Corn, as everyone knows, isn’t just for eating on the cob. The possibilities for corn products appear to be endless: ethanol, plastics, liquors, starches, packing material, fabrics—and of course, corn syrups.
It seems like corn syrup has been part of our lives, and certainly the methods of extracting sugar from various starches has been around for centuries, though there was little commercial market for starch sugars in America until 1900, as real sugar wasn’t widely used nor prohibitively expensive.
But in the mid-1800s, a Davenport man, Henry G. Weinert , started to experiment with making cornstarch sugars profitable. He and his business partners, convinced some generous local gentlemen—including George L’oste Davenport— to invest, and built a large factory on Rockingham Road, just west of the City Cemetery. The Davenport Glucose Works opened on May 26, 1873.
The Glucose Works was not an immediate success. As the Davenport Democrat commented, “It was all a sort of charity donation to an inventive genius.”
But in 1874, The Glucose Works hired Louis P. Best, who had experience in the European methods of manufacturing glucose. With his help, the Works became a thriving business that started to make an actual profit—over 1,157,200 pounds of grape sugar and 151,518 of glucose were produced in 1876, making the company an estimated $45,000 in sales, not including the money made by selling the refuse for cattle feed. (Feb 12, 1877, p. 4)
The company was so confident that in 1877, it asked the shareholders to double their investments. The company wished to enlarge the factory and “enter upon the manufacture of the best quality of glucose for confectioners’ use, and of the first grade of table syrup.” The investors responded favorably and by the next year, the faithful (and longsuffering) stockholders were rewarded with dividends at 5%.
Things were looking up. Until the fire.
On July 17, 1879, just after it had reopened after extensive renovations, the Glucose Works burned to the ground. The fire was reported to have started in the shelling room , but it soon spread so quickly and with such heat that the fourth floor windows exploded, warning people on the street almost before the employees knew what was happening.
All the fire companies of Davenport fought the blaze, but it was no use. The corn shelter, the old factories, the main factory, the boiler house, the blacksmith shop, the materials and the machinery were all destroyed. Four people lost their lives, two from the fire itself, and two from a sixty-foot fall—John Hamm and John Raap, had fled the flames to the roof of one building, which collapsed underneath them.
Babcock & Snider, the Work’s insurance agent, estimated the fire at $52,400 damage. The stockholders met and decided unanimously to rebuild. Later that year, a special switch was added to the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad line to accommodate the factory’s shipping needs. Soon, all the former employees of the factory were back working at what was now called the Glucose Sugar Refining Company.
Business boomed. The company expanded across the country, and changed its name to the Corn Products Company, which in 1915, was reported to have 500 employees processing up to 20,000 bushels of corn per day.
Everything looked to be smooth sailing. Until the Federal Court in New York ruled that the company was a trust and ordered that a certain number of properties were to be sold.
In 1920, the old glucose factory at 1705 Rockingham Road was offered in a public action. Its buildings were purchased by the Nichols Wire company, the American Cotton Oil Company, and a few private citizens.
But fate wasn’t finished with the Old Glucose Works.
On March 29, 1922, a fire, set off by machinery sparks or a stray piece of superheated metal, razed the property, causing a quarter of a million dollars worth of damage and setting off a lawsuit that lasted three years, sending several of the owners in bankruptcy.
Today, nothing remains of the Davenport Glucose Works, one of Davenport’s most lucrative and tenacious businesses.
Davenport Daily Gazette, March 19, 1878, p.4
Davenport Daily Gazette, July 17, 1879, p. 4
Davenport Daily Gazette, July 18, 1879, p. 4
Davenport Democrat, June 5, 1923, p. 11
Davenport Democrat, October 8, 1955, p. 44
Downer, Harry E. History of Davenport and Scott County, Iowa, 1915, volume 1.