Sterling sugar factory works 80th campaign

Susan Davis
Inman, Kansas
Sterling's sugar factory as it stands today. The factory still gives the image that it could process beets into sugar, but the equipment was moved to other locations after it closed in 1985. The factory was built next to the railroad, which played a key role in transporting betts to the facility.

Today, when I hear about a campaign, I usually think of someone running for a political office. As a farm girl, I heard about an entirely different kind of campaign. It was conducted by our local sugar factory in Sterling, Colo. Their campaign began on the first day that beets were sliced and ended when the last beet had been processed into sugar. It usually lasted from early fall to the middle of winter.

On April 5, 1905, construction of the Sterling Sugar Company was started. It took 50-70 horses to break up the land. Since they were digging close to the South Platte River, seepage quickly became a problem. They hit water at approximately two feet, and a couple of centrifugal pumps and one operated by a threshing machine engine ran constantly in an effort to pump water away from the construction site. However, heavy rains in April and May didn’t help matters. The men and animals worked day after day in knee-deep mud. Meanwhile, area farmers were busy growing the 6,741.6 acres of sugar beets they had planted.

Even though the building process wasn’t completed, the first campaign started November 7, 1905. The factory processed an average of 534 tons per day. That season, the factory wasn’t capable of extracting all of the sugar out of the area grown beets. They sliced slightly over half of them and the rest were shipped to other factories for processing.

While the factory was still in its first campaign, Sterling Sugar Company was sold to Great Western Sugar Company on January 1, 1906. Sterling was the seventh factory in the corporation, commonly known by the letters of GW. Under new ownership, the first campaign ended on January 31, 1906. The second campaign started on September 24, 1906 and ended 144 days later.

As the demand for sugar increased, the number of factories also grew. New ones were built in other agricultural communities in northern Colorado, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming.

Of course to support all these factories, a substantial number of acres had to be planted into sugar beets. My grandpa on my dad’s side was one of those farmers. My dad was only four-years-old in 1929, but he remembers his father talking about that particular harvest. They had 39 rows left when the weather turned bad, and the beets were frozen in the ground. Since they pulled them at that time and topped them by hand, they were able to finish the harvest.

My dad was a second-generation beet farmer. In 1969, he had to deal with a bad weather situation, also. He recalls, “We had topped about 225 tons before it froze. It snowed and got very wet. It was one of those times, it just would not dry. It froze every night and was close to noon before we could top. The beets would not keep in a pile so the company pro-rated delivery of them according to your acres. They only wanted the number of tons they could process each day. We finished on Thanksgiving Day.”

He goes on to add, “All we did was tear up our equipment. We got $4.00 a ton for the frozen beets. Some farmers did not get done. They made the most money. In the spring, their cattle ate the beets, which were left in the ground. They were so fat they could hardly walk.”

As a sugar beet farmer, Dad dealt directly with The Great Western Sugar Factory. He recalls they had a building at the factory site where they sold seed to area farmers. The company also brought up migrant workers from Mexico to help with the thinning and hoeing of the beets. Dad and other farmers went into the factory and requested the number of workers they wanted. The company then assigned them to you. Our migrant workers lived in the beet labor shack at our farm. When the seasonal work was finished, Dad took them back to the factory.

Great Western also owned a building called the Dormitory. It was located, inside the city limits, about a mile away from the rest the company’s property. Dad recalls that a few of the seasonal factory workers resided there on a continuous basis.

During bad weather, such as a blizzard, the factory offered its employees a place to stay. They transported them to the Dormitory in their loader. Just before the employees’ next shift, the company came back over with the loader and hauled them back to work.

The Dormitory was also where German Prisoners of World War II resided. For security reasons, a barbed-wire fence was erected around the property. GW housed them with the intent that they would fill some of the labor shortages that area farmers had since young Americans were overseas fighting. The POWs were hauled to area farms outside of town to help in the sugar beet fields.

During the Blizzard of 1949, the Great Western factory located in Ovid, Colo., provided another vital service. Local power lines were all down, but the mill fired up the steam boilers. The large engines generated electricity, which was stored in a REA transformer. Thus, the town’s power needs were met.

In 1950, the Sterling factory repainted their black water tower. It was painted silver and had a black GW emblem on the side of it. The tall tower had a 40,000 gallon capacity and was used during the campaign to process beets. Of course, the harvested beets were covered with dirt. Lots of water was needed to wash them off.

It also took a great deal on energy to operate the factory seven days a week, both day and night. The Sterling factory consumed four train carloads of coal daily. The by-product was fly ash. The company received plenty of criticism for it. In the summer of 1959, the factory was converted to natural gas. During sugar beet campaigns, the company consumed more gas than the entire city of Sterling did.

Another by-product of the factory was beet pulp. It was transferred to a pulp silo where ensilage was produced for cattle.

Of course, the factory couldn’t operate without a good railroad system. At the beginning of each campaign, the fall weather was usually still quite warm. Area beet dumps transferred the freshly dug beets from farm trucks directly into train cars. They were taken to the factory for quick processing to avoid spoilage. As the weather turned colder, the area beet dumps were able to pile the beets. Later, they were loaded onto railroad cars and hauled to the factory.

The factory had a small, steam locomotive named Dinky who switched railroad cars in the yard. The 21-ton steamer was built in 1928. After many years of service, she was finally retired. For a time, she sat prominently at an area park.

In the mid-1930s the factory started giving out “high ten” awards. They were given to the ten farmers in the district who produced the best tonnage per acre and had the highest sugar percentages. My parents were honored at a dinner put on by GW in 1962. They were awarded a silver sugar bowl for their winning effort. Dad recalls that he usually averaged around 22 tons per acre with a sugar percentage of about 16.

My parents typically received around four payments every year for the beets they grew. Sugar beets consistently were the best money crop they raised.

In February of 1978, The Great Western Sugar Company transferred ownership to Hunt International Resource Company. The already unsteady relationship between growers and the factory continued to decline. The market was changing. Fructose and imported sugars were becoming more popular.

After my parents retired from farming in 1981, Dad got to see another side of the picture. He worked for the sugar factory for a couple of campaigns, sharpening knives. His dad had also worked as a seasonal employee of the sugar factory after he retired from farming. His job was to tack sacks of sugar.

In 1985, The Sterling factory was closed. A few area farmers continued to grow beets, but most planted their fields to other crops. Those who continued to plant sugar beets had to truck them quite a distance to the nearest factory, incurring high freight costs.

The familiar aroma of sugar being extracted from beets and beet pulp being turned into ensilage was suddenly gone. For the Sterling community and the surrounding area, the factory had been “sweet” to their economy during its 80-year campaign.

Writer’s note: Some information was taken from the following sources: Sterling Centennial Logan County Family History, Logan County: Better by 100 Years and Sterling Colorado Crossroads On The Prairie.