Pick and Sledge

Curious Stories from the American West

100 Years Ago Today: White Gold Saves Colorado Economy

Morgan County Republican, Volume 19, Number 4, January 24, 1919

All hail the sugar beet, aka white gold, a crop that can actually grow in Colorado’s arid climate and rocky soil! In 1919 the sugar beet reached an all time high price of $10.02 per ton paid to beet farmers, which was two cents per ton higher than the national average. No wonder growers were looking to expand their farms 30 to 100 percent that year.

But why the rise of the sugar beet? A series of events led to increased demand for sugar grown and refined in the U.S.

  • Sugar tariffs were imposed on imported sugar
  • Land treaties removed Indians from their native lands and opened these lands to white farmers
  • Laborers worked for low wages: Russian, German, and Hispanic immigrants, as well as Indians were willing to perform very difficult labor for little money
  • European immigrants brought sugar beet seeds and sugar refinery equipment to the U.S.
Sugar beet field circa 1900
photo courtesy Denver Public Library

Let’s back up a few years.

In 1899, Colorado’s economy was in flux. Silver and gold mining proved unsustainable after the silver crash and ensuing panic of 1893 that left 18% of the population unemployed. Ranching failed to generate the kind of revenue needed to support towns and cities. Infrastructure for Colorado tourism was not yet established, for roads had not yet been built to take travelers into the mountains, and the railroads were not reliable over the high mountains, nor were they affordable for the working class.

Enter Charles Boettcher, German immigrant and American entrepreneur, who made his fortune opening hardware stores across Colorado and selling equipment to hardrock miners in towns like Leadville.

Charles Boettcher (1852-1948)

On a trip back to Germany in 1899, Boettcher saw the sugar beet industry in the German countryside and realized the potential for this cash cow in Colorado. Legend has it that Boettcher took one of his wife’s luggage bags, emptied it, and filled it with sugar beet seed to take back to Colorado.

The same year, Boettcher opened the first sugar beet processing factory in Grand Junction, Colorado. In the next few years, he opened a sugar mills in the towns of Loveland and Greeley, north of Denver. He and New York businessman Henry O. Havemeyer founded the Great Western Sugar Company in 1905, and by 1906 he opened a sugar refinery in Fort Morgan, which had the capacity to produce 600 tons per day. The postcard below (unknown date) says the factory has the capacity to produce 1200 tons per day.

Fort Morgan Sugar Beet Factory postcard

Every town where there was a sugar beet factory and/or farm prospered economically from the industry until the 1950s and 1960s when imported cane sugar became popular. For the next five decades the industry steadily declined, and now the only sugar beet refinery factory remaining is in Fort Morgan. However, sugar beet farming has seen some resurgence in recent years, with improved land use efficiency techniques.

Sugar beets circa 1920
photo courtesy Denver Public Library

100 years ago today, sugar beet farming and sugar refining was more profitable than ever in Colorado and continued to play a key role in the economy of towns across the state in the post-mining era.

Be sure to check out the Colorado Exeperience episode on the rise and fall of the sugar beet industry in Colorado called “White Gold” below:

Colorado Experience (RMPBS) presents White Gold

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