The Greeks grew them for sweet syrup, so did the ancient Egyptians and Chinese. A German apothecary, Andreas Marggraf, managed to crystallize their juice in 1747, and by the early 1800s work was underway in Prussia on improving both the plant stock and the crystallization process, thanks to the sponsorship of King Frederick William III. Then, in an effort to break Britain's commercial back through her trade, Napoleon Bonaparte closed the entire European coastline to British ships in 1806, incidentally depriving Europe of cane sugar from Britain's West Indies. What followed was an all-out effort to establish an independent, European sugar industry by Napoleon based on the new Prussian technology. The result was forty factories operating in Europe by 1814, processing some 80,000 cultivated acres of sugar beets.
Sugar Beets! Curious how that term evokes a kind of horrified nostalgia in many of Utah's and Idaho's farm-bred Cache Valley people. It was all that thinning and weeding and hoeing and irrigating and topping and loading. Kids, like the ones pictured below, thinning beet seedlings in 1910--they grew up with it all.
And never, never forgot.
The sugar beet industry came to Cache Valley through a near-century-long effort of trial and error, including its eventual spread from Europe to England, then to the United States and, ultimately, to Utah. It came to Utah by way of Mormon missionaries who brought word of a French factory to Brigham Young in the 1840s. The result was a beet sugar extraction factory built under Brigham Young's orders in what became the Sugar House district, south of Salt Lake City. The factory was equipped with British machinery–brought with great effort by ship, ox-team, and barge over many thousands of miles–and the seed came from France. Though the plant's performance was in the end disappointing, "Sugar House" was the first beet sugar factory west of the Mississippi, and is commemorated by a monument standing on its original site.
In the meantime, beet sugar extraction efforts were going on elsewhere in the United States, culminating in a successful commercial venture out of a factory built by E.H. Dyer at Alvarado, California, in 1870. This was twenty years after the Sugar House effort. The Alvarado success was followed by a handful of similar plants in the West and Midwest, including the highly successful Utah Sugar Company plant in Lehi, Utah. The Alvarado and Lehi advances were to spawn many small sugar beet factories throughout the Mountain West, including the Lewiston Sugar Company's plant, built at about 1200 East and 200 South in Lewiston, on a spot now occupied by Presto Products Incorporated. The Lewiston plant's first beet-harvesting campaign began on November 14 and ended December 13, in the year 1905, processing about 13,300 tons of beets into something over 11,000 bags of sugar. The "campaign," by the way, was the period of time taken for harvesting the beets and bringing them to the factory for processing into juice.
As in any new technology, serious problems turned up, compounded by the ever-present possibility of crop-weakening drought in the arid West.
Beet culture, for instance, demanded exacting methods of field preparation, encompassing leveling and a fine tilth. For this reason, producers were advised during the early years to dedicate certain of their fields exclusively to sugar beets. The resultant lack of crop rotation lead not only to worn-out land and diminished crops, but to the propagation of various types of parasites, including nematodes which attacked the all-important beet root.
Equally devastating during these years was Blight or Curly Top, a disease caused by a virus transmitted by the "white fly" or beet leafhopper. The virus ravaged entire regions devoted to sugar beet culture in Utah and surrounding states. Research, having centered at first on the leaf hopper, was at length directed toward the virus the insect carried, and after approximately ten years, resistant varieties of beets began appearing for growers.
In spite of attendant difficulties, however, growing sugar beets became an attractive option for farmers, and the special wagons for filling and dumping beets, pictured below, were ubiquitous all over the valley. For one thing, the contract offered by the sugar company with a guaranteed return could hardly be beat, even when the time consuming, finicky preparation of the land was factored in.
But intensive machine work wasn't the only effort involved in raising sugar beets. In an essay on the area schools' "beet vacations," A.J. Simmonds writes eloquently about the stoop labor of his boyhood--the hand thinning, the persistent weeds, the groveling posture as he moved along the row. Beets, he laments, "were the horror that always lay ahead at the end of school."
