The new white plant was built against one wall of the old brick one, a weather-stained collection of wrecked windows, framed in a brick gallery for private audiences only.
Its many obvious additions created a space of change and motion, as if one could perceive the transformation of obsolete to modern simply by looking from left to right.
Like an old book next to a newer copy, I want to dive into those well-read chapters; to smell the pages and forsake the glossy sheen of feigned progress. I hold the opinion that the architecture should reflect the process within, and the organic, revised and dilapidated sugar mill felt natural. In this building was a return to nature, a biodegration, shown by moss and ivy knocking on the front door and trees leaning over the roof.
Inside, however, a more complicated picture becomes focused on the sun-leeched paint sprinkled in the corner of wise window sills, one that illuminates the economic, social, and, yes, natural forces that made this place, Longmont Sugar Factory, work.
Before ground even broke on this now-abandoned mill, more than 4,000 acres of sugar beets were planted around the proposed construction site. Nearby factories usually processed the beets grown around Longmont, an especially fertile region of Eastern Colorado and one already dotted with sugar factories. There was debate, in fact, about whether there was going to be an oversaturation of sugar facilities surrounding Longmont farms.
The compromise reached was to build a lower-capacity factory, amounting to about 600 tons of processed beets daily—a statistic with a footnote. Longmont Sugar Factory was to be overbuilt, able to achieve twice the initial capacity the following season, were it required. Construction began in 1903.
Tariff schedules artificially inflated domestic sugar prices (for more on this, see my article on Longmont’s sister factory, Sterling Sugar Factory), in a formula that goes something like this: 1 ton sugar beets = 300 pounds refined sugar, making the factory $2,000,000 profit annually. Business was good, so much so that by 1907, 600 employees worked the sugar plant around the clock. In 1920 and 1921 the factory processed about 2,500 tons daily—unbeetable.
Eventually, not even the government’s tariffs and beet farmer subsidies could keep domestic sugar profit margins at a sustainable level, and soon sugar mills across Colorado and the United States were locking their workers out for the last time.
Among them, Longmont Sugar Factory in 1977.
Now the shell of the factory sits at the edge of town, its burn marks crudely patched with graffiti, sprayed hastily on summer nights to dry in the breeze of the open doors and windows. The factory that built the town, shoved to the periphery, has become the object of book reports and photo classes.
Let’s try to remember it the way it was seen when smoke rose from its brick stack and the sinus-aching scent of sliced beets was the smell of honest money; it kept food on the plates in the area and sugar on the country’s table; a sweet life cut short by world economics, but not without a small-town charm and a slice of state, if not national, history.