Houston History: Sugar Land
The story of Sugar Land is as old as Texas. One of the first settlers, Samuel M. Williams, was granted the land by Stephen F. Austin. Through much of its history, Sugar Land existed as a hub of sugar production, nowadays it's a pretty sweet place to live.
Williams called the land “Oakland Plantation” because of the wide variety of oaks; in the early days, land plots were measured from one oak to another. Sugar became a part of the landscape when a small freight captain named S.M. Swinson delivered a small batch of sugar cane to Williams after a trip to Cuba. The next time he came back, Swinson saw the area was covered in sugar cane. Williams' brother Nathaniel purchased the land in 1838, continuing to grow cotton, corn and sugar cane. But it wasn't all about crops; Sugar Land quickly established itself as the center of social life on the Brazos.
After Williams' death, the plantation fell into disarray. In 1853, the plantation was sold to Benjamin Terry and William Kyle, two famous Texans in their own right, who paid for the property with a fortune they’d amassed prospecting gold in California. Terry and Kyle kicked the plantation into high gear with some clever real estate maneuvering. The original plans were to run rail from Richmond to Stafford, where the timber met the prairie, missing Sugar Land. To have the railroad divert through Sugar Land, Kyle and Terry paid $25/acre for 2,500 acres, shelling out $7k in cash, with the rest being paid over time. The move was a success. The big bend in the railroad still exists.
By the time the Civil War broke out, the area was valued at $250k, a sizable sum at the time. In the years that followed the war, ownership, like most things in the South, was tumultuous. Colonel E.H. Cunningham acquired the land and began developing a town around the sugar mill, as it was one of the few plantations to survive. He sold to I.H. Kempner and W.T. Eldridge in 1907.
Eldridge and Kempner also acquired the adjacent 12,500-acre Ellis Plantation in 1908. The partnership between the two plantations was named the Imperial Sugar Co. Kempner associated the name "Imperial," which was also the name of a small raw-sugar mill on the Ellis Plantation, with the Imperial Hotel in New York City. As part of the Kempner-Eldridge agreement, Eldridge moved to the site to serve as general manager and build the company-owned town of Sugar Land.
Sugar Land’s new identity as a company town drove rapid growth. It was mostly self-contained, as the company provided housing, encouraged construction of schools, built hospitals and developed commercial properties to meet the workers' needs. Many of the original homes built by the Imperial Sugar Co remain today in The Hill and Mayfield Park areas of Sugar Land.
As the town expanded, so did talk of establishing an official municipal government, outside of the company. In 1959, Sugar Land did just that, electing T.E. Harman as its first mayor with five aldermen. Master planned communities like Sugar Mill, Sugar Creek and First Colony were built over the next few decades, drawing even more residents to the area.
Throughout the '80s, Sugar Land attracted major international corporations like Fluor Daniel and Schlumberger, and low-rise office buildings sprang up along US 59, resulting in a 40/60 residential to commercial tax base, an oddity in the suburbs. In 1997, Sugar Land annexed the remaining MUDs of First Colony, bringing the city's population to almost 60,000—the city's largest annexation to date.
In 2003, the Imperial Sugar Co refinery planet was put out of operation, but at this point, it had little effect on the local economy, since Sugar Land’s office market had shifted the primary employment base to white-collar work in oil and gas. Plus, the Imperial Sugar Co didn’t leave the area; its HQ remains in Sugar Land to this day. Telfair and Avalon were annexed, with the city taking increased interest in controlling the course of development, not just taking in built-out areas.
These days, Sugar Land has a population of around 90,000. The next step in the city's growth is the radical redevelopment of the iconic Imperial Sugar Mill into Imperial Market. (If you're interested in that project, Imperial Market Development principal James Murnane is speaking at Bisnow's Future of Sugar Land event Nov. 29.) The 855k SF, $200M project will contain 90k SF of Class-A office space and a 274-unit luxury multifamily complex developed by Sueba USA. The historic char house on-site will be converted to a 185-room luxury boutique hotel.
Once again, the Imperial Sugar Mill will become a source of vitality for the area. It's fitting that a city so firmly planted in the long and winding tale of Texas is dusting off and proudly displaying its history.