New Deal in Mississippi: Laurel Sweet Potato Starch Factory

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Taylor, photographer. (1936) Factory financed by F.E.R.A. Federal Emergency Relief Administration for producing starch from sweet potatoes. Laurel, Mississippi. Jones County Laurel Laurel. Mississippi United States, 1936. May. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017765230/

One of the more intriguing finds lately for the Living New Deal project in Mississippi was the discovery of the Sweet Potato Starch Factory in Laurel.  The Wausau Southern Lumber Company’s former sawmill, located at the end of South 4th Avenue near the Masonite plant, was renovated in 1934 to house the sweet potato starch plant.  The Federal Emergency Relief Administration provided $150,000, in cooperation with the Mississippi Agricultural Experiment Station, the Sweet Potato Growers Co-op, and the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

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Lee, R., photographer. (1938) Sweet potatoes in storage bins at starch plant. Laurel, Mississippi. Jones County Laurel Laurel. Mississippi United States, 1938. Nov. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017782237/

…there are items required in very considerable volume in the life of our country, which are, at present and for various reasons, not produced in sufficient quantities at home, and are imported in major part from foreign countries.  Among this list of deficit commodities is starch.  (Holton tells of starch factory pos’bilities in Miss. (Dec. 7, 1934). The Winona Times, p. 4.)

Although considerably less familiar to consumers today, starch was used in the laundry, and also in manufacturing of glue and for sizing cotton thread.  Starch was produced as a byproduct of corn processing and from the Irish potato, but an additional 200,000,000 pounds of imported starch was required to meet the demand.  Dr. F. H. Thurber designed the machinery for the factory, based on his research as senior chemist in the U. S. Department of Agriculture, where he invented the process of removing the starch.  The “first of its kind in the world” factory opened with much fanfare in November 1934 under the supervision of Dr. Thurber.

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Lee, R., photographer. (1938) Applying sweet potato starch to cotton thread at cotton mill. Laurel, Mississippi. Jones County Laurel Laurel. Mississippi United States, 1938. Nov. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017782235/

The Laurel Cotton Mill used a large quantity of starch produced by the factory, as did many area laundries.  In 1936,

Next to be placed on the market is an 8-ounce package of starch, retailing for 5-cents that will be sold for home laundry purposes.  It will bear the stamp of the Laurel company.  (Board is named for starch plant. July 23, 1936. Stone County Enterprise, p. 1.)

Although the plant was deemed successful in terms of accomplishing the production of starch from sweet potatoes, increasing production from 140,000 pounds of starch in 1934 to 2,700,000 by 1939, and expanding into dried sweet potato cattle feed, it closed after the 1944 season.

Sufficient sweetpotato [sic] starch was produced to establish it as a market commodity, to demonstrate its suitability and advantages for a variety of commercial uses, and to open up a demand for many times the output of the factory.  On the basis of the experience at Laurel, the United States Sugar Corporation erected a large new factory at Clewiston, Florida, which operated during the 1945-46 and 1946-47 seasons.  The plant at Laurel was discontinued after the 1944 season, when the prospective initiation of operation by the new plant in Florida made it appear that the experimental plant had served its purpose in pointing the way to establishment of commercial sweetpotato starch manufacture.  (Dawson, P. R. 1966. Manufacture of sweetpotato starch experience in the United States.  Agricultural Research Service, Southern Utilization Research and Development Division.)

The Florida plant also closed, after the 1946-47 season.  The cost of sweet potatoes was prohibitive to produce a profit.  In 1966, commercial production of sweet potato starch had not been resumed following the closure of the two plants.  With the growing global market for sweet potato starch, is it feasible now?  No definitive answers, although the largest manufacturers of sweet potato starch are clearly not in the U.S.  There may be some companies involved in production in the U. S., but it is difficult to determine if they manufacture, or just import.  As always, I enjoyed learning a little about another of the efforts to provide employment, improve the income of farmers and others, and the innovations of the Depression era.

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Harris & Ewing, photographer. (1937) Starch from sweet potatoes is latest. Washington D.C. June 28. After three years of chemical research and commercial starch production, the Bureau of Chemistry and Soils of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has discovered a method of manufacturing starch from sweet potatoes; the resultant product beign [sic] used in cotton mills, adhesive factories, commercial laundries and in the making of “sticky” for postage stamps. The new government sweet potato starch factory is located at Laurel, Miss. shown in this photograph is Dr. Henry G. Knight, Cheif  [sic]of the Bureau of Chemistry and Soils, is in charge of the experts responsible for haloing the common vegetable. 6/28/37. District of Columbia United States Washington D.C. Washington D.C, 1937. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2016871914/



Categories: Industrial, Laurel, New Deal

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4 replies

  1. this is certainly interesting–and, news to me! thanks!

    Like

  2. Of all the stories my dad told me about businesses in Laurel, I don’t remember him ever mentioning this one. Wish he were still around to ask!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am so glad I got involved in the Living New Deal project while my dad was still able to fill in some gaps for me about his experience, and that of his relatives and county he lived in. He helped me solve a lot of questions.

      Like

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