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Soybean Oil Developed in Elizabeth City

A Hyde County soybean field circa 1910-1934. Image from the N.C. Museum of History.On December 13, 1915, the Elizabeth City Oil and Fertilizer Company repurposed equipment to generate the nation’s first commercially-processed soybean oil. The modified machine was originally designed to produce cottonseed oil and cotton by-products.

Originally from China, soybeans first came to America as ballast in sailing ships. Around 1870, farmers in northeastern North Carolina began growing them as livestock food and fertilizer. After boll weevils—a type of beetle—infested the South’s cotton crops in the early 1900s, an increasing number of Tar Heel farmers turned to soybean production.

By 1915, the state had become the nation’s top soybean producer. World War I sparked an interest in soybean oil for industrial products and, with cottonseed mills looking for ways to stay in business, soybean processing seemed to be a sensible solution. After the experiment in Elizabeth City proved successful, other cottonseed mills in North Carolina also began crushing soybeans.

Today, North Carolina ranks 17th nationally in soybean production. Protein-rich soybeans have a multitude of uses. They are processed and used in both human and livestock food as nutritional enhancements. And soybean oil, while also found in foods, is an important ingredient in industrial products such as plastics, lubricants and biofuels.

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