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Sugar City, Colorado – A former sugar beet powerhouse, now limping along

April 25, 2019

The entrance to what was Sugar City’s sugar beet factory, long dismantled. Now empty space

Although I was headed south towards Rocky Ford and La Junta, when I saw a sign that said “Sugar City” five miles east, I stopped the car on the side of the road, took a minute to reconsider, shifted mental gears and headed east. Sugar City. I’d heard of a few months back in Nathrop north. of Salida where Nancy and I were visiting our friend Harriet Patton. Somehow the history of Colorado’s sugar beet industry came up – a subject that I will probably write about in depth some day. Harriet has a good friend who grew up in Sugar City with whom she is still in touch.

But it sounded odd to me, location-wise.

The heart of Colorado’s sugar beet industry – for the past half century now a mostly defunct industry – lay in the state’s northeast quadrant taking advantage of irrigation waters from the Cache la Poudre and South Platte Rivers. Ft. Collins, Greeley, Ft. Morgan, as far northeast as Julesberg and as close to Denver as Brighton, all cut their teeth economically on growing sugar beets.

Along with cattle, corn and wheat, sugar beets were up there as some of the state’s most profitable agricultural products. Waves of the state’s population, from Mexican laborers to Volga Germans to Japanese farmers were drawn to Colorado in the days when the heart of sugar beet production required nothing short of back-breaking work. Sugar beet production, then and now, requires enormous water inputs. But Sugar City is located in southeastern Colorado, some miles north of the Arkansas River, where water resources, although they exist, are far more restricted. I was curious to see the place with my own eyes.

What is a five mile detour anyway when it can offer a slice of history?

Now a dying town but “back in the day” Sugar City was a thriving sugar beet industry. Removal of tariffs on foreign sugar, the buying up of Arkansas River water rights from local farmers to provide water for Pueblo and Aurora (among other front range urban centers)…led to the collapse of the industry throughout Colorado – including here. The town never recovered. Many towns like this out on Colorado’s Eastern Plains… All that is left is the memories, a run down Evangelical Lutheran Church in need of repair – and members – and a cafe for sale…

Like a number of former sugar beet towns in the state’s northwest, what remains of Sugar City is a skeleton of its past glory. Ovid, a town that Nancy and I visited a few years ago, immediately came to mind. Although signs of past prosperity there, both are “hanging on” so to speak. A plaque aside Sugar City’s town park gives a concise history of the rise and fall of Sugar City’s sugar beet industry. It is more or less the same story that befell sugar beet growers elsewhere in Colorado.

Sugar City’s evolution is worth telling in detail.

In 1882, that is to say less than 20 years after the near by Sand Creek Massacre – the

2019 - 04 - 24 - Arkansas Valley - 13 - Sugar City

A model of the no-longer existing Sugar City sugar beet factory, just outside of town

slaughter of Cheyenne, Arapahoe and Sioux by the Colorado Militia under the leadership of John Chivington, investors from Buffalo New York bought up some 12,000 acres of fertile prairie just north of the Arkansas River, a little west of Bent’s Fort, which, prior to 1848 marked the border between the U.S. (Louisiana Purchase Territory) and Mexico. One particular developer, T. E. Henry understood that to maintain the fertility of the land a system of canals from the Arkansas River would be necessary.

As an entry in the Colorado Encyclopedia notes”

The treaties with Plains Indians that followed the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre greatly reduced Native American landholdings in Colorado. These treaties removed the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa nations from Colorado, eventually resettling them on smaller reservations in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. In an infamous decision, the United States unilaterally ratified the 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty without the consent of the groups listed above. This opened the Platte and Arkansas River Valleys to settlers, who believed that American capital, European technology, and commercial farming would civilize Colorado. In 1882, Ute Indian removal opened the Grand Valley to agricultural settlers. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Denver’s Chamber of Commerce, the Agricultural College of Colorado (now Colorado State University), and rural elites such as Rocky Ford’s George W. Swink worked to get the attention of land and water companies. These companies sold cheap mortgages and water rights to potential farmer-settlers and to beet sugar companies hoping to establish a German-origin industry in the American West. They succeeded in convincing East Coast capitalists that Colorado had friendly politicians, farmer interest, and fertile river lands and that regional nonwhite workers would come for spring planting and leave with the harvest

