The 'sweet' life in Brookfield

The history of Brookfield's one and only sugar processing plant

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By CHRIS STACH

Quick: Name the sweetest business operating in Brookfield.

No, it's not the Lillett's Candies shop at 3808 Sunnyside Ave., although that's a very good guess. The correct answer is the Transloading Specialists Inc.'s plant at 9501 Southview Ave., just north of the Congress Park subway tunnel under the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad tracks.

You've probably seen this beet sugar processing plant before. In fact, you can't miss it, for the sheer bulk of its size. The property it's on covers five acres, and the 72-foot-high factory has been in operation since 1959, when it began life as the Great Western Sugar Plant. Local residents called it "the G.W.," or even plainer "G.W."

Before this, however, the site was brushy, bushy vacant prairie. Long ago, even back as far as the 1890s, hobos and tramps traveling by rail on the Burlington made use of this unpopulated, unbuilt-upon area. They used to camp out here, sometimes slapping together small shacks out of old wood.

Without the nearby railroad line, the G.W. Sugar Plant would never have been built, since this was to be mostly a rail freight shipping and receiving facility, although it did have tank trucks that used the streets, too.

Most Brookfield residents learned of the plant's imminent existence through the July 31, 1958 Citizen newspaper, that ran the first story about it on its front page. "Plan $800,000 Plant; Ask Building Permit" read the headline.

"The Great Western Sugar Company, Denver, Colorado, plans to construct an $800,000 sugar processing plant north of Southview Avenue, in the Congress Park sector. The site under consideration is between Morton and Cleveland avenues.

"The company has applied to village officials for a building permit [issued by Buell Dutton, Brookfield Building Inspector.]

"Great Western, too, has entered into negotiations with the Burlington railway relative to relocation of the commuters' path leading through the proposed building site to the Congress Park Station.

"The pathway is maintained by the rails line in acceptance with ordinance specifications that it be asphalted, fenced in and lighted.

"The proposed area is now zoned for light industry, and the sugar processing plant, it is understood, comes within that category.

"The firm will process sugar into liquid form and employ almost eight persons. According to architectural plans submitted to the village, the structure will be 136 feet by 60 feet and cost $800,000."

To begin with, the plant was not located in the "Congress Park sector," which was south of the tracks, not north. Perhaps the writer of the article was not aware that the plant would adjoin the Portia Manor subdivision, named so in 1915 by developer Frederick H. Bartlett. This is a place name still remembered by some older residents of the village.

Second, residents living in the 3800 and even 3700 blocks from Kemman Avenue to, say, Raymond or Madison avenues were well aware of the stenches emanating from the Molex Products Company plant at 9015 Southview Ave., practically just next door to the proposed sugar plant.

In the 1998-published book "A Great Connection-The Story of Molex" by Ed Linn, chapter five, "Brookfield," begins with the words: "By modern standards, the factory on Southview Avenue in Brookfield, Illinois, was an environmental disaster."

According to Linn, Frederick A. Krehbiel Sr., the oldest of the company's founding family, "would say, if there had been an OSHA then, we would have been shut down as soon as their man walked through the door. If we knew what we learned in the '70s and '80s, we would have shut ourselves down."

Wrote Linn, in addition, "What you were dealing with here, remember, was coal tar pitch that was melted down in a large vat, in a mixture of asbestos tailings and fiberglass.

"The veterans of Brookfield describe the battle of Southview in such terms as 'purgatory,' 'Hell's Kitchen' and 'The LaBrea Tar Pits.'"

The green smoke that rose from the plant's smokestack was pure sulfur dioxide, given off when the tar began to boil.

The sugar plant officials had a job of damage control to do with residents right from the very start. Imagine opening your kitchen window, hoping to get a fresh breeze, and, instead, inhaling the smell of sulfur.

The Great Western Sugar Company laid all their cards on the table and sought to calm residents' fears that an even bigger problem than enduring Molex might be looming. With the Nov. 20, 1958 Citizen article on "Brookfield's Sky Scraper," the company printed a photo of the scale model of the factory being built. The photo was taken from a brochure "which [also] details how it plans to serve your needs in greater Chicago, [showing] in pictures and paragraphs something of the planned operations."

The brochure also stated that "soon to be completed is one of the most modern and complete sugar terminals in the country.

"This plant will have the finest available equipment throughout, with quality, reliability and customer service the byword of our entire sales operations."

The Citizen also revealed that "it will employ a staff of around eight persons, and a unique type of truck will deliver the liquefied product of pure sugar to the Chicagoland purchasers.

"The plant will have bin capacity of 20,000,000 pounds, and the periodical itemizes the use in which the product can be utilized."

