Nebraskan Sugar Mills
Rural Nebraska

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

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.

Vignette: Floors

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.

Vignette: Equipment

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

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.

Vignette: Details