Imperial Sugar Factory

Imperial Sugar Company is the oldest extant business in Texas. Started in 1843 in Sugar Land, a place named for the product the company processes, the company's changing ownership marked its early history. In the 1840s, Nathaniel F. Williams developed the property and produced cotton, corn, and sugarcane, before Benjamin F. Terry and William J. Kyle acquired the land in 1852. After the Civil War, the land changed hands yet again and was purchased by E.H. Cunningham, who built the sugar refinery around 1897. Cunningham owned a multitude of properties throughout Texas, including the sugar plant, that relied on prison leasing, the renting of prison inmates for labor.

In 1908, another ownership change was completed after W.T. Eldridge and I.H. Kempner established a partnership, acquired the company and property, and changed its name to Imperial. Imperial soon sold its 5,200-acre Imperial Farm to the state for $160,000 plus interest to be used for prison agriculture. After the passage of the 13th Amendment, the only legal method of coerced labor was from inmates of jails and penitentiaries, a system which preserved many aspects of slavery. The Central Unit, as it became known, was one of these prison plantations. Convicts worked this plantation for the private company until 1914 when the state of Texas purchased the plantation part of the property to be worked as a prison farm.

In addition to sugar, the company engaged in meatpacking, canning, and the processing of a variety of agricultural goods as well as vinegar and pickles. Due to the drastic economic impact of the Great Depression, Imperial was the only sugar producer left in Texas in 1932. The company continued to dominate the Texas and Oklahoma markets throughout World War II due to exclusive contracts during sugar rationing. As Houston expanded in the late 1950s with the housing boom, the town of Sugar Land incorporated in 1959. The Kempner family sold most of its local holdings as the city of Sugar Land itself expanded in the 1970s, and kept only the Imperial Sugar Company, a partial interest in the Sugar Land State Bank, and the Sugar Land Telephone Company.

Until 1988, the Sugar Land plant was the only operating sugar mill in the company. That year, Imperial Sugar purchased the Holly Sugar Corporation in Colorado Springs. Since then, Imperial Sugar has made numerous other acquisitions. The Sugar Land facility closed in 2003, and in 2010, the two former factory buildings were demolished as plans to redevelop the property into residences, businesses, and parkland started. Imperial continues to operate mills in other states including Louisiana and Georgia. In 2012, Louis Dreyfus Commodities LLC took on a controlling share of Imperial Sugar stock in an effort to expand into the sugar refining and distribution business.