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 Kindsvaters harvesting sugar beets in Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, before the move to California           1914

Sugar beats were important for many families. From the Left: Margaret, Grandma (Rambus) Anna, Mary, Katie, GrandMother Margaret, Grandpa Phillip, Phillip, and Oscar. The driver’s name is not known.

“Die Rube Jacht”
(“That Sugar Beet Business”)

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Napoleon is given credit for having stimulated the development of the sugar beet industry when he lost his Caribbean colonies that had produced sugar from cane and were forced to seek an alternative source of sugar.  But the actual development of a practical sugar beet was made in Germany in the 1800’s.

The beet seeds were imported to the United States, and attempts were made to establish an industry in New England between 1879 and 1882. According to Hattie Plum Williams, these efforts failed “chiefly because the labor demanded by these crops was not congenial to American farmers … The nature of [the] back-breaking process in the beet culture was such that the American farmer would not perform it, and only when foreigners willing to do it lived in the vicinity of the beet field was it possible for the industry to succeed.”


Fortuitously, the arrival of the beet industry in middle America coincided with the arrival of the Germans from Russia to the Midwest. The beets needed attention; the Germans from Russia needed jobs. The lack of fluency in the English language was no impediment to their employment as field workers, and their typically large families were well suited to the various tasks of beet cultivation. The new immigrant was assured of work as soon as he arrived in the United States, and this fact, along with glowing letters and beet seeds sent from the United States, were planted in the garden plot and raised to make “rube saft”, sugar beet syrup.


As the sugar beet industry flourished in eastern Colorado and western Nebraska, Germans from Russia gravitated there. Each spring, special trains originating in Lincoln, Nebraska, carried workers from Lincoln and other cities into the North and South Platte Valleys.


Since the children of migrants were assets in the fields, they were taken out of school before the term ended in the spring to accompany their families on the pilgrimage. They did not return until the end of October or later, when classes had long since been underway. Some attempts were made to provide special schooling for the migrant children in the North Platte Valley, and “summer schools” were held after the blocking and thinning were completed in Melbeta, Bayard, Minatare, and Scottsbluff. According to the Scottsbluff Star-Herald, “the question of who should provide schools and pay for the education of beet workers’ children was causing considerable controversy [in 1922. It appeared that Russian Germans came out from Lincoln to work in the beet fields, and many residents felt that Lincoln should pay for summer school maintenance.”


After the beets had been harvested, many Germans from Russia returned to their boarded-up city homes for the winter. Others found work and settled in the Platte valleys, eventually becoming land owners and beet raisers.


Other Germans from Russia were attracted to the sugar-producing areas near Hazelton, Iowa, Sugar City, Michigan, and St. Louis Park and Chaska, Minnesota.


As the sugar industry expanded into North Dakota, Montana, and Washington [state], many Germans from Russia followed the industry. They established German-Russian enclaves in the Red River, Yellowstone, and the Yakima valleys.


Although many people who drove trucks and worked in the fields for the Hein family in North Dakota and Montana are now forgotten, not all workers’ names were lost in time. Two of the hired sugar beet workers were Lawrence Welk and his brother. Sometimes after the work was done or on weekends, the Hein boys would gather the local musicians, and music would pour out of their rooms.


I remember my grandfather taking me into the field when I was about five years old and letting the dirt run through his fingers, saying, “Money is nothing. Man can starve to death with pockets stuffed full of worthless paper. But a man can’t starve if he has landed. The land is gold.”


Conrad J. Ruby describes the techniques of beet work as he knew them in Rocky Ford, Colorado:


My parents came to the United States in April of 1912 from the village of Laube. They first settled in Lincoln, Nebraska, then moved to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and later were induced to go to Rocky Ford, Colorado, which was then said to be the sugar beet country of the world. My uncle, Gottlieb Keck, has a large produce house, which he operated with his son-in-law, Pete Rubey. The produce house was named Keck Produce Company, but the shipping label was a large red ruby stone on white with the words “Ruby Brand.”


My parents worked as farm hands for Uncle Keck and the other farmers, planting tomatoes, onions, melons, and sugar beets. I well recall harvesting the beets. I was only six years old then, but I helped pile the topped beets in large piles. At least they seemed to be significant to a youngster of my age.