In the Arkansas Valley, developers like George Swink and T. E. Henry, both mentioned above, were developers involved in recruiting the farmer-settlers to places like Sugar City and coming up with the capital, considerable at the time, for financing some of the state’s 20 sugar beet factories. Besides the Sugar City plant there as also a large sugar beet processing plant in Rocky Ford, just across the Arkansas River from Sugar City. Keep in mind that as elsewhere in Colorado, that small independent farmers – like their mining brothers and sisters – did not last long.

From the earliest days Colorado agriculture – including sugar beets – was corporatized, based on massive investment from elsewhere, be it Eastern financiers or, more often than not British capital. The myth of the yeoman farmer, that fierce pioneer individual, Methodist or Lutheran in the main, whose Protestant ethic drove his family and the state’s progress forward, is, just a bunch of hooey. Those who worked the beet fields were not independent farmer but from the very outset, an agricultural proletariat.

The National Sugar Manufacturing Factory, Sugar City’s sugar beet factory  was built in the early 1900s. It had the capacity to process 500 tons of sugar beets daily. Waters diverted from the Arkansas River created Lake Henry to the south and west of the town to provide irrigation. Volga Russians flooding the upper mid West from oppression in Czarist Russia were recruited from nearby Kansas and Nebraska. The 200 families were moved into a tent city that would become the nexus of the town’s population. They were offered seeds and farm tools at no cost and began working some 3000 acres of land to produce sugar beets. At harvest, farmers were paid for both the sugar content and weight of their product creating Sugar City in the first half of the 20th century, nothing short of a boom town.

And there were boom years, especially between 1940 and 1960 when Colorado’s sugar beet production soared, Those were the golden years for Sugar City, Ovid and Colorado sugar beet production in general. By way of example, in those years Sugar City had not one but three hotels. During the war years, when the men were off fighting in Asia and Europe, women, young boys, Mexican labor and 2000 German POWs were brought in to keep production at pre-war levels.

And then it all came crashing to a halt, starting in the decade of the 1960s when the country’s smaller independent sugar producers – Sugar City’s National Sugar Manufacturing Company being one – collapsed under the pressure of lower sugar prices, the impact of long term regional drought combined with aggressive purchase of water rights by Front Range cities, whose population had begun to grow dramatically. This was especially the case for Pueblo, Aurora, Colorado Springs and Pueblo West. At the same time, the post WW2 period saw the growing mechanization of sugar beet production, which added to the crisis by throwing many manual laborers out of work.

By the late 1970s and 1980s, the Colorado sugar beet industry had all but collapsed and all that is left in most cases are abandoned lots where multi-million dollar sugar beet factories once stood. Walking around Sugar City, a woman working in her garden stopped to talk. Her father had worked in the sugar beet plant. “The place never recovered,” she told me. “We need a factory, something, to bring it back to life.” So it is with Ovid as well.

2019 - 04 - 24 - Arkansas Valley - 11 - Sugar City

Sugar beet, sculpture. A reminder of a sleepy town’s glory days…


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarge Cheever permalink
    April 25, 2019 3:16 pm

    Good reportage on sugar beets.  You write well.   Sarge

    • April 25, 2019 3:55 pm

      Thanks Sarge…had to interrupt writing to get on the road. Visited the remains of a Japanese internment camp (otherwise – a concentration camp minus the gas chambers)… the southeast corner of Colorado… a lonely desolate place where the wind blows much of the time. And then had to get on the road to Great Bend KS where I am now for the next few days… didn’t finish the article but hope to later tonight..after visiting Cheyenne Bottoms – one of the great birding spots in the country. Cheers, R.

  2. Matt permalink
    October 23, 2022 3:12 pm

    Just drove through there- seems like it is being reinvented as a cannabis growing town!


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