One of Ken Eide’s earliest memories is celebrating his fourth birthday during the sugarbeet harvest.
“It was Sept. 27, 1954. I was sitting at the kitchen table with my birthday cake and watching them harvest beets,” said Ken, 72, of Nisland in Butte County, South Dakota.
Ken’s father, Palmer Eide, was one of the early homesteaders of Butte County and among the first farmers to grow sugarbeets in that area in the 1920s. The story of sugarbeet production in Butte County began when the crop was first introduced by Seth Bullock in the early 1900s. Bullock, who was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1849, came to Montana at the age of 16 and went on to become an American legend.
In his lifetime, Bullock was a businessman, politician, rancher, sheriff and U.S. Marshal who helped create Yellowstone National Park. He arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota on Aug. 1, 1876, the day before Wild Bill Hickok was murdered in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon,
after being appointed by then-Gov. John Pennington of Dakota Territory in March of 1877.
said the circumstances surrounding the first time Bullock met his lifelong friend and future U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt are unclear. In his 1921 book,
author Hermann Hagedorn wrote that the two met when Bullock was apprehending a horse thief known as “Crazy Steve” near Belle Fourche, South Dakota, on the northern slopes of the Black Hills. Roosevelt later called Bullock, who had served as a Rough Rider, as
In an article for the
Black Hills Pioneer, Kaija Swisher wrote that Bullock effectively founded the city of Belle Fourche as a place for ranchers and the railroad to load cattle onto freight cars for shipment to packing plants in the Midwest
. He also owned and operated a ranch called the S&B Ranch Company near the city and is credited with
At that time, sugarbeets were becoming established worldwide as an easier alternative to cane sugar. In 1887, P.P. Vallery planted the first sugarbeet crop in the Belle Fourche River Valley, according to information provided by the
in Newell, South Dakota. Bullock was convinced a sugarbeet factory would be successful in Butte County, especially if the proposed Orman Dam (now known as the Belle Fourche Dam) came to fruition.
wrote that the dam was one of the first irrigation projects for agriculture development in America created by the Bureau of Reclamation following the passage of the Reclamation Act in 1902. It was part of the Belle Fourche Project that today irrigates 57,068 acres of farmland near the towns of Newell, Vale and Nisland. The project facilities are comprised of a diversion dam, two primary canals, an inlet canal, and Belle Fourche Dam, a homogenous earth fill structure located on Owl Creek, a tributary of the larger Belle Fourche River.
In 1906, Detroit industrialist Charles Bewick sent sugarbeet seed to R.F. Walter, an engineer supervising reclamation work at the Belle Fourche reservoir, according to an article called “Sugar Beet History” by Linda (Kuntz) Velder, curator of the Newell Museum. Velder wrote that the seeds were distributed to 20 farmers on irrigated land who agreed to cultivate one acre each of sugarbeets as an experiment. Beet piling sites were set up along the railroad lines coming into Nisland, Vale and Newell, so farmers could haul beets without having to make the long trip to the plant. The first few years were unsuccessful but educational, and the crops were used as animal feed.
On Sept. 16, 1916, Bullock sold part of his ranch to the Great Western Sugar Company of Denver, Colorado, for a factory site. Districts with company field men were established throughout the Belle Fourche irrigation project, and company representative W.D. Hoover promised the factory would be built if farmers would contract to grow 8,000 acres of sugarbeets. By December of that year, 7,000 acres were contracted. In the spring of 1917, the company brought in German and Russian families from Colorado with sugarbeet growing experience to help plant, grow and harvest the beets on local farms, according to the Newell Museum. By October of that year, the first 400 rail carloads of sugarbeets were shipped from Butte County to the Great Western Sugar Company factory at Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Growers realized a $150 per acre profit but plans to build the factory were derailed by World War I and Bullock’s dream was put on hold, according to Linda Velder.
Seth Bullock passed away in September 1919, but his dream of a sugar factory lived on. In 1926, the Commercial Club of Belle Fourche redoubled their efforts to attract a factory to the area. The Utah and Idaho (U&I) Sugar Company ultimately committed to building the plant if the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad would agree to build a railspur to the area, according to the Tri-State Museum and Visitor Center in Belle Fourche. The railroad agreed, and the U&I Sugar Company transported a dismantled sugar factory from Colorado to South Dakota and reassembled it at the Belle Fourche site. The new factory was up and running by October 1927 in time for the sugarbeet harvest and operated 24 hours a day for 60 to 70 days per year.
Palmer Eide attended a factory meeting with other area farmers in Nisland about sugarbeet production in the 1920s, his son Ken recalled.
“It was kind of scary at first for Dad and the other farmers, because they didn’t know if they could raise them,” said Ken. “However, the German families from Colorado taught them how to irrigate and use canvas dams. Colorado was ahead of the game in irrigation. The first year Dad planted sugarbeets, he got 21 tons per acre. It was the mother lode and there was good sugar content.”
Ken’s mother, Gussie Nedella Eide, was from Selfridge, North Dakota. Every year Gussie would accompany her parents and 12 siblings to South Dakota to work in the sugarbeet fields and help with the harvest.
“They were a German family and that was their career. My grandpa got reprimanded by school officials for taking Gussie and her siblings out of school to work in the fields. However, she went on to attend teacher’s college in Madison, South Dakota, and became an excellent teacher,” Ken said. “She taught grades 1-8 in a one-room schoolhouse south of Nisland.”
Palmer Eide met Gussie when he hired the family to work in his sugarbeet fields.
