The potential for growing sugar beets in the Longmont area had been noted in an early promotional pamphlet for the Chicago-Colorado Colony, with the bold assertion that “hundreds of acres could be profitably grown if some far-seeing and enterprising capitalist would but invest a few spare thousands of dollars in the erection of a beet sugar mill.” By 1903, however, Longmont had fallen behind its neighbors — Loveland, Greeley, and Eaton all had operating sugar factories, and other towns were deep in planning. Two elements were necessary for creation of a local sugar beet industry — pledges from local farmers to grow sugar beets, and the capital needed to build a first-class factory.
The capital came first — Frank M. Downer and Neil C. Sullivan took the lead, raising pledges of $70,000 from forty local businessmen. This was a start, but a first-class factory would cost considerably more, and it seemed unlikely that Longmont could raise that cash by itself. Downer and Sullivan turned to a potentially problematic outside source for the remaining funds. Henry O. Havemeyer and his monopoly Sugar Trust wanted to get into the Colorado sugar beet market, to squeeze the independent sugar factories springing up around Colorado. Downer sent a telegram to him in New Jersey, and by December 2, 1902, they had a signed proposal from Havemeyer to provide all necessary capital and purchase land for the factory. Securing commitments from farmers to grow a new crop took a little longer, but after a dramatic meeting on December 27, attended by six hundred people, farmers pledged enough acres to meet the four thousand acre minimum.
Construction of the factory, located over a mile east of downtown, began shortly afterward, and it was ready in time for processing beets on December 18, 1903. In the first season (called a “campaign”), the factory processed beets until February 14, 1904, and produced more than one million pounds of sugar a day on its most productive days. Construction of the Longmont factory was only part of Havemeyer’s campaign to eliminate competition from independent beet sugar producers. He also undercut prices for refined sugar, dropping them from 5 cents a pound to 3.5 cents a pound, but only in parts of the country where beet sugar was made. He proposed to build new factories alongside existing ones and forced the independent sugar companies to sell out to the Sugar Trust. By 1905, all the northern Colorado factories were consolidated under one company — the Great Western Sugar Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Havemeyer’s Sugar Trust.
Beet growers did not welcome the presence of a monopoly company, since they lost their leverage with the consolidation. They quickly responded by organizing themselves into a beet growers’ association to negotiate with the company. The growers’ association negotiated a flat rate of $5 per ton for beets that were more than 12% sugar and 80% pure. The struggle between the growers and the company would last for many years.
The impact of the Great Western Sugar factory on Longmont is hard to overstate. In 1900, the population of Longmont was 2,201. In 1910, the population had nearly doubled, to 4,256. New buildings sprang up in downtown Longmont. New large homes were built on the west side of town for the managers of the factory and other local industries, and smaller homes nearer the factory on the east side for workers. Sugar beets were a particularly backbreaking crop to raise, in part because of a quirk in how beets grew. Sugar beet seeds were “multi-germ,” meaning that when a seed sprouted, it produced a cluster of small plants. If allowed to grow, they would produce a clump of undersized beets, not the large beets the factory wanted. When the beets had four leaves, it was time to thin them. This meant laboriously and carefully removing, by hand, all but one of the beets from each clump so the remaining beet would grow large enough to be harvested. Beets also needed several hoeings to remove weeds before harvest. Although other parts of the beet growing process would be mechanized, no effective mechanical method of thinning was ever developed.
The 1910 Census shows us who was working in the beet fields. Many immigrants worked as contract labor alongside the farmer-owner. The Census tract called Southeast Longmont — outside the city limits from Main Street east to the Weld County line, and from roughly 5th Avenue south to Quail Road, contained a remarkable 33% foreign born residents. Most were Russian-Germans, but there was also a sizable population of people listed as Mexican-Spanish. The largest percentage of them listed their occupation as tending beets. Whether Russian-German immigrants or Latino betalbeleros, they needed all family members to raise beets, down to children who could barely lift a beet knife. The sugar industry in Colorado would not have been possible without their labor.
Peter II and Sophia Schlagel were Russian-Germans, part of a large population of ethnic Germans who had been living in the Volga River Valley in Russia since the time of Catherine the Great. The Schlagels heard that they could work in the beet fields in America and brought their four children and Peter’s brother to the Longmont area in 1908. Within five years, three more of Peter’s brothers and sisters, plus his parents, all came to the Longmont area to farm sugar beets. Many other Russian-German families came to this area as well, starting as laborers and eventually buying their own land to farm.
Japanese-Americans also arrived in Longmont as the need for agricultural workers increased. Goruko Kanemoto wanted to come to Colorado, but immigration rules prohibited people of Japanese descent from coming to the United States. So, he took a boat to Mexico and bought a train ticket to Canada. When the train stopped in Denver, he hopped off, disguising his intention to stay in Colorado by leaving behind all his belongings. Despite starting with nothing, his family prospered and purchased farmland south of Longmont.
Scandinavians also came to this area to farm: the Throndsons, Frolands, Opedahls, Andersons and Haugens from Norway; the Nelsons, Larsons, Magnis, Petersons, and Olanders from Sweden; and the Jorgensons, Jacobsons, and Hansons from Denmark. Many of these families settled in small communities surrounding Longmont, starting in the west near Ryssby before moving east of Longmont near Rinn for richer, less rocky soil.
Because the Great Western Sugar Company held a near-monopoly on the market for sugar beets, they had powerful leverage over farmers growing beets. The company contracted with growers before the season started for the price per ton it would pay for sugar beets. The grower had to buy seed from the company and borrow from the bank for other expenses. The grower contracted with workers to tend the beets on a per-acre basis. The sugar company just paid the farmer for the crop, leaving the farmer to take the risk of a poor growing season. The company also drew up the contracts for all workers across Colorado and Nebraska to sign with local farmers. At the end of the season, the farmer paid the workers last — after the company took their cut for the seeds, the bank loan was repaid, and the farmer’s family was fed.
This is an excerpt from Erik Mason’s book Longmont: The First 150 Years, “Chapter 5: The Sugar Boom.” The book is available at the Longmont Museum gift shop, plus Barbed Wire Books and the Used Book Emporium in Longmont.