Perhaps more than any other single event, the arrival of a sugar beet factory propelled Fort Collins, Colorado into the 20th century and the industrial age. The high-plains climate and terrain in the area proved well suited to this large root crop; by the turn of the century processing factories began to appear in Colorado, but not in Fort Collins.
Denver entrepreneur Charles Boettcher and others saw the potential for a Fort Collins plant. So business and community leaders formed a committee to raise capital for a sugar factory and to secure guarantees from farmers for 5,000 acres of sugar beets. On October 13, 1903, the committee made its first payment to Kilby Manufacturing for the Fort Collins factory. The factory was even underway before the first official payment. Below is a construction photograph, dated October 18, 1903.
You can already see some of the gears, pipes, and vats that will make up the processing plant. If you look closely, one young man’s face is circled. On the back of the photograph is his name, John Siebenaler. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any information on him or the Siebenaler family in Fort Collins.
The plant opened here in 1904, near the Poudre River and the railroad tracks on the east side of the small town. At 10 o’clock on Monday morning, January 6, 1904, the Fort Collins sugar beet factory began to refine sugar. The Fort Collins Weekly Courier reported that the “event was signalized by the blowing of whistles, the ringing of bells, the firing of cannon and the hearty rejoicing of the people.”
Here is an image of the plant taken within a year or two of its start-up.
This postcard has a message that gives some idea of the pride the plant brought to the community. “Uncle Ed: This is the Sugar Factory. I do wish you could see the beets they are hauling here. The crops are fine. Some of the beets weight from six to ten pounds. Addie.”
The 120-acre complex was located on the southeast corner of Vine and Linden Streets. It had seven major buildings, the central building measuring 70 feet by 300 feet and standing four stories tall. The facility cost a staggering $1.2 million and employed hundreds of workers.
The factory received sugar beets from farmers’ wagons and from railcars and sent them through a complex, multi-stage process that produced refined sugar. But the sugar beet business was more than a factory. It also was an agricultural hub of beet farmers, rail sidings, beet dumps, irrigation ditches, and a host of suppliers, all funneling money into the Fort Collins community. (See an earlier post entitled “The Sugar Beet Dump.”) The 150-foot smoke stack declared that big agribusiness had arrived in Fort Collins.
As this diagram from a bulletin produced by the Great Western Sugar Company shows, sugar refining was as much a chemical as an agricultural process. Pumps, pipes, slicers, distillers, centrifuges, and filters were all part of a highly technical process that produced an average of 10 teaspoons of refined sugar from each beet. The Fort Collins factory also included a Steffen House, a secondary process that extracted more sugar from molasses, usually a waste product of the refining process. The Greeley, Eaton, and Windsor factories shipped their molasses to Fort Collins for processing.
Experiments by the agricultural college and others found that the waste products of the beet industry, the beet tops cut off in the fields and the beet pulp and molasses from the factory, made nutritious feed for livestock. This fostered the cattle and sheep industries in Northern Colorado. Although beet pulp had an unfortunate odor (the pungent smell compared to “a slaughterhouse in midsummer,” by one man), Colorado’s former governor Benjamin Eaton said, “I smell prosperity.”
The 10 teaspoons of sugar per beet adds up when your are processing millions of beets. Below is a photograph of the bags of sugar, circa 1930.
The Great Western Sugar Company reported that the Fort Collins factory annually produced the equivalent of 10,000 one-hundred pound bags of sugar and employed around 100 people continuously, increasing to over 400 during the beet processing “campaigns.”
Even before the factory was completed, beet farms sprang up around Fort Collins. Beets required precise farming techniques and were very labor intensive, but they generated more income for the farmers than any other crop. The factory paid almost $300,000 to local farmers in 1905, which increased to $500,000 by 1910.
Wars, the economy, trade policies, and weather all impacted the profitability and viability of the sugar beet industry. Drought and high winds in the mid-1950s reduced the sugar beet acreage. The Fort Collins factory announced in 1955 that it would not operate, moving the harvested beets to other plants for processing. It never reopened. In 1967, the major buildings were razed and the area left to reinvent itself.
Here is a photograph I took in 2008, looking at the site from approximately the same spot that Clatworthy did years ago. The view is much less impressive. Three of the original buildings remained, purchased by the city as a home for the street department. But thanks to the industry, Fort Collins had grown and become a real player in the new 20th century economy.
Next week, I’m going to return to the resorts of the Poudre Canyon and share some images between the Tunnel and Rustic.
Scroll down to the bottom of the page can click the “Sugar Beets” category to see the rest of my Beet posts.