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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines Its Community Sporlight on Sugar City

Friday, June 29, 2018  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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Welcome to Sugar City sign

Sugar City lies on the Upper Snake River Plain. Fertile farmland of potatoes, wheat, barley, corn and alfalfa hay surrounds the city. Within 10 miles north and west, are vast tracts of brush and lava covered public land managed by the BLM. The Caribou-Targhee National Forest begins about 10 miles southeast. Rexburg is three miles southwest.

In June 1976 the city experienced near total destruction by flood, yet three years later emerged stronger and more beautiful than before.

Irrigation and the conversion of the arable sagebrush-covered Upper Snake River Plain into an agricultural oasis came long before the founding of Sugar City.

Historical Tidbits

The first non-Native Americans that passed through the Upper Snake River Plain were a party of trappers/explorers led by Andrew Henry. They came around 1811 and built a winter camp six miles north of what is now Sugar City next to a now famous trout fishery, the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River.

For the next few decades, trappers continued to come into the area in search of beaver pelts. In 1841 the first overland migration of settlers headed to the Oregon Coast passed about 70 miles south—the Oregon Trail. In 1863 prospectors discovered gold in what is now western Montana. A major supply route to the mines—known as the "Gold Road"—passed about 25 miles west of what is now Sugar City.

In 1879 the Utah and Northern Railroad completed a rail line from Utah, through the Upper Snake River Plain, to the Montana gold fields. Many of the railroad construction workers were from northern Utah. With the railroad line completed, the construction workers returned home. One of these workers, John R. Poole of Ogden, was outspoken in his praise of the farmland potential of the Upper Snake River Plain with its soils that produced tall sagebrush and had many rivers and streams. Other returning workers confirmed Poole’s assessment.

At that time, Utah was experiencing a heavy influx of immigrant converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ or Church). These families were looking for promising locations to settle. The reports of the returning railroad construction crews persuaded hundreds of Utah’s families to load their wagons and travel over a hundred miles north to settle in Eastern Idaho’s Upper Snake River Plain.

In 1882 leaders of the Church asked 54-year-old Thomas E. Ricks to be the Bishop of the immigrant settlers headed for what is now the Rexburg area. Ricks—a Kentuckian who joined the Church in 1844 and crossed the Great Plains to Salt Lake City in 1848—was a proven leader.

The district that was under Ricks’ ecclesiastical jurisdiction would soon include thousands of settlers and several new communities collectively called the Bannock Ward, later to become a stake (diocese) that oversaw several wards with Ricks as president.

By the time of Sugar City’s founding twenty years later, settlers of the Upper Snake River Plain had turned their homesteads into productive irrigated farms with gravity-flow water diverted from the area’s rivers and streams through complex systems of canals and ditches—farmland highly suited for growing sugar beets.

Around 1990 the St. Anthony Railroad Company constructed a branch line from Idaho Falls to St. Anthony.

In August 1903 a venture between principals in several Utah sugar factories and American Sugar Refining Company of New York purchased the land on which Sugar City now stands. In 1907 the venture became the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company or U&I Sugar. These principals formed the "Sugar City Townsite Company."

The townsite company platted the town of Sugar City and sold building lots. They positioned the sugar factory, completed in 1904, on the northeast corner of town. The railroad built a train depot and sidings to accommodate the sugar factory’s needs.

The townsite company platted the town site with a ten-acre park in the center. Streets were graded and lined with boardwalks and shade trees. They stipulated that all homes were to be 30 feet from a sidewalk and to be "respectable." The townsite charter disallowed sale of intoxicating liquors, gambling and prostitution.

One of the first public buildings constructed was a two-story building named the "Townsite Building." On the lower floor were a department store, drug store, telephone exchange and post office. On the upper floor were an elaborately decorated opera house and dance hall and offices for the local newspaper, the Sugar City Times, and the chamber of commerce.

