Sunday, May 3, 2009

Longmont Sugar Beet Factory, Part 1

Finally, the northeast Colorado sugar beet factory tour continues, after a few months off! I was waiting for a hard-to-find reference book called "The Great Western Sugarlands" by William John May. It's actually May's 1982 Ph.D. thesis from the University of Colorado but it reads very well as a normal book.

Since this is a Longmont-based blog, the Longmont sugar beet factory will get special attention, and thus multiple postings.

The importance of the sugar beet crop and the factory to the development and prosperity of Longmont during the last century cannot be underestimated. It affected commerce and employment, real-estate, banking, population growth, irrigation, transportation, cultural diversity, education, and of course, agriculture. If you read Betty Ann Newby's regular Longmont history column in the Times-Call, the sugar beet factory is mentioned frequently because it touched so many people back then.

Construction for the Longmont factory was started in January 1903 but there was some early Longmont sugar beet activity, long before that:
  • H. D. Emery, the chairperson of the Chicago-Colorado Colony locating committee, suggested in 1871 that the failing Chatsworth, Illinois sugar factory be relocated to Longmont [May, page 2]. The idea never gained any financial support, and the Chatsworth factory eventually moved to Freeport, IL.

  • A strong editorial in a January 1893 Longmont Ledger editorial tried to make the case for a sugar beet factory in Longmont, saying that such a factory is "no longer open for debate" and claimed that an organization was already underway to attract capital to build a factory. It would be ten more years until this vision was reached.
The Longmont factory was the first in northeast Colorado to be funded exclusively with out-of-state capital, leading local factory organizers to remind Longmont citizens that the factory would not cost them a single penny.

I mentioned that a prospective Colorado sugar beet factory needed three things before it could be built: water rights and access, railroad proximity, and farmer pledges to grow beets. There was actually one more crucial ingredient: protection from cheaper imported cane sugar, from places like Cuba, the Philippines, and Hawaii. The problem was not unlike the manufacturing of jeans or iPods today: cheap labor abroad made it not possible for domestic beet sugar to compete with imported cane sugar. The Dingley Act, passed in 1897, put a tax ($1.95 per 100 pounds) on imported refined sugar and effectively kick started the building of sugar factories in Colorado.

The Longmont Sugar Beet factory, around 1919:

One thing different about beet sugar factories vs. other types of factories is that they only were in operation for about four months out of the year, which makes it even more amazing that the enormous investments (one million dollars in 1903 for the Longmont factory) were being made for operations that were practically idle for two-thirds of the year. Some staff were employed year-round at the factories doing plant maintenance, moving finished sugar from the warehouse, and preparing the factory for the next campaign (such as stockpiling coal and limestone brought in by the railroad).

During the campaign, the Longmont factory ran 24 hours per day with usually two shifts of workers, each working 12 hours. Pumps in the factory brought in up to three million gallons of water daily from the nearby St. Vrain Creek. The Longmont factory was designed to process a massive 1200 tons of beets per day, making it one of the largest beet factories in the world.

The Longmont Sugar Beet factory today: Still standing but in poor shape.

The administration building sits along the road on the northern side of the factory.

Entrance way into the factory. When the factory gets bulldozed someday, it would be great to see the arch saved and moved somewhere safe, like the museum.

Out in the rail yard west of the factory, this piece of rail was made by Colorado Fuel and Iron in Pueblo. If you remember the visit to Loveland, the tracks there were made by Carnegie.

Much more coming about the Longmont factory, part II.

Continuing series on the northeast Colorado beet sugar factories:


Loretta said...

Great blog.. You should feature your services/products on the Longmont community, classifieds section

Thomaskj96 said...

Does anyone know if there are tours of the inside of one of these factories?
I live by one and have always wanted to explore the inside.

Peter said...

@Thomaskj96 The shuttered factories are environmental disasters, complete with asbestos and crumbling infrastructure risks. It would be difficult to believe that *any* owner would risk the liabilities involved in giving tours. You may want to contact the operating Ft. Morgan plant and see if they offer tours, especially during beet harvesting campaigns. If you find out anything, be sure to post a response here!