The Imperial Sugar Company, which refines raw cane sugar at its huge plant at Sugar Land, is the oldest extant business in Texas. It has operated continuously on the same site, making the same products-refined cane sugar and a byproduct, blackstrap molasses-since 1843, before Fort Bend County was established. In the 1840s Nathaniel F. Williams developed Oakland Plantation and grew cotton, corn, and sugarcane. He sold the land to Benjamin F. Terry and William J. Kyle about 1852. Sometime after the Civil War most of the land was acquired by E. H. Cunningham, who built a large sugar refinery on the property around 1879. In 1906 the Kempner family of Galveston, under the leadership of Isaac H. Kempner and in partnership with William T. Eldridge, purchased the 5,300-acre Ellis Plantation, one of the few Fort Bend County plantations to survive the Civil War. The Ellis Plantation had originally been part of the Jesse Cartwright league and in the years after the Civil War had been operated by a system of tenant farming under the management of Will Ellis. In 1908 the partnership acquired the adjoining 12,500-acre Cunningham Plantation with its raw sugar mill and cane-sugar refinery. The partnership changed the name to Imperial Sugar Company; 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. Dan Kempner, one of Isaac's younger brothers, served as the new company's first president until 1914, when he was replaced by Isaac. 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. He was given the Sugar Land Railway.
Sugar Land, where all of the land and businesses were owned by the Kempner-Eldridge partnership, soon attracted a stable population largely made up of Germans and Czechs from the Schulenberg-Flatonia area of Texas. The firm built homes and provided medical treatment for its employees, organized the Imperial State Bank in 1907, and established the Imperial Mercantile Company, a company store, a paper mill, various retail stores, a cotton gin, and a feed mill. The Sugar Land Manufacturing Company operated an acid plant, produced Imperial vinegar and pickles, and was involved in meatpacking, canning, and the processing of a variety of agricultural crops. In 1911 the firm built a plant for the Sealy Mattress Company as part of an effort to attract other manufactures and later completed a plant for the periodical Texas Farm and Industrial News, which became the Texas Commercial News. Convict labor worked the Ellis Plantation until 1914, when the company sold the property to the state of Texas as a prison farm, and for a time thereafter convicts continued to produce sugar (see PRISON SYSTEM). In 1917 the company merged the Imperial Sugar Company and Cunningham Sugar Company to form a new Imperial Sugar Company. Sugarland Industries was organized in 1919 as a trust estate to own and operate the conglomerate of Sugar Land businesses as departments or subsidiaries, and Imperial Sugar Company became a department in the new institution. Kempner and Eldridge remained the sole owners. Gus D. Ulrich served as general manager. Subsidiaries in time included Sugarland Motor Company, Sugar Land Truck Lines, and Texas National Warehouse Company. Affiliated firms included Belknap Realty, Alcorn and Foster Farms, Fort Bend Cattle Company, and Sugar Land Telephone. In 1924 the company was reorganized as a $5 million corporation, and in the late 1920s and early 1930s it successfully fought efforts of the Sugar Trust to control production as well as competition from the Texas Sugar Refining Company at Texas City.
Supplies of raw sugar were first imported in 1902, after which most local farmers turned to crops besides sugarcane. By 1932 Imperial was the only remaining sugar manufacturer in Texas. Hurt by the Great Depression and an effort to process figs that ended in failure, the company survived only with the help of a loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. By 1940, however, the company had once again begun to expand. It diversified with the acquisition of the Brazos Valley Irrigation Company and a herd of Hereford cattle. World War II brought the suspension of quotas under the Sugar Act and allowed unlimited imports. Under sugar rationing and other government wartime restrictions, Imperial provided all the sugar for Texas and Oklahoma, an arrangement that resulted in the company's postwar dominance of the market in those states. In 1946 the Kempner family bought out the Eldridge interest in the firm and became sole owners of the town of Sugar Land. Isaac Kempner's youngest son, Herbert, served as company president from 1948 until his death in 1953, when he was succeeded by W. H. Louviere, the first man from outside the family to hold the office. In the 1950s Imperial opened the Sugar Land Shopping Center to house new executive offices and completed an innovative air-conditioned packing room. Company output exceeded two million pounds of sugar daily. Bulk raw sugar supplies increased when the company sold a significant portion of its stock to the C and H Sugar Refining Company of California and Hawaii in 1956; Imperial bought the stock back in 1967. Other sugar supplies arrived through the port of Galveston from farms in the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Australia, Africa, and elsewhere and were shipped by rail to the refinery. Though candy companies and bottlers who used large supplies of sugar followed the influx of population that moved to the Sunbelt states in the 1950s and 1960s, competition from corn sweeteners and other sugar substitutes drove many refineries out of business. Imperial began to operate its plants on three shifts, but growth was limited by shipping costs, which became prohibitive beyond Kansas. Although a union had been organized by 1939, no labor problems developed in the firm. Imperial made employee home ownership possible for the first time only in the 1950s. Facing the encroachment of Houston, however, the town of Sugar Land incorporated in 1959, and by 1973 the company had sold or liquidated Sugarland Industries and most of its local holdings. The Kempner family retained only its ownership of the Imperial Sugar Company and the Sugar Land Telephone Company, and a partial interest in the Sugar land State Bank.
As Houston expanded, the company formed the Belknap Corporation and developed area subdivisions, including Imperial Estates, Brookside, Belknap, and Venetian Estates, as well as Alkire and Horseshoe lakes. Imperial later sold all but a few acres of its real estate. The first 1,200 acres went to Jake Kamin and his associates, who developed the upscale Sugar Creek neighborhood. The remaining 7,500 acres of farm land was sold to Gerald Hines and used in the development of Sweetwater, First Colony, and several other planned communities on what had been fields of sugarcane, cotton, grains, and vegetables. In 1986 the Imperial Sugar Company employed 650 people, of whom 40 percent had been with the company twenty years or more. In 1989 Imperial merged with the Holly Sugar Corporation, a company formed from eight beet-sugar processing plants, to form the Imperial Holly Corporation, a processor of both cane and beet sugar. After the merger, 60 percent of the company belonged to the Kempner family, 10 percent to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, and 30 percent to public stockholders. In 1990, with sales of $717 million annually, Imperial Holly was listed among the Fortune 500 list of the largest companies in the country.