When used as an opera house, the facility had seating capacity for 800. When used for dancing the highly polished maple floor could accommodate 200 couples. They held dances each Friday night. The facility became one of the most popular dancehalls in the region. The Opera Company provided most of the performing arts entertainment in the city.

The downtown business district soon had a mercantile; furniture, hardware and lumber stores; a meat market; a bank; a pharmacy; two barbershops; and a flourmill that operated 24 hours a day.

In 1904 entrepreneurs formed a city baseball team and built a 500-seat grandstand. They also built a one-half-mile-long horse-racing track.

In 1904 patrons built the first school in Sugar City. Within five years, the city had three schools.

On January 8, 1906, Sugar City became an incorporated village. By 1910 the village had a population of 391.

Sugar Factory

The town of Sugar City was founded solely on the production of sugar. In the early 1900s it was the largest sugar factory in Idaho. The plant operated until 1942. During its 38 years of operation, it processed 2.1 million tons of sugar beets, yielding over 8.1 million 100 pound bags of sugar—405,000 tons.

The sugar factory was a boon to the local economy. Sugar beets not only provided a profitable cash crop for farmers, they produced work for youth—thinning, weeding and topping beets—a food source for livestock—beet pulp, molasses and beet tops—and seasonal, winter, work at the factory for about 200 area residents.

The sugar factory brought regional recognition to the city. Management gave local residents prizes for the best-kept yards, gardens and homes.

During the Great Depression, Sugar City suffered. The bank closed—many people lost their life savings. However, the sugar factory kept producing.

By 1941 conditions changed. The World War II military had begun purchasing large quantities of dried potatoes, a staple in the G.I. diet. Area farmers began rotating their crops from sugar beets to the higher-value potatoes.

At the same time, U&I Sugar found it could improve profitability by consolidating its processing plants into larger more efficient operations. When U&I Sugar closed and dismantled its Sugar City factory, it transported the local sugar beet harvest to its Idaho Falls factory.

Closure of the factory had a devastating effect on the Sugar City community. Many retail stores closed. Residents, who could not find work within commuting distance from their homes, moved. In 1929 the town’s population reached about 1,200. Following the plant closure, the population fell 50 percent.

Amenities and Attractions Today

Sugar City has three municipal parks. Each park encourages an active lifestyle. Park facilities include a double tennis court, two lighted baseball fields and a hill where children climb.

Another park has an interchangeable baseball/softball field, a sand pile, a children’s playground and a sheltered picnic area with covered barbecue pits. The downtown area is quiet and inviting with numerous trees and benches bordering Main Street.

Heritage Park is the location of annual community activities including the children’s Easter Egg Hunt, the Arber Day observance and the Pioneer Day Breakfast. Other annual community events are homecoming at Sugar-Salem High School and the Christmas tree lighting.

One of the city’s most prominent attractions is its proximity to Rexburg and Brigham Young University-Idaho (BYU-Idaho). The university sponsors many public concerts, plays and recitals as well as opening many of its athletic facilities to the public. The university’s influence underpins the economy and enhances the cultural and social wellbeing of Sugar City. The university employs many of the city’s residents.

Sugar City residents are able to enjoy the benefits of a peaceful small-town atmosphere, yet live next door to the regional shopping and medical center of Rexburg and the cultural and educational opportunities offered at the university.

Yellowstone National Park lies about 40 miles due east. However, following U.S. Highway 20, the entrance to the park at West Yellowstone, Montana, is 80 miles north.

The Targhee National Forest begins about 13 miles southeast of Sugar City.

The St. Anthony Sand Dunes is a 175 square mile area where the wind has created sand dunes that range from 75 to 365 feet high. The sand dunes lie 10 miles northwest of Sugar City and are popular for motor-sport and family recreation. A few miles north of the sand dunes are the Civil Defense caves, large underground caverns that are actually lava tubes formed by prehistoric volcanic activity.

Sugar City’s close proximity to vast acreages of public land make it convenient for outdoor enthusiasts to camp; hunt; fish; ski; and ride mountain bikes, ATVs and snowmobiles.

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