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The History of the Sebewaing, Michigan Sugar Factory

March 30th, 2022

One of the men destined to join the ranks of Michigan’s pioneer sugar barons was John C. Liken. He was nearly 70 years old when the idea struck him and already rich beyond the dreams he probably had when he carved barrel staves for a living as an indigent immigrant in New York more than fifty years earlier. By 1900, he operated a big business in a small town that referred to him as the town father because his enterprise created the jobs that brought people to the town.

His annual sales during the years preceding 1900, in modern terms, equated to about $7.5 million. In a combination of enterprises that employed two hundred people, he operated four saw mills primarily engaged in manufacturing barrel staves, many of which he shipped to Germany, two flour mills, a major retail outlet for hardware, dry goods, groceries, and drugs which in 1884 employed nine clerks.

Liken’s enterprises were headquartered in a small town in Michigan’s “thumb”. The town was Sebewaing, a small collection of rustic homes nestled on the east shore of the Saginaw Bay some twenty-five miles northeast of Bay City. Its residents were day laborers who worked at one of Liken’s establishments or on one of the surrounding farms, or fished in the great Saginaw Bay that lapped the shores within walking distance of the town.

Sebewaing borrowed its name from the Chippewa word for crooked creek and some of its wealth from the abundant fishing in the bay. Not long before the 19th century came to a close, nearby forests fell to swift axes, making room for German settlers who quickly set about the twin tasks of removing stumps and planting crops.

Liken, a native of Lower Saxony in northwestern Germany met Wallburga Kunkle, the woman who would become his wife, in Binghamton, New York. She was a native of Bavaria and bore the name of a canonized nun who traveled to Germany from England in 748 to perform good works. St. Wallburga became the patron saint of plagues, famines and a host of other discomforts, including dog bites. John Liken had arrived in Binghamton after working for his passage aboard a sailing vessel.

After the birth of their fourth child, Emma, in 1864, who joined her siblings, Mary, born in 1856, Hannah born in 1858, and Charles, born in 1859, John and Walburga moved the family to Sebewaing, a Lutheran settlement that was attracting fishermen, farmers and timber men. The town’s population upon his arrival in 1865 was insufficient to proclaim it a village, but with the arrival of John Liken, that was about to change. He established a sawmill where he made barrel staves. Later, he would develop retail outlets, a creamery, granaries, and ships, incorporating in one person a source for all the goods and services required by the local farming community. The cream and crops, he placed on boats and shipped some thirty miles along the Saginaw Bay shoreline to Bay City, a bustling and growing city where the daily demand for groceries grew apace with its burgeoning population. In was in this connection, shipping, that he became acquainted with ship owner Captain Benjamin Boutell and it was through Captain Boutell that he would learn about sugar opportunities.