Great Western Sugar Mill
Sterling, CO

Heavy Metal Sugar Show

It’s the common reaction to external threats: pulling back and shielding ourselves, going on high alert. When a person does this we call it “self protection,” when a country mimics the action, however, it’s simply “protectionism.”

When the United States’ domestic sugar industry was complaining in the 1890s about the market being flooded with cheaply imported cane sugar from places like Cuba and Hawaii, the congress enacted a tariff, The Dingley Act of 1897, to shield American producers. Today, Eastern Colorado is peppered with abandoned sugar factories, but apparently, something went wrong along the way…

This mean-looking thing had a purpose, probably, but that function has been lost to decades of expansion.
This mean-looking thing had a purpose, probably, but that function has been lost to decades of expansion.

Exhibit A: Sterling Sugar of Sterling, Colorado.

The Dingley Act, and other legislation like it, instituted a tariff on sugar imports, making them competitively priced compared to local product; this competition had the intention of ultimately driving down the price of both products. The meltdown of the industry, however, is not a tale of the stumble of the industrious American worker, but of climatic realisms coupled with the hardships of working for a virtual industry. After all, if one’s success relies on the government to tax your competitor into submission, is it really competition, or is the game rigged?

Coloradan Sugar Beets, 1938. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, (LC-USF34- 015807-E).
Coloradan Sugar Beets, 1938. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, (LC-USF34- 015807-E).

In 1903 about 1000 people lived in the area around Sterling, mostly farmers. That year, two things happened that would change their town history forever: 2,300 acres of sugar beets were planted as an exploratory experiment and, as the crop boomed, a delegation of about 40 German sugar beet experts toured the state’s beet plantations from crop to crop, including Sterling’s. The travelers were impressed, but surprised that no factory was nearby to receive the beets to harvest their sugar. Coloradan sugar interests did take the foreign advice lightly, and by March 1905 a group of investors who controlled six other mills in the region pooled $1,500,000 to construct a factory under the name Sterling Sugar Company.

Breaking Ground to Breaking Records

Interestingly, by the time Sterling Sugar Company’s plant was complete in December it was already incorporated into the New Jersey-based corporation Great Western Sugar who was actively buying up all the sugar beet interests in the area. Regardless of who owned the building, the town was ready for it, and the boom it was bound to bring; the meager population in Sterling tripled in the first decade of 1900 to just over 3,000. With the business there also came wealth, as one farmer noted when he said that the factory’s construction was, “like waving the wand of a magician over the land,” such that it, “increased civilization five-hundred percent.” The same man later testified to a congressional committee that if the tariffs were not upheld, the factory and inevitably the town, would dry up.

I revisited the mill years after my documentary. Now it is even more destroyed and surrounded by new fences.
I revisited the mill years after my documentary. Now it is even more destroyed and surrounded by new fences.

As mild as the climate is in Sterling, Colorado (from the point of view of a Minnesotan), it is not ideal for the production of sugar when compared to extra-domestic sources that process their sugar from cane, not beets. Sugar beets are cheap and easy to grow but require a complicated and somewhat expensive process to attain a final product that rival sugar cane’s more easily attained yield.

With tariffs in place, though, business was good in the first half of the century as the factory processed 600 tons of beets daily.

In 1908, 80,000 tons of beets were sliced to make 120,000 pounds of refined sugar which was bagged in 100 pound increments and shipped by rail in every direction. Farmers were paid $4.50 per ton of beets and the plant operated 95 days out of the year— a sweet deal for the workers who were paid a good 22 cents hourly who had to work damn hard to get that sugar out.

The factory was utterly vertical.
The factory was utterly vertical.

Sugar 101

Open wide! Here comes the sugar beets!
Open wide! Here comes the sugar beets!

Extracting sugar from a beet may seem like squeezing blood from a stone, but the process is quite simple. Beets enter the factory by truck a few hours after being picked; the sugar breaks down immediately after the beet surfaces, so time is crucial at this point. After the beets are floated in warm water from the loading dock, they go through a preliminary washing, weighing, and are then mechanically sliced very thinly.

The beet juice was boiled down to make a syrup, which would be drained down the trough to the crystalizers.
The beet juice was boiled down to make a syrup, which would be drained down the trough to the crystalizers.

The beets are then soaked in hot swirling water that absorbs their natural sugars and the pulp is removed from the water, which is filtered and evaporated to increase the sugar concentration. That solution is then put into a centrifuge and spun at a rate where sugar crystals begin to form and drop to the bottom. The process repeats itself until most of the juice is evaporated and crystallized. Sterling’s factory was built for this purpose, and it was successful.

Perhaps one of the prevailing factors in the success was the last-minute installation of machinery imported from rural Michigan’s Saginaw Valley Sugar Company. When the circa 1900, Saginaw, Michigan-based sugar factory was going out of business, Sterling Sugar Company bought the interests for $300,000 and had the usable equipment dismantled and shipped to Sterling in 1905. Much of the imported equipment was originally installed in Michigan in 1899, which makes some of Sterling’s workings over 111 years old, although it wasn’t apparent to me when I set foot inside.

This mean-looking thing had a purpose, probably, but that function has been lost to decades of expansion.
This mean-looking thing had a purpose, probably, but that function has been lost to decades of expansion.

High Smellers No Longer

Although the machinery had been robbed by scrappers past, vandalism was obviously much less of an issue here than other sugar mills I had the chance to see, namely Longmont’s plant.

This volume gauge could be read from 30 feet away, which is useful when the control panels and valves are that far away.
This volume gauge could be read from 30 feet away, which is useful when the control panels and valves are that far away.

Can you imagine workers in a food plant smoking on the job today?In spite of the wreckage and dust, a muffled charm surrounded the obsolete wooden devices, rust-locked valves and hand-painted signs between the walls. Catwalks that used to grant access to important valves and indicators collected cobwebs and falling bits of ceiling and a pair of hip waders were dangling from a beet washer, right where an employee left it. There were once between 250 and 300 workers here once; they were nicknamed “high smellers” because of the foul odor beets processing emitted.

It smells fine now, having had a couple of decades to air out; the factory closed down in 1985 after certain protections of the sugar industry became obsolete. Foreign cane sugar could be produced and imported so that it cost less than similar domestic product, despite the tariffs and limitations. To this day, there are limits on the amount of sugar imported and the government subsidizes the sugar beet industry, although it is not as profitable as it once was to Colorado. In 1969 there were 17 operating sugar mills in the state; now I’m told that there’s just one left.

The factory's first aid room and laboratory. Sure makes me wonder how safe the lab was!
The factory’s first aid room and laboratory. Sure makes me wonder how safe the lab was!

Cut Your Coupons (And Taxes!)

Next time you buy candy or cereal, check to see if it’s a product of the United States; if it is, you have already paid for a percentage of that in your federal taxes. If it’s imported, ask yourself why their factory isn’t in our country, where it could very well be if it wasn’t for the restrictions on imported sugar. Economics might be boring, but it’s what keeps boards on or off factory windows, and, as interesting as it is to me to research abandoned cultural landmarks, I would much rather see these places humming… wouldn’t you?