I never thought Nebraska could be so sweet, but somewhere between the juicer and sluicer, I was convinced.
Sugar mills are vertical places—more catwalks than concrete—and they stand out on the plains. I had seen several specimens in Colorado: Longmont, Sterling, others. Those were burned, flooded, scrapped, and vandalized in every other way I could name, until there was little trace of the “high smellers” that preceded the teenagers of Denver and Boulder. Nebraska was different. Nebraska’s sugar mills are time capsules; too secure and too distant for the casual stoner. Let me take you inside.
Vignette: Outside the Mills
The average sugar mill in 1915 consumed about 11,000 acres of sugar beets
Bayard Sugar Mill, as seen from the old power plant
One night, I camped behind the sugar mill. You can tell be the clouds that a cold front was moving out—it was a hot day.
Small stained panes and orange brick. I had no idea when I took this picture that the colored glass would turn the insides of the mill into a bright aquamarine. It was a beautiful intersection of nature and industry, in the most unintended way.
Kodak Tri-X 400/Leica M7. The office (first floor), laboratory (second floor) and mill behind it. Everything was clean and pristine.
Little has changed inside the mill, but since it was built in 1916, many tanks and ancillary buildings have popped up around it.
Different colors stained the small panes on the top floor. For once, it seemed more ridiculous to not be inside an abandoned factory.
The old mill (right) and power plant (left) with the new mill behind them.
There are three sounds and one smell, and they never quit or changed. Birds roost among the skylights and venting, and there are a lot to go around. Making sugar from sugar beets is hot, stinky, wet work, so the factories were designed to put lots of air around its workers with the hope that some of it was fresh. Water is always dripping. Mills are essentially a few massive rooms, cut into pieces with catwalks and machinery from the basement to the roof, and with miles of pipes between. Somewhere, always, water dissects the time with an echoing drip, drip, drip. Across the floors is an annoyingly even layer of peeled lead paint that sounded like, and somewhat resembled, potato chips. Every step crunched satisfyingly, obscuring the drips and rousing the birds. Sugar mills are noisy places, and they smell sickeningly like syrup.
An industrial cart next to an inspection point on the evaporator floor.
The mill itself is one giant room sectioned into levels–more catwalks than concrete. Here you can see the evaporators and have a sense for the miles and miles of pipes that zigzag through the plant.
Behind the evaporators are heavy access hatches to inspect the steam pipes within.
Sugar mills have endless numbers of pipes, washers, seals, and flanges to connect all of the equipment. This is where the spare parts were all stored by size and rating.
Lockers for the boiler room workers.
Part of the 1917 mill that had a little bit of roof left over it–most of this building was open to the sky. The birds loved it, but everything metal was quickly becoming too unstable to walk on.
Beautiful doors separated the boiler room and the sugar mill. Can you imagine the gracefully curving steps in a power plant today?
Most of the control panels were faceless. No doubt, they were parted out to keep other sugar mills alive.
The parts room had the best light in the whole plant.
This is a typical view of the factory; most of it was long hallways flanked by piles of equipment and access points to maintain them.
The perfect place to have a post-industrial picnic.
The workshop and parts room was full of light and meticulously sorted bolts, nuts, washers, gaskets, and all sorts of specialty hardware.
Dirty filters for some equipment hang, awaiting a purpose.
Sugar mills are full of signs and scrawling: Employees only; Flanges; Crystalizer #5; Sodium Detector #34, Sept. 30, 1992 (maybe that was the last day the mill ran). Across machinery, pillars, and walls were notes in pencil, ink, and grease for the next beet campaign. Water level discrepancies for different tanks here, bad valves there, and the occasional “Mike Was Here 8/10/74”. Signs of life that seemed distant in an abandoned factory.
The oldest part of this mill had a wooden roof that rotted away long ago. Slowly, rust is dulling the edge on every cog left behind.
I am not sure what this machine does, but I have a hunch that it husks and cleans the sugar beets as they come into the plant. It is certainly the biggest single piece of equipment in any of the mills.
When it was convenient, the sugar company would pull equipment, even pipes, from one mill for another.
A huge steam pipe snakes between catwalks, through the floors, and toward the condensers, so the water could be recovered and reused.
The giant cog is missing on this machine, which turned a sugar slurry intro crystals. Green-blue stained glass makes the rusty machine glow in aquamarine.
A line of huge machines wait to be used as parts under a long-disused belt drive.
Blue plastic siding filters the summer sun, giving the otherwise reddish-brown interior a splash of color.
The white mark allowed for a manual RPM check on this big steel flywheel on the ground floor. Note how dark the bottom level of the mills is—that’s because all of the equipment is blocking out the light.
An old stoker in a power plant that was abandoned long before the mill next to it, by all indications. Sugar mills burned dry beet pulp pellets for fuel.
Thick glass windows allow workers to check the beet juice levels in this steel tank. You can tell by the reinforcement that it had a lot of liquid and had to hold against immense pressure. Kodak Tri-X 400/Leica M7.
Water vapor was collected and condensed to be reused in other processes. Kodak Tri-X 400/Leica M7
Mills like these were built across the Great Plains in the 1910s and employed about 300 during the beet harvesting season—a ‘campaign’ according to beet parlance—and in its off season about 100 men worked on upgrades and repairs. A campaign often lasted more than 130 days, in which time the plant would slice, soak, and press 100,000 tons of sugar beets and ship 3,000 bags of sugar every day.
Vignette: Historical Images
Mitchell Sugar Mill, 1920, Colorado State Library
Bayard Sugar Mill, Colorado State Library
Gering’s Evaporators, 1916, Colorado State Library
Due to a variety of factors, including the repeal of protectionist legislation and automation, the domestic sugar industry has consolidated into a handful of large operations in Colorado and Nebraska, leaving a dozen smaller mills shuttered.
A handmade sign tracks the progress through the current beet campaign. For this factory, it was about 30 years ago. Perhaps the idea was to pit shifts against each other.
Unintentional art comes in the form of a beet juice slurry baffle.
Kodak Tri-X 400, Leica M7. Serious enough to write across the side of the tank, but not serious enough to have a sign made.
Between the gauges for the power plant boilers and the steam pump flywheels.
Bits of pulp hang from a rough grate on the first floor of the plant, which was dark because all of the equipment blocked the light. This is a grate picture.
A sign of where man met machine.
It remains unexplained what ‘serious results’ may stem from not reporting an accident, but when labor was cheap and unorganized I doubt anyone asked.
When not running 24 hours a day during a campaign, the plant was being repaired. Every sugar mill has a large shop and parts room for those times.
In front of a rust-welded Illinois rotary stoker is where the boiler-men made their mark. The last year I can make out is 1985.
My favorite picture from the mills. These charts remind me of star charts or orbiting planets.
Someone had helped themselves to one of the safety posters before my visit.
Either the company was pulling parts from this evaporator to use as parts for other plants, or the last thing the workers did was to get this machine ready for the next campaign. Either way, plans changed.