#Lookback: The Grueling labor of Early Sugar Beat Farming

    Sugar beet farming has a long history in the Big Horn Basin and Fremont County. Today machines do most of the heavy work, but during the early 20th century human hands were required, and the life of a hand in the field was dirty and labor-intensive. 

    The first sugar beet farmer in the Big Horn Basin was J.W. Pulliam of Worland, who planted 600 acres of sugar beets and grain as a pilot project. By 1909, more growers in the area began cultivating sugar beets that were shipped to Billings, Mont. via railroad. On Oct. 17, 1917, The Wyoming Sugar Company opened the doors to its new factory in Worland. On that first day, the factory sliced 260 tons of beets. The factory was purchased by Holly Sugar Corp. in 1925 and, by 1939, the receiving station was equipped to handle more than 70,000 tons of beets, making it the largest in the world at the time.

    In the beginning, Russian German families who had experience with sugar beet farming were brought in to help with its labors. Due to low land prices at the time, they were also able to purchase their own farmland, which led to upward mobility for them. However, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 restricted immigration by Southern and Eastern Europeans. To fill the labor gap this created in the industry, company agents next turned to Mexico for help, recruiting “betabeleros” (beet workers).

    At first, labor “gangs” of young, single men were used. However, it soon became a high priority for sugar companies to recruit families as they came with children who could also help with the labor. By the age of 8 or 9, the children were pulled out of school during thinning in the spring and harvesting in the fall to help in the fields, and they often had to repeat grades. In fact, a 1923 study found that children under the age of 16 made up 52 percent of the industry’s labor force. 

    This was stoop labor these families were doing too. In the spring, laborers would thin out the rows of young sugar beet plants, leaving only one or two plants with every sweep of the hoe. They worked from sunrise to sunset with breaks only for sharpening the hoe, to drink water, and to eat lunch. Women would leave the fields earlier, but only so they could go home and cook dinner. At harvest time in the fall, the ground was loosened with a machine lifter after which the laborers pulled the heavy beets out by hand. The leafy tops were then 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.

    Unlike other hired hands in the farm industry, these migrant workers often lived in temporary housing that was ethnically segregated from their employers and the white community. The houses were usually run down and often without indoor privies and running water. Conditions became even worse during the Great Depression due to a labor surplus that left companies feeling they didn’t need to provide their workers with higher pay or benefits. As a result, beet-worker families suffered high rates of illnesses and starvation.

    Things changed when 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. Sugar beet work was one of the many agricultural areas in which they were employed. The program lasted until 1964. 

    By the 1950s and 60s, machine harvesting took over the beet fields. In 2001, Holly Sugar Corp. announced the Worland factory would close its doors, leading to local growers, landowners, and businesspeople in the Big Horn Basin and Fremont County to form a cooperative to purchase it. Under management of the new cooperative, the factory was renamed the Wyoming Sugar Company in 2002.

    Next up for the Fremont County Museum

    October 13 & 14, 6-9pm at the Pioneer Museum in Lander, “Halloween Night at the Museum” Baily Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

    October 14, 5-8pm at the Riverton Museum, “Pumpkin Trail” 

    October 15, 5-7:30 at the Riverton Museum, “Riverton Haunted Downtown Adventure Trek” Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek Series

    December 2022-October 2023 at the Pioneer Museum, “Wind River Memories: Artists of the Lander Valley and Beyond” art exhibition

    Call the Dubois Museum 1-307-455-2284, the Pioneer Museum 1-307-332-3339 or the Riverton Museum 1-307-856-2665 for detail regarding their programs.

    The Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation has been created to specifically benefit The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum.  The WRCCF will help deliver the long term financial support our museums need to flourish.  In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years.  Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation at PO Box 1863 Lander, WY 82520 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.  

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