Horse-drawn planters planted the beet seeds with two wheels which packed the soil down firmly for the source to take root. When the plants were about four inches tall, every non-disabled member of our family thinned beets with a short-handled hoe. The handle was about twenty inches long, and a lot of work could be accomplished by hoeing with one hand and thinning the plants with the other (one plant every six inches). All the weeds had to be eliminated too. It was back-breaking work, but it wasn't too bad for a hard-working and industrious person. At least you earned an honest living.


As plants grew taller, more weeds had to be removed, and the soil had to be cultivated and irrigated frequently. I can still visualize Dad riding a two-wheel iron cultivator pulled by a team of horses. Dad carefully manipulated the foot pedals so the small disc blades would not cut the plants but would still disc close enough to reduce the number of weeds that had to be chopped. The soil was cultivated at the same time. There were no umbrella holders on the cultivator to hold an umbrella, so the operator had to sit in the hot sun all day. The slow-moving horses and the hot sun made cultivation an unpleasant job.


Finally, when the beets were “ripe” enough, depending on their sugar content, they were dug by a digger, a piece of equipment with an iron blade about six inches wide and shaped like a large “U” underneath the machine. The “U” was lowered into the ground by a handle controlled and set by the driver. As the equipment was pulled forward, the “U” went into the ground and lifted the beets up and out of the bed. Two horses pulled the digger, taking one row at a time.


The beets were topped with a knife blade about twenty inches long. This knife had a hook opposite the handle. Topping means the leaves had to be chopped off the top end of the sugar beet. This was done using this long knife. With one quick motion of the beet topper, be he man or woman or child, the beet was snagged by the hook. The beet was lifted and placed across the right knee if the person was right-handed; the beet was held at the small end with the left hand, and the leafy end was chopped off with one quick movement. With another motion of the left hand, the beet was thrown on a pile nearby.


Dad worked on one row of beets while Mother worked on another, Dad helping her along. I noted many times my Mother was tired, and it behooved us (that is, my older brothers and me) to exert more significant efforts to do a larger share of the work, such as pulling the beets entirely out of the ground to ease her job a bit. Being children, we could not keep up a steady pace and had to rest frequently. Sweat, no doubt tears sometimes, rolled down my Mother’s face, but dutifully, she continued to slave because she felt she must “do her share.”


After the beets were topped and piled up, a hay wagon was brought alongside the pile, and the beets were scooped up with a wide pitchfork with a short handle. This, too, was back-breaking work. If the beets were not loaded quickly enough, the younger family members were called to pick up the beets and throw them into the wagon. As each pile was loaded, the large horses pulled the wagon to the next pile. 


When the wagon with sideboards two feet high was loaded, the wagon was hauled to the sugar beet dump, sometimes by four horses pulling a heavy load. A beet dump was a ramp much wider than a hay wagon and higher than a railroad car alongside the dump. The on-ramp was sloped at less angle than the off-ramp and was about 200 feet long because a load of beets was quite heavy, and sometimes six horses were required to pull the wagon up the incline. The top portion was level. The teams of horses were then unhitched, and the wagon fastened down on one side with chains or cable. One sideboard was removed before the wagon, resting on a tilting platform, was tipped so that all the beets slid down into the railroad car, after which the beets were transported to a sugar mill when the car was filled. The wagon was released from chains or cables that had kept the wagon from sliding down into the railroad car along with the sugar beets. After that, the teams of horses, maybe four horses now, were hitched back to the wagon, one horse on either side of the tongue to hold the wagon in check as it slowly went down the ramp and two horses in front of the tongue.


One man usually sat on the seat alongside a long brake handle. There was one brake shoe in front of each large back wheel that slowed the wagon while going down the ramp when the brakeman applied the brakes. Without those brakes, the wagon could run off the ramp and push the horses ahead of the wagon. The driver sitting next to the brakeman held the reins to the horses, and the horses held back so the wagon would not start rolling too fast and get out of control. It took good strong muscles to work the brakes and hold the horses



Handling those teams pulling the wagon up and down the beet dump required some experience. It was scary going down because if the brakeman did not perform his duty properly, the wagon could get out of control, and so would the horses. Somebody could get killed if the wagon ran off the side of the ramp or if the horses bolted and started to run wild. I can still see Dad pulling back on the reins to control those horses whenever he took the empty wagon down the ramp.


Such was our experience in Rock Ford, where the sugar beet was king.

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