Looking back at Imperial Sugar's history

By Brooke Kelley - bio | email

PORT WENTWORTH, GA (WTOC) - Imperial Sugar is back in business.

It's been 22 months since the February, 2008 explosion that killed 14 people and destroyed the Port Wentworth plant.

Construction on the packaging plant was completed last week, making the sugar refinery fully operational.

See Imperial Sugar back in business.

With state-of-the-art equipment, 325 employees are back on the job and working hard, packaging up pounds of sugar that are now being shipped to customers across the country.

While the refinery has been working to rebuild and reshape its future over the past 22 months, the history of Imperial Sugar is rich at the Port Wentworth plant.

We spoke with some former Imperial employees who shared memories of the plant they say money can't buy.

Donnie Barras, Pep Blackwelder, Emory Cox and Bob Hickox were among the group that met us at Legacy park to their refinery stories.

"It's home. There was no place like this. I've heard they have houses, these oak trees lined the houses, there was never a door unlocked," said Barras.

"The best memory I have is the closeness rich in history, history that goes back to when refinery moved here from Louisiana to how cheap rent was that was the day when the village did raise the child," said Blackwelder.

A unique place where hundreds of families who migrated from Louisiana to the banks of the Savannah River called their home and still do.

Barras shares some of the memories in his family of five generations.

"We paid $6.50 a week for a house with electricity, heat and that was taken out of our pay check," said Barras. "At Christmas time, once you were old enough to drink alcoholic beverages you went from house to house and you would have to drink at every house. In fact some of my kids were born here."

"I was a young man, came here out of the Navy," said Blackwelder. "I was fortunate because at that day in time, most people had to be kin to somebody out here to get a job."

But for some, the only way to get a job at Imperial was to play ball.

"The way you could get a job is you had to play baseball," said Hickox.

Hickox sifted through old, annual reports and showed us pictures of what the old refinery looked like.

"You can see the old Dixie Crystal logo with the cloth bag," said Hickox.

"It was a good place to work good people and I never felt like a job. I couldn't wait to get to work and in no hurry to leave,"said Cox.

This group of former employees started a retirees club. They meet four times a year to remember the good old days of the refinery.

They are also planning several service projects in the community.

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