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Sugar Beets
In The Coalhurst Area

Our Treasured Heritage
A History of Coalhurst and District
Pages 58-60

Although sugar beets are almost extinct in the Coalhurst area, they were an important part of the economic growth of the newly developing L.N.I.D. During the depression years when grain and other farm products were being sold at give-away prices, the beet check was often the farmer's only cash income. It also paid the water rates, land taxes and payments. Many farmers credit the sugar beet crop with paying for their farms. Livestock, fed on the byproducts of beets - beet pulp, molasses and beet tops contributed further to the grower's income.

Probably a short history of the sugar beet industry in Southern Alberta would be a fitting introduction to this article on local beet growing. In 1903 the first sugar produced from beets in Alberta was turned out by the newly constructed Knight Sugar Co. in Raymond. Following several years plagued by bad weather, weeds and finally competition from high priced grain following the outbreak of World War 1, the plant closed after the 1914 season. The factory was moved to Cornish, Idaho.

Interest in sugar beets again surfaced in the early 1920's and an American company - Utah-Idaho Sugar Co. moved its idle Sunnyside, Washington factory to Raymond in time to process the 1925 crop. In addition to the acreage contracted in the Raymond area, the new company - Canadian Sugar Factories, Ltd. contracted with a few growers in other irrigation districts to grow small plots of beets. Of the 41 growers contracted to grow beets on the L. N. I. D. ten were in the Coalhurst area. These were Robert Adam, J. A. Brewer, T. L. Davidson, E. Dixon, J. I. McDermott, Florence Pringer, Henry Ross, J. R. Sandham, A. Sherrit, and R. E. Stewart. At harvest time the beets were hauled in wagons to the nearest railway siding where they were forked into waiting box-cars. Apparently this arrangement was not satisfactory as no beets were grown in the Coalhurst area for the next few years.

With the need for more beets, the company contracted acreage in the L. N. I. D. with assurances there would be beet dumps at Iron Springs and Picture Butte to receive the 1929 crop. In 1930 another dump was put in at Diamond City. A few growers in the eastern Coalhurst area, T. R. Beatty, John Berti, H. B. Gillie and G. Webb contracted and hauled their beets to Diamond City. In 1931 the factory was sold to the B.C. Sugar Refining Co. of Vancouver. Improvements to the plant's efficiency following the takeover guaranteed the viability and continuity of the sugar beet industry in Southern Alberta.

Pressure from the L.N.I.D. as well as other districts convinced the Canadian Sugar Factories that another factory must be built, and they wisely agreed that they should be the one to build it. A settlement was reached that a factory would be built at Picture Butte and completed in time to process the 1936 crop, A beet dump (Becker) was built one mile N.E. of Coalhurst and another at Whitney Siding, mid-way between Coalhurst and Nobleford.

With another factory soon to be in operation ii was necessary to contract sufficient acres to supply it with beets. Up to this time the area had been supervised by Ernest Bennion, factory fieldman. In 1935 he was succeeded by J. Gerald Snow whose immediate task was to secure enough prepared acreage for the 1936 crop. Although a few of the potential growers were originally from Europe or Utah and were familiar with growing sugar beets, for most it was an entirely new experience. All machine work was done with horses, from seeding right through to hauling the beets to the receiving station. It was hard to convince a team of green broncs hitched to a cultivator that they were expected to walk between two rows of beets 22 inches apart and not to step on any leaves.

Many stories are told of the mix-ups at the beet dump when the train would roar past with whistle blowing and steam hissing from the engine. Sometimes the horses would take off across country with part of the beet rack left on the platform. A favorite story at that time was about the fieldman calling at the farm to check the progress of the crop. Viewing the seeded field for the first time he said to the farmer: "Tony, that's the most crooked seeding I have ever seen, how will you ever cultivate them?" "Easy", replied Tony, "I'll use the same horses. " During the next ten years horses were gradually replaced by tractors and trucks.

The first contracts were usually small and hand labor was often performed by the grower and his family. Unemployment was high and labor was readily available. In 1936 labor received $20 an acre for thinning, hoeing, weeding and topping an acre of beets. If this wage appears low we must also consider what the grower received that year for his beets $6.65 per ton. At the outbreak of war in 1939 when many young people left to enlist in the services or to go into war plant production, a serious problem developed at home. Prisoners of war from the camp in Lethbridge were pressed into service. The movement of Japanese families from the west coast into the beet fields of Alberta did much to relieve the labor shortage. After the war an influx of displaced persons from Europe, a large immigration of Dutch families and Polish veterans did not fully meet the needs of the industry. Increased recruitment of Indians from northern Alberta and Saskatchewan resulted in this group doing most of the hand labor in the fields. Mechanical harvesters were increasing in popularity and had replaced hand topping by the 1960's.

The acreage had doubled by 1946, at which time Becker and Diamond City (with similar acreage) were closed and the beets diverted to the newly created piling station at Shields, about two miles S.W. of Diamond City. Here, a modem Silver piler could either load beets directly to cars or pile them for later shipment to the factory. Acreage remained fairly constant at about 2,000 acres until the early 1960's when a steady decline began. Although individual tonnages were slipping, the area regularly had high tonnage growers. In 1947 the three top growers on the L.N.I.D. farmed within a few miles of Coalhurst - A. Locatelli with 19.64 tons per acre, G. Pearson with 19.13 and James Watmough with 18.63 tons per acre.

The reasons for going out of beets were nearly as numerous as the growers who were quitting. Labor problems, family members leaving the farm, obsolete equipment were the main reasons given. But a feeling of apathy was apparent among growers whose contract acreage was often too small to warrant purchasing new and more expensive equipment. Most of the farms were now paid for, and without beets could be operated without hired help. In 1968 only 421 acres were harvested at Shields and the stations was closed. Only two local growers remain in the beet industry- Ivan and Danny Poinjavic who haul their crop to Picture Butte.

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Copyright © 2000 Mary Tollestrup