Like many American industries, the sugar beet trade grew from perceived opportunity and weakening in other formerly profitable U.S. markets. A decline in mining and agriculture in the 1890s led some entrepreneurs to seek their fortunes elsewhere. The sugar beet industry appeared to hold some promise as it could provide income for farmers, laborers, industrial workers, and capitalists. In 1899 a beet sugar factory was established in Grand Junction, Colorado, with funding from Denver mining magnates. In 1901, the same men incorporated the Great Western Sugar Company, which became the dominant producer of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska beet sugar for more than sixty years. Another company, Holly Sugar, was established in Holly, Colorado, in 1905 and became another mainstay in the Wyoming sugar beet industry.
Beets were heavy and perishable, making them expensive and risky to transport great distances. Therefore, to make the industry profitable, factories to process the beets were located close to the source. Factories of this type were opened near the Wyoming beet growing fields in Lovell (1916), Worland (1917), and Torrington (1923). Each new factory quickly became the hub of the agricultural community in which it was built.
Russian German families (who had experience with sugar beet farming), single Japanese men (until immigration restrictions eliminated them in 1907), and Spanish-speaking laborers from Texas, southern Colorado and New Mexico were brought in to help with the labors of sugar beet farming. Over the course of the twentieth century, the list of preferred fieldworkers would also include Native Americans, Filipinos, and South Asians. Low land prices in the early days of the industry led to upward mobility for Russian Germans as they were able to purchase their own farmland, a mobility not seen by workers of color.
The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 lessened the number of Russian Germans workers when the legislation restricted immigration by Southern and Eastern Europeans. But the Act set no limits on immigration from Latin America, due in part by lobbying by the sugar beet industry. Mexican nationals, called “betabeleros” (beet workers), were increasingly recruited to fill the labor void and lower field labor expenses.
Migrant laborers were almost exclusively perceived as “outsiders,” people different from the typical hired hands in the family farm system due to the work they performed and ethnic or cultural differences. While hired hands typically lived and socialized with the family for which they labored, this was a rarity for sugar beet laborers.
Growing sugar beets in the early twentieth century was an incredibly labor-intensive process, especially in terms of the hand or “stoop” labor that could not be mechanized. In the spring and early summer, laborers would first use a short-handled hoe to block (cut out undesired beet plants to have plants properly spaced) and then used their fingers on the other hand to thin (remove all but one beet plant from the cluster left by the blocking). A summer-long task was regular hoeing to keep out the weeds. By October, the beets were ready to be harvested. After the ground was loosened with a machine lifter, laborers pulled the heavy beets out by hand. Leafy tops of the beets were also cut by hand with a curved beet knife. The beets were piled in rows and then loaded by hand into wagons and hauled to a beet dump for processing or loading onto railroad cars.
Very early in the industry, labor gangs consisting of single men were quite common. However, recruiting families quickly became a high priority for sugar company agents. Families were readymade labor gangs with a cook and children, who were well suited to certain portions of the necessary labor. Indeed, after a day of fieldwork, women still had household duties of cooking and cleaning, making for a “double day.” By age 8 or 9, children were encouraged to take on work in the beet fields and were regularly pulled out of school. According to a 1923 study, children under the age of sixteen made up 52% of the labor force and accounted for 47% of the acreage tended. Although laborers saw education as beneficial, language barriers and the need for family income got in the way of effective education. Students often had to repeat grades due to the length of time they were out of school. Nevertheless, public school education was an integrative force as it allowed some immigrants to move into occupations other than field work, a crucial step to becoming integrated members of a community.
Laborers employed on farms near a city often lived in ethnically segregated settlements in the city and traveled daily to the fields. If the farm was too far away, they would live near the fields in temporary housing that was often shoddily built or run down.
The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 made things worse as the economic downturn hurt sugar-beet production. The rate paid to growers dropped from about $7.00 per ton in 1930 to about $5.15 per ton in 1932; total acreage fell 10%. A resulting labor surplus meant that companies and producers had little incentive to provide migrant workers with benefits or amenities to ensure their return the next year. Housing for migrants was often without indoor privies and water had to be drawn from wells and nearby streams. Children and adults of all beet-worker families during the Depression suffered high rates of illnesses and often lived together on the edge of starvation. In Torrington, children tied soiled rags around their bare feet and walked as far as a mile to school in temperatures twenty degrees below zero. Photos from the American Heritage Center below show living conditions of sugar beet workers in Torrington during the Depression in 1931.
World War II led to labor shortages and in 1942 the U.S. and Mexico signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, creating what is known as the “Bracero Program.” The program, which lasted until 1964, was the largest guest-worker program in U.S. history. Sugar beet field work was one of the many agricultural areas in which they were employed. The Mexican government actually prohibited its citizens from working in Wyoming after 1963. But a discussion of the Bracero program in Wyoming will have to be left to another post.
As I was talking to my Wyoming native husband about this blog, he told me of trips in the early 1980s that he took from Sheridan, where he was employed, to his hometown of Green River. As he drove through the Bighorn Basin, at times he would see groups of about 30 laborers hand working the beet fields. By the early 2000s, mechanization, chemical applications, and hardier cultivars such as Roundup Ready sugar beets led a lessened need for human hands in the fields. 95 years after its first processing campaign, the Torrington factory closed in 2018, although the Lovell and Worland facilities are still operating as cooperatives.
There is a lot more to say about the sugar beet industry in Wyoming and the American sugar industry in general. Information can be found in holdings at the American Heritage Center, including the papers of University of Wyoming History professor Larry Cardoso, Wyoming historian Grace Raymond Hebard, sugar economist Joshua Bernhardt, Denver businessman John E. Leet, and others.
Post contributed by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.
Thank you very much for this information. The family of my mother migrated to the Big Horn Valley and worked the sugar beet fields – Until I read your article it was the untold story of the hard life these families endured working in the fields. I commend you on the accuracy of the information as it mirrors my mother’s recounting of those times in the 1930’s – 1940’s.
We appreciate your comments. By chance, has anyone done an oral history with any of your family members? The AHC would like to preserve the history of those who worked the sugar beet fields in the Rocky Mountain West.