finished and ready for operation by the fall of the following year. The beet slicing capacity of the mill was 650 tons of beets every twenty-four hours, and during construction and operation it would to employ between two and three hundred men and women. The investment of construction, and the 100 acres of land surrounding the plant, reached over one million dollars.
Construction of the Sunnyside and Toppenish plants began in the spring of 1918 and was completed for the harvest season of 1919. With land and the construction of three factories, the U&I Sugar Company had invested approximately $5,000,000, an investment that would never realize a profit for the company. Low beet prices over the years, high labor costs, and lack of enough acreage to supply the factories were the main reasons.
The Sunnyside sugar factory ran only one brief test run in the 1919 season. The Union Gap factory was a little more fortunate and operated two seasons, 1918 and 1919. In 1920 these plants were closed and the buildings torn down. The salvageable building materials and the processing equipment were moved to other locations throughout the United States and Canada where new plants were being erected.
The Toppenish factory was in operation when production demanded it. The runs, however, were short in duration and by 1924 were running less than two weeks a season. This would continue until March 1979 when U&I Sugar announced it was closing all sugar beet production in the state of Washington. Low beet prices were given as the primary reason.
Estimates of the loss of the sugar industry to Washington were placed as high as $100,000,000 annually when the circulation of dollars picked up from the business was considered. In Toppenish other segments of agriculture keep the town alive, but the closing of the plant cost 1,000 people seasonal their jobs.
In Union Gap, when the plant was cleared, the state of Washington purchased most of the property and made it the Washington State Highway District Headquarters, thus ending a time in history when the city of Union Gap was to be the sugar processing capitol of Washington State.