We Are East Idaho: Sugar City

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EastIdahoNews.com is spending the year introducing you to places and people that make east Idaho special. In our We Are East Idaho series, we're going on a road trip and sharing things you may not know about this beautiful place we call home.

SUGAR CITY — With the quiet streets, a few businesses and acres of agriculture land, it may come as a shock to many of that Sugar City originated from the construction of one of the times largest sugar beet factories in the west.

With the factory came workers, homes and Idaho’s First Medal of Honor recipient. In the 1970s, the town was decimated by billions of gallons of water in what many call the worse man-made disaster in Idaho history. The city rebuilt itself into what it is today – a small bedroom community just north of Rexburg with some 1,500 residents.

Old town construction

In 1903, Utah and Idaho Sugar Company, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, purchased land to build their largest sugar beet factory at a cost of nearly $1,000,000. In celebration of its construction, John T. Morrison, then Governor of Idaho, and church president Joseph F. Smith traveled for the setting of the cornerstone, according to a history compiled by Robert Worrell and Becky Brighton.

“Before leaving, several in the group expressed expectations that a lively town would be raised on the townsite area,” records show one Sugar City resident said in 1903.

With the factory, Mark Austin, a superintendent of the sugar company, directed the purchased land adjacent to the factory to establish a town. In just over two years, the 320 acres of plowed fields and a “rag town” of tents was turned into a city complete with a bank, homes, parks and sidewalks.

One of the first buildings constructed in town was the Fremont County Bank. It remains one of the oldest standing buildings in Madison County. It is now owned by the Harris family and serves as the office for their construction company while the lower level is leased to a dentist.

PHOTO GALLERY | SUGAR CITY

“When I was in high school, this building was owned by the school and upstairs was classrooms. Below they had a lunchroom,” said Bryan Harris, a lifelong Sugar City resident. “Next door is an old theater that we own too.”

He said the building is where they would have school assemblies and go watch movies. Harris said when the building was put up for sale some 20 years ago, his father knew he had to buy it, preserving the building for future generations.

The Medal of Honor

When World War I broke out, part of Sugar City’s young community served the United States. In 1918, Pvt. Thomas Croft Neibaur, serving on the front in France, found himself in the midst of heavy enemy fire.

“Private Neibaur was sent out on patrol with his automatic rifle squad to enfilade enemy machine gun nests. As he gained the ridge, he set up his automatic rifle and was directly thereafter wounded in both legs by fire from a hostile machine gun on his flank,” according to his Medal of Honor citation.

The wave of German soldiers continued to attack as the rest of Neibaur’s unit lay dead or wounded. He continued to fire his automatic rifle to halt most of the advancing enemy troops. However, as Neibaur fought, four Germans attacked the wounded Neibaur at close quarters. He proceeded to kill them as he captured 11 enemy soldiers with his pistol. In excruciating pain, he brought the prisoners back to allied lines.

“The counterattack in full force was arrested to a large extent by the single efforts of this soldier, whose heroic exploits took place against the skyline in full view of his entire battalion,” according to the citation.

Thomas C. Neibaur was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions while serving in France | Courtesy Idaho Historical Society

Because of his heroic actions, Neibaur became the first Idahoan to receive the Medal of Honor. After recovering in field hospitals, Neibaur returned to his home near Sugar City to continue working at the sugar factory. His triumphant years as a war hero did not last long. Just 10 years after the battle in France, Neibaur’s arm became caught in machinery at the sugar factory, leaving his arm mangled, according to the city’s compiled records.

His family was also hit hard during the great depression and it is noted Neibaur sent his medals back to Congress with a note saying, “I cannot eat them,” the records say. He passed away shortly after due to complications with tuberculosis at a veterans hospital in Washington.

Neibaur is forever remembered with a monument at the Thomas C. Neibaur Veterans Park on Center Street. The monument is inscribed with the names of all veterans who have served from the Sugar City community.

The resilience of the people

Years after Niebaur’s death came perhaps the biggest event in Sugar City history. On June 5, 1976, two major leaks were reported at the newly constructed Teton Dam. Less than 13 miles away, residents of Sugar City were spending the Saturday just like any other.

Harris recalls that he was going fishing on the Teton River. On the way, he said he was dropping off his little sister at their Grandma’s home in Wilford, a small community a few miles from Sugar City. Hours later an estimated 80 billion gallons of water spilled its way through the Upper Snake River Valley.

“A guy came bursting through her front door and said, ‘Hey, the Teton Dam just broke. You need to get to high ground,” Harris said.

He said his family rushed to higher ground while his mother and father were out of the path of the oncoming water. Harris said his family thought he was missing and his dad had a helicopter look for him along the banks of the Teton River worrying that his son had been swept away by the flood. Eventually, Harris was reunited with his family as the community and volunteers from neighboring areas arrived and assisted in relief efforts.

“Living through that time was really something. You wouldn’t know it today that the water came through,” Harris said. “What was really interesting to see was how the people were resilient. They didn’t sit on their hands and cry for help. The went right to work and came in and started cleaning things up.”

As volunteers poured in, people began to rebuild and city history says most of the town was repaired and rebuilt by 1980. Harris did say remnants of the flood, such as silt and mud washed by the wall of water, sit in his basement, leaving a stinky reminder of that day.

As recorded in the city’s history, the federal government estimated $2 billion in damages to the surrounding area from the flood. Eleven people died and 13,000 cattle perished but the citizens remained resilient and rebuilt the community to what it is today.

The future of the city

With the population being around 600 people prior to the flood, the 1980s brought growth in nearby Rexburg and Sugar City’s numbers nearly doubled in size. Sugar City reached 1,514 people, according to the 2010 census, and numbers are expected to continue to rise with the growth of Brigham Young University-Idaho.

“It’s a nice small town feel. It’s a good place to raise kids, get them educated and send them off into the world” said Sugar City Mayor David Ogden.

According to the city’s most recent comprehensive plan, the city plans to continue to grow while preserving open space and quiet streets while maintaining the small bedroom community feel.

“This is a community which is partnering with the city of Rexburg. It’s not just about Sugar City. We are so close, the amenities are there and we have a great relationship between the two cities. It’s a whole community that has been built up here,” Ogden said.

Odgen said because of the proximity of Sugar City to larger communities, amenities are not far away for those who prefer small town living. He also said while the town’s roots in agriculture remain a driving factor in the economy, Brigham Young University-Idaho and tourists visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks will continue to bring visitors and new residents to the community.

“It’s a good place to live. The people are great people,” Ogden said.

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