Last week, in Part I of this story, we promised to tell you how north Brooklyn survived the Great Depression, why Coca-Cola is sweetened with corn syrup, where the Metropolitan Museum got all those Impressionist paintings and how tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans came to live in Williamsburg.
It is impossible to answer any of these questions without knowing the story of the Havemeyer family sugar fortune and the greatest Havemeyer of them all, the peerless monopolist and robber baron H. O. Havemeyer.
Today, we live in a country in which trust, as in antitrust, is a very bad word. With a few exceptions — public utilities like Con Edison and Keyspan, and Major League Baseball — business monopolies are illegal. In the latter years of the 19th century, however, trusts were a fact of everyday life. There was a beef trust, an oil trust and even a whiskey trust. These were business arrangements under which a small number of capitalists manipulated markets, setting prices and wages for an industry. One of the greatest of these was the Sugar Trust, largely controlled by one man, H. O. Havemeyer.
Throughout the 1880s, his brother Theodore — remembered by some as the patriarch of American golf — had gobbled up most of the east coast competitors to the family sugar company, creating the world’s largest sugar refinery along the East River. Not satisfied with profiting from the sweat of hundreds of thousands of poor Caribbeans, Theodore ruthlessly exploited American workers in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, at times calling in the police to fire at striking labor unionists. Some of them shot back and the cobblestones of Kent Avenue ran red with blood.
“The men were blindly led to strike by agitators, by Socialists and Communists,” he told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.”
In 1891 H. O. Havemeyer succeeded to the title of “Sugar King,” forming the American Sugar Refining Company, maker of the famous Domino brand. Under H. O., American Sugar gained control of the Cuban and Hawaiian sugar cane fields, as well as all of the western U.S. markets. As he expanded into coffee, banks and railroads, Havemeyer became so bulletproof that he thumbed his nose at a subpoena from the U.S. Senate — he was arrested, put on trial and, ultimately, acquitted. In 1898, when the Cuban fight for independence from Spain began to hurt his business to the tune of $200 million per year, he demanded and got American military intervention.
According to the Encyclopedia of New York City, “the American Sugar Refining Company account[ed] directly and indirectly for 98 percent of the national production by 1907.” H. O. Havemeyer also used his vast political influence to bring about tariffs on imported refined sugar, while exempting the raw sugar imports that fed his refinery. “The tariff is the mother of trusts,” he blandly explained.
As any economist will tell you, monopolies are inefficient and, in time, will bring about their own destruction. This was also true of the Sugar Trust, but while it lasted, H. O. Havemeyer’s life’s work made him an immense amount of money.
To be fair, not all of its net effects were evil. Nothing as big and as complex as the Sugar Trust can be all good or all bad. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, while millions of American workers nearly starved, thousands of families in north Brooklyn put food on the table thanks to jobs at American Sugar. Even today, it is hard to find a longtime resident of the neighborhood who did not work at the refinery or who cannot name a relative who did.
In 1932 and 1933 — in the midst of the Depression — the company made record profits. Employing over 5,000 men and women, American Sugar was considered one of the stablest and best-run companies in the country.
Before WWII, sugar served as the sole sweetener of soft drinks, candy and baked goods. Without significant competition from artificial sweeteners, beet sugar or corn syrup, cane sugar consumption reached an all-time high.
Next week: The conclusion of the story, including what Mrs. Havemeyer did with her husband’s money, how Edgar Degas paid the rent, what happened to the Caribbean cane fields and why no sugar is being refined at the Domino Sugar refinery today.
Tom Gilbert is a Greenpoint-based historian and writer