“They got married in 1945 in the Nisland Catholic Church,” Ken said. “She did everything on the farm including hoeing sugarbeets and stacking hay bales. She stacked more square bales than any of us.”
Palmer and Gussie grew around 50 acres of sugarbeets in addition to sheep, cattle, and alfalfa.
“The factory furnished the seed and fertilizer, and the farmers worked at the factory,” Ken said. “The piling site was right by the school in Nisland and was a quarter of a mile long.”
The Newell Museum said that in addition to sugar, beet by-products were in high demand. Beet pulp, beet tops, beet silage and beet molasses were a cheap and efficient feed and were sold to any farmer who would haul it away. Beet pulp’s food value equaled corn for fattening livestock with little waste, and beet molasses was a good additive to poor quality hay.
“This is sheep country here in Butte County, and beet pulp was a big deal. Every morning we hauled it from the pit at the factory to our farm for our sheep. There were tons of pulp in that pit,” said Ken Eide. “After the harvest, the farmers would turn thousands of lambs out to graze on the beet tops.”
The Belle Fourche factory endured the Great Depression and had its highest number of growers in 1932, with 581 farmers producing sugarbeets on 12,857 acres. However, new challenges came with the outbreak of World War II, when high grain prices caused some farmers to stop growing labor-intensive sugarbeets in favor of grain for export to Europe, Velder wrote in “Sugar Beet History.” Farmers also had to contend with water shortages, fixed sugar prices, government limits on acreage, increasing equipment costs and soaring labor pay rates and a shortage of laborers. The U&I Sugar Company augmented its South Dakota acres by contracting with Nebraska growers to ship sugarbeets to the Belle Fourche factory. The factory hired Texans, Jamaicans, Native Americans, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp members, displaced Japanese Americans, Boy Scout troops and crews of high school students to meet labor requirements, Linda Velder wrote.
In 1943, German prisoners of war began arriving in the United States. Linda Velder vividly remembers the POWs working at a neighbor’s farm.
“I was only about 4 years old. It was a fairly hot day, but we decided we should walk over to see these POWs. I don’t know what we were expecting. When we arrived, they were busy working in the beet fields and talking among themselves,” she said. “They stopped working to look at us, and some even waved and called out. Much to our surprise, they looked like ordinary people — like any neighbor or church member. Not one had four eyes or two heads or was even breathing flames. We turned and ran home. Our parents never knew.”
The U&I Sugar Company arranged with the U.S. Army for the POWs to assist local farmers in the sugarbeet fields, wrote Tim Velder in an article called “POW Camp.” Tim Velder said a high fence and three guard houses were put up around the former CCC Camp at Orman Dam, and the prisoners were housed there while they worked on area farms.
Linda Velder’s father was a German-Russian immigrant, and her mother was the daughter of Russian immigrants. The family spoke fluent German, and Linda’s father would occasionally be asked to interpret for the POWs.
“Most of the prisoners could speak and understand some English,” Linda said. “Dad was called upon to interpret rules, regulations and labor instructions.”
The German prisoners were paid the standard labor wage of 60 cents per hour, while skilled laborers received 80 cents per hour, according to Tim Velder. The money could only be spent in the camp commissary.
Linda Velder conducted interviews with area farmers who had employed the POWS.
“Most of the prisoners were happy to be in the United States and never caused trouble. They realized a great sense of security from bodily harm and away from the horrors of war,” she wrote in an article called “Attitudes of the POWs.” “The captives accepted most farm tasks asked of them and were invaluable to area farmers. Seldom did the prison guards or camp guards have to concern themselves with their attempt to escape.”
The German POWs had varied views of America and the war.
“Some prisoners hated the United States and all it stood for. They were staunch followers of the Nazi Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler. They openly displayed their contempt and advocated that Hitler was going to take over the world, including the US,” Linda Velder wrote. “Some had a bitter attitude and would try the patience of fellow prisoners, guards, cooks, or farmers. Most prisoners did not believe the news reports of the Allies winning the war, until word came from the Normandy invasion.”
However, the majority of prisoners were thankful to be away from the front lines. When the war was over and it was time for them to be repatriated to their homeland, some did not want to return, said Linda.
“They knew it would be a life of hardship and some would be going back to certain death,” she said. “They had made friends with the locals and with their comrades in camp, and they had plenty of food, shelter, and recreation. After their return home, a few did correspond with certain farm families, mostly in deep appreciation.”
The Newell Museum said that despite better farming practices, the Belle Fourche sugar factory was down to 176 farmers growing sugarbeets on 4,439 acres in 1948 and began to lose money by 1950. In 1960, costs had increased, and volume was down. The U&I Sugar Company looked for new growing areas in central and eastern South Dakota but were unsuccessful due to low sugar content and plant disease in beets produced there, according to the
in Belle Fourche. The Belle Fourche factory processed sugarbeets for the last time on Jan. 12, 1963.
“I was 12 years old in 1962, the last year Dad did beets,” said Ken, who retired from sheep farming several years ago. Ken and his wife Beverly continue to grow alfalfa and corn with flood irrigation.
Seth Bullock’s vision of sugarbeet production and his many contributions to agriculture in Butte County, South Dakota, are a fascinating part of the history of both the American West and the United States sugarbeet industry. Although sugarbeet production in that area ended in the 1960s, Bullock’s dream shaped the farming futures of many families and their descendants who farm in the Belle Fourche River Valley today.
(A special thanks to the staffs at the Newell Museum and the Tri-State Museum.)
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