Footprints in the Sugar
A History of the Great Western Sugar Company
written by Candy Hamilton

Immigrants & Prisoners
photos and text are from Chapter Five, Six, and Seven in Footprints in the Sugar


German-Russians, Mexican-Americans, and Prisoners of War


As the cultivation of sugar beets expanded to northern Colorado, and the deep green leaves of healthy sugar beet plants covered previously semi-arid, non-productive soil, local beet growers found themselves in a position they had never been in before -- they had a marketable, high-profit crop that unfortunately required intensive hand labor.

The planting and harvesting of sugar beets involved long hours of grueling manual labor, tasks growers were unwilling to perform; therefore, an ample supply of skilled, cheap labor became a necessity.

1902...
In order to ensure an experienced and plentiful labor force, the Great Western Sugar Company sought German families who had emigrated from the Volga River region of Russia to America after 1900. The immigrants had come without enough money to purchase land and long after any residual effects of the Homestead Act could help them...the post-1900 Volga Germans became prime candidates as a source of cheap labor for the sugar company.
The Great Western Sugar Company was instrumental in assisting many families on their journey to America, inasmuch as they were offered inducements and contracts to work in