Time Machine Tuesday: Sugar Beets

A century ago sugar beets were one of Colorado’s most important agricultural industries.  More than twenty sugar refineries could be found in Colorado in the first half of the twentieth century, according to an article in the Colorado Encyclopedia.  Many of these were located in Colorado’s South Platte River Valley, but factories were located in various parts of the state.  The first sugar beet factory, in fact, was located in Grand Junction.  This factory was established by Charles Boettcher, and eventually Boettcher’s Great Western Sugar grew to ten factories in the South Platte and Arkansas river valleys.  Although Great Western (or GW) was the largest, there were other companies as well, such as the American Beet Sugar Company.     

A sugar beet worker, circa 1920s.  Courtesy Denver Public Library.

The growth of the sugar beet industry after 1898 was spurred in part by the Spanish-American War and Americans’ wish for local, rather than Caribbean-produced, sugar.  Sugar beet cultivation also benefited the ranching industry, as beet parts not used in sugar making were fed to livestock.  The increased production of sugar beets and the refining of sugar from beets created the need for many agricultural workers.  The industry employed numerous workers from various ethnic groups including Mexicans, Native Americans, Germans from Russia, and Japanese.  During WWII, Japanese-American internees from the Amache relocation camp were often put to work in the beet fields, as were German and Italian prisoners-of-war. 

Because sugar beets were such an important part of the agricultural industry in Colorado in the early twentieth century, the Colorado Agricultural College (today’s Colorado State University) published numerous agricultural bulletins with research results, worker information, and growing tips for sugar beet cultivation.  These bulletins provide an interesting look at the culture and operations of this important part of Colorado’s agricultural story.  Some titles available from our library include:

Although sugar beet production reached its height in the early decades of the twentieth century, production continued throughout the century.  Today, there is still one sugar beet refinery, in Fort Morgan.  Great Western Sugar has morphed into the grower-owned Western Sugar Cooperative, which runs the Fort Morgan facility and a handful in other western states.  For more about the sugar beet industry today, see CSU’s Estimated Economic Impact of the Colorado Sugar Beet Industry.

*Charles Boettcher, Colorado’s pioneer sugar beet industrialist, also founded the Ideal Portland Cement Company.