Some people weren't convinced. Reported in the next week's Citizen, Robert G. Taylor, of 3814 Blanchan Ave. "spearheaded the neighborhood protest to the building of the G.W. plant. Taylor appeared a fortnight ago before the village trustees to express his opposition to the obstructing tower, and claimed that the sugar distribution trucks would constitute a new highway menace and hazard along the neighborhood thoroughfares."

Apparently Taylor was not so concerned with factory odors as he was with the increase of traffic.

He wrote a letter to the Citizen, explaining his concerns.

"It is strange that the building permit for the 'Brookfield skyscraper' was all signed, sealed and delivered before the public was given any information about it."

Taylor further wrote: "The 22 gasoline tank-type trucks, used for delivering sugar in the Greater Chicago area, have a capacity of 35,000 pounds. When you add the weight of the trucks, you can see what is going to happen to our streets since they-especially Southview Avenue-weren't constructed to carry that weight."

Trucks were set to use Kemman Avenue to turn onto Southview and proceed east to the plant, and then exit again east down Southview to Maple.

"How do you think the Kemman Avenue and Southview area residents are going to feel about this?" he asked. "I'm certain they aren't going to like it. We are organizing and we have plans. If there are other residents in this area interested in joining the fight against this 'monstrosity,' please contact me."

Well, Taylor's protest failed to stop the building of the plant, and it is still in operation to this day, although it has undergone a few changes of ownership over the years. However, the issue of the traffic problem arises sporadically, even to the present. At least Southview Avenue has been completely repaved, and is stronger than ever, having been previously paved in concrete in 1926 by the Mackler Paving Company of Chicago.

The plant opened in January 1959. Sugar was received, liquefied and sent out by auto road and railroad to its customers. Some of the largest 39,000 pound tank cars going by rail were to soda bottlers: Pepsi Cola for certain, with Coca Cola and 7-Up as probable customers, too.

Maybe you're old enough to remember when Hershey candy bars were a nickel back in the early 1960s. Then, by 1970, they cost a dime, then 15 cents, then 20 cents and so on. This price increase was due to rising wholesale sugar prices, which, within two years from 1972-74, had jumped from 13 cents a pound to 62 cents a pound. Companies using sugar scrambled to find cheaper alternatives, and they did find them, soon using less expensive high fructose corn syrup, as well as artificial sweeteners.

So beet sugar prices began to fall and, by the early 1980s, sugar processing factories were closing up operations. According to Robert F. Speck, one of the owners of the currently-existing sugar plant, G.W. put up three corn syrup towers in the late 1970s, but it was too late. G.W. went bankrupt and sold out to Greene Ingredients, who did not change the gigantic G.W. name on the east and west sides of the building. Then Greene ceased operations for a few years at the Southview plant.

In 1985, the Holly Sugar Corporation bought many of Great Western's old factories. The "G.W. Pure Sugar" words came down off the siding, and a sign with the "Holly Sugar" name and its accompanying leaves and berries logo, went up in its place. But Holly never seemed to enjoy the success that Great Western had, and sold out to Carry Companies in 1994, who also used it as a processing and distribution facility.

Six years later, in December 2000, Transloading Specialists Inc. bought it from Carry Companies. In 2002, a large addition to the plant was made, and the business continues to thrive today.

Transloading Specialists shares its name with the Sweetener Supply Corporation and Transloading Distribution, Inc., all a part of the same organization. Sweetener Supply handles sugar sales, Transloading Specialists handles sugar storage and Transloading Distribution handles sugar distribution.

Diversification is part of the current facility's success. Where G.W. was once solely in the beet sugar processing business, today, Transloading Specialists also processes sucrose, starch and food fiber.

"We're not just plain sugar," explained Speck, who is part of the family-owned business, co-owned between the Speck and the Garderella families.

The more-than-sugar plant believes in maintaining as good a relationship with the community as possible. For instance, for many years the upkeep of the paths between Southview and the subway tunnel had been the responsibility of the Burlington Railroad.

Over the years, especially since the 1970s, the asphalt pathway had cracked and crumbled, sprouting weeds in some places. Sometimes the amount of broken bottle glass on the walk became intolerable, especially to bike riders. In early May 2003, the plant "expanded their easement" slightly, over eastward, and, while doing so, laid a new, wider asphalt path, which is still in good shape, today.

By the way, commuters and other passersby may wonder just what is in that refrigerated trailer truck on the other side of the fence, next to the path. It contains congealed invert sugar to be sold to bakeries, and needs to be kept in a cooled environment. Except for the administration offices, no room in the entire plant is air-conditioned. Sure, working there in these summer conditions may be hot work, but all in all, it looks like a pretty sweet job.

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