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Working the beet table

Mike McMahon
Deer Lodge, Mont.

According to the Internet, the Great Western Sugar Company was formed in 1905, when six of the smaller sugar refineries combined, with headquarters in Longmont, Colo. The source of their refined sugar product came from the surrounding farms that grew thousands of acres of sugar beets each year. Several small refineries operated as early as 1901, the first being in Loveland, Colo. After the Great Western was formed, these small companies fell under their auspices: there were 10 companies in northern Colorado, along with “four sugar factories in Nebraska and one each in Wyoming and Montana.”

Because of the rapid expanse of artificial sweeteners, by the early 1980s there were few operating sugar beet factories left. Eventually, Great Western moved its headquarters to Dallas, Texas, and then ceased operations entirely a few years later. In the company’s heyday, however, they maintained “assets exceeding $80,000,000.”

As a child of The Great Plains, which the author Ian Frazier wrote so poetically of, it is interesting to follow the history and demise of the sugar beet industry. Having been born in Scottsbluff, Neb., and two years later moving with our family to Fort Collins, Colo., I am personally more attracted to the subject than others might be. Both towns relied heavily on Great Western refineries as a major source of income. If you grew up in that part of the country, it’s not hard to spot an old sugar beet factory. The architecture was basically the same for each one. They existed from western Nebraska to Longmont, Colo.; and if one were to travel through Colorado, Wyoming and Montana towns in a northwesterly direction, all the way to Chinook, Mont., which lies just a few miles south of the province of Saskatchewan, Canada, you’re likely to drive by an abandoned one.

There are a few other reminders.

In Brush, Colo., for example, you’re apt to find out that the high school students there still proudly proclaim themselves The Brush Beetdiggers (or ‘Diggers for short.) Likewise, if you travel to the Montana Hi-Line and come upon a tiny town of about of 1,500 souls, you’ll find that their students still, just as proudly maintain the name of the Chinook Sugar Beeters (or Beeters for short.)

For 67 years I’ve lived in Nebraska, Colorado and Montana. During that time, we lived on a farm for exactly one year. Consequently, I’m a city boy, born and bred.

Which is not to say that I, along with other kids from town, haven’t done a fair share of farm and ranch work. Even in the small towns that still dot the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, many teenagers will tell you of times they spent on farms: putting up hay, irrigating or helping with various harvests.

My wife Jane and I have lived in Montana for the past 34 years. Even in mid-August, where we reside it’s not unusual to get a slight taste of autumn, even this early. The other morning, for example, we awoke in our little home with all the bedroom windows thrown wide open, and a reading of 36 degrees on our front porch thermometer. I quickly threw another blanket on the bed. Then we lay there for a while longer, and I fondly thought back to that autumn of long ago when I worked the beet table in Wellington, Colo.

After class one day, when I was a junior at Fort Collins High School, a friend and classmate, Vic Day, asked Warren Wright, Jim Specht and me if we’d like to earn some extra money during the annual Colorado Teachers’ Convention, harvesting sugar beets. Class would be dismissed at 3:15 on Wednesday afternoon, so we were free to do whatever we wanted until the following Monday. But first, Jim and I had to get our schedules rearranged at the Dairy Gold Creamery, where we held year-round part-time jobs. Thus, bright and early on a beautiful October Thursday morning we drove north toward Wellington from Fort Collins, to Mr. Day’s farm; thinking it would be fun for the four of us to work together. We’d been friends for several years.

Our job would be on the beet table. It stood atop a conveyor belt, and was pulled by a tractor. The beets would be harvested, and then run up the conveyor to the table. The four of us stood on small platforms, two of us on either side of the table. Alongside of us, a large farm truck, with three-foot high sideboards inched along, geared to compound low. Our job was simply to sort the beets from the dirt clods: two of us tossing the beets into a hopper, which would funnel into the truck bed, while the other two would make sure no dirt got into the truck bed.

The most memorable member of our crew was the truck driver. Her name was Joan Day. She was Vic’s little sister, and couldn’t have been more than 10 years old at the time. I remember her sitting on a couple of Montgomery Ward catalogues, so she could see where she was going. There was a hand throttle on the steering column, which was good, since her feet didn’t touch the floor.

After the truck was fully loaded, an adult would drive up behind Joan with an empty truck. We’d stop momentarily, as the driver took Joan’s “booster seat” to the empty truck, and then returned to the full truck and headed for the beet dump.

The weather was cold, but the feeling amongst us was warm. Mrs. Day fed us royally twice a day. Not only that, at about 3 p.m., she’d bring us a thermos of cocoa to ease the chill.

About that time, we’d drink the cocoa and watch as huge flocks of Canadian geese flew overhead. Now and again, they’d alight in cornfields some miles distant, as they fortified themselves for their long trip south.

We worked from first-light until dark. There was no daylight savings time back then. As a result, the last couple of truckloads were carried out with truck headlights and a fairly large spotlight mounted on the tractor.

Around noon Sunday, Mr. Day called us all to the house. We were done. He jokingly asked Mrs. Day if she thought Vic’s motley crew was worth paying. She then sat and wrote each of us a check from an old three-ring bound ledger. She folded them and handed them to us. We thanked them and said our goodbyes.

We each earned $50 over that long weekend – quite a bonanza in 1958. The proceeds went toward upgrading our wardrobes, buying a few things to make our cars a little flashier and maybe purchase that first high school yearbook.

The Great Plains has been my home since birth. I feel blessed.


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