Sugar Production

By: Cindy Wilke

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: December 1, 1995

Sugar was produced in Stephen F. Austin's colony in the lower Brazos and Colorado River areas as early as the 1820s. In the 1830s sugar production and acreage devoted to growing sugar increased. Cane production on a commercial scale was not attempted until the 1840s, when wet weather and crop pests damaged much of the coastal cotton crop. Production climbed throughout the decade, due largely to improved farming methods and processes of refining, and reached the antebellum peak of 11,023 1,000-pound hogsheads in 1852. Brazoria County produced almost 75 percent of the total. The other significant sugar producing counties during this period were Fort Bend, Matagorda, and Wharton, but in no part of the sugar district was cane grown on a majority of the farms. After reaching its peak in the early 1850s, cold weather and severe drought caused a decline in the industry in Texas. Sugar production in the antebellum era required a substantial capital outlay. In addition to land and slaves, most planters had a steam roller mill for grinding the cane and a sugarhouse for boiling it in the open-kettle method. It was a common practice to hire both a sugar maker and an engineer throughout the grinding season, and each received wages of up to $500 a season. In 1846 the value of a sugar plantation in Brazoria County, including land, buildings, and fifty slaves, was estimated at $50,000. Although raw sugar produced on antebellum plantations was of a poor grade, it was usually sold without further processing in southern markets. A smaller amount of sugar was sold in the northeast, were it was refined before marketing. In the 1850s it was estimated that each full hand could cultivate slightly more than three acres of land in cane. Under plantation milling conditions, with juice extractors that were only 55 to 65 percent efficient, an acre of cane yielded approximately one ton of sugar in its first year and somewhat less in the following year as stubble cane or rattoons. If the cane was not then replanted, the yields in succeeding years would be too small to yield a profit. The rich river bottoms usually required a rotation of two years of cane and one or two years of corn and peas to restore soil fertility. Insects and crop diseases caused less damage than weather conditions. Late frosts injured growing cane and reduced stands, early frosts destroyed ripened cane before it could all be harvested, and storms and floods were a constant threat.

The abolition of slavery necessitated a new labor system after the Civil War. Unlike Louisiana, where most of the sugar plantations were worked by wage labor, Texas relied on the convict lease system. In 1882 twelve of the eighteen Texas sugar plantations utilized 800, or more than one-third, of the state's prison inmates. The cost per worker actually exceeded the prevailing wage scale, but the labor force, as under slavery, was constant and guaranteed. In 1890 a Texas Sugar Growers Association was formed for the purpose of expanding sugar production in the state, but it failed to get federal funding for a sugar experiment station. Major innovations in cane culture and sugar processing came from the Caribbean and Louisiana. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, larger roller mills for crushing cane and extracting juice, combined with improvements in the crystallization process, greatly increased yields and improved the grade of the product. The new machinery separated cane farming from sugar manufacturing. Growers adopted such labor-saving devices as the row cultivator and mechanical cane loader. By the 1890s the state's sugar production greatly increased. In 1899 Texas was ranked third among the nation's sugar producing states. The lower Brazos and Colorado river valleys, Caney Creek, Oyster Creek, and the San Bernard River were known as "the sugar bowl of Texas." Although ranked second in sugar production in the United States throughout most of the nineteenth century, Texas never produced more than 5 percent of the amount grown in Louisiana.

The first decade of the twentieth century saw expansion within the Brazos and Colorado sugar region and the beginning of cane production in the lower Rio Grande valley. By 1903 there were eight sugar mills in Texas and one sugar refinery at Sugar Land in Fort Bend County. Expansion continued until 1920, when a combination of factors hurt the domestic sugar industry. Mosaic disease that spread through the entire United States cane crop caused declining yields. Prices plummeted from an average of 14 cents a pound in 1919 to 5 cents late in 1920 and 3.63 cents in 1921. Commercial cane production was largely abandoned in Texas for about fifty years following 1923. During the 1950s most Texas sugar was used for the production of syrup. Sorghum syrup was produced in East Texas counties with small mills using homegrown sorghum crops. Sugarcane syrup was also produced in some Gulf Coast and East Texas counties. In 1954 180,000 gallons of sorghum syrup were produced. In the late 1950s, however, sorghum syrup production declined. Only 30,701 gallons were produced in the state in 1959. Sugar beets were also grown in the 1950s in Texas, mainly in Deaf Smith and other Panhandle counties. The 1954 production of sugar beets was estimated at 135,000 bushels. In the early 1960s an import ban which closed the United States's market to Cuban sugar production stimulated an increase in domestic sugar beet production. The first sugar mill for processing beets in Texas was opened at Hereford in Deaf Smith County in 1964. In that year approximately 539,000 tons were processed, and by 1967 sugar beet production in Texas yielded 663,000 tons. In 1980 the state produced a total of 386,000 tons of refined beet sugar. The leading sugar beet counties were Castro, Deaf Smith, Parmer, and Randall. Limited amounts of cane were grown through the 1950s and 1960s, but cane production in Texas greatly increased in the latter half of the century. In 1980 Texas produced 998,000 tons of cane sugar. The leading cane growing counties were Hidalgo, Cameron, and Willacy. Throughout the late twentieth century, Imperial Sugar Company in Sugar Land was the only company refining cane sugar in Texas.

Abigail Curlee, A Study of Texas Slave Plantations, 1822–1865 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1932). Samuel Lee Evans, Texas Agriculture, 1880–1930 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1960). Lewis C. Gray, History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860 (Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1933; rpt., Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1958). William R. Hogan, The Texas Republic: A Social and Economic History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1946; rpt. 1969). Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking, 1985). Joseph Carlyle Sitterson, Sugar Country: The Cane Sugar Industry in the South (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1953).


  • Agriculture
  • Products (Plant)

Time Periods:

  • Antebellum Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Cindy Wilke, “Sugar Production,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 26, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1995