In 1926, Lewiston's Theon Nielsen started his long association with the Lewiston sugar factory. This was 12 years after the company had merged with Amalgamated Sugar and several years of experience of his own with boyhood stoop labor. "At first," he said, "we had to thin them with this gadget that looked like a wide putty knife." This was before the one-seed-one-plant era when the hand workers were faced with a veritable mat of beets, the result of a seed ball containing as many as five or six potential plants. "You'd be leaning over," Mr. Nielsen said, "and jabbing them in the side. On a half-mile row ... well ... it would take a few days before your back got used to it."
That was in an era in which the term, "child labor," had a positive connotation, and teenagers and adults were not the only ones out in the field. "Small boys of ten years old," advised a Farmers' Institute speaker in 1905, "are very useful." He went on, "My girls have worked in the beets, also. It is no disgrace for them to work." All of these young people needed to see, he pointed out, how much work is necessary to produce twenty tons of beets an acre.
Judging from comments coming from Lewiston's graduates of the early beet fields, in that desire he was not disappointed. Later, thinning the single hybrid beets with a short-handled hoe was slightly less onerous, though still very much stoop labor. As was harvest time when the worker hooked the beets one at a time out of a row loosened by machinery, grabbed them with the left hand, and sliced off the top with his beet knife, shown at left in Melanie Shaw's hand. "You didn't want to leave any green," explained an old hand at the job, "but you didn't want to take off any more beet than you had to, either." An exacting process! Especially when--as happened one year to Theon Nielsen--the workers found themselves slogging through a field hit by an early snowstorm, but still working with bare hands in order to get a good grip on the beet. "The ground was so soft, we had to load up a slip with the topped beets and pull them out to the road with horses," recalled Mr. Nielsen, "Then we loaded them onto the truck." I count that as loading twice, but such were the joys back then of the beet harvest.
Of course they didn't have to unload them at the factory, not by hand. There was a trestle affair onto which farmers drove their wagons and, letting down the sides, dumped the beets into The Pile. The Pile, from what I gather looking at photos taken at the time, ranged from a foothill to a mountain, depending upon how far it was into the campaign. Florence Allen, Weigh Master at Lewiston's factory from 1935 until 1962, tells of periods of peak harvesting when she weighed 300 loads a day headed for The Pile, most of them--by that time--in trucks. In Mrs. Allen's day, the campaign lasted from six to ten weeks employing many locals. In fact, coupled with the year-round crew, the factory offered employment to just about anyone in the Lewiston area who wanted to work.
By 1962, when both Theon Nielsen and Florence Allen retired, Lewiston's beet industry was still fairly healthy. Much of the drudgery of beet farming was by then a thing of the past; mechanization of planting, cultivating, and harvesting the beets had taken care of that. And technological advances in the machinery which loaded, sliced, juiced, and then spun and dried the crystallized sugar had improved and speeded up the processing.
But as the decade advanced, factories all over the West, once considered top of the line, were abandoned as obsolete. Moreover, larger and larger acreages were needed by producers as agricultural machinery necessary to economically produce sugar beets became more mechanized and massive. Inevitably, Lewiston's sugar factory joined those that had been abandoned, and closed its doors at the end of the 1971-1972 campaign. Since then, Lewiston-area farmers have planted their fields to other crops, but the Sugar Beet years in Lewiston won't soon be forgotten. For 67 years, the persnickety and demanding root had been a great source of ready cash when ready cash wasn't easy to come by.*
Lewiston Sugar Factory
photo by permission of Bachman, The Amalgamated Sugar Company
Farm boys thinning beets in 1910 by permission of Arrington, University of Washington Press
Wagonload of beets on the way to the factory, Edis Taggart collection
Beetknife--the hook pulled out the beet; the blade sliced off the top. Joan and Alan Shaw collection--both the picture and the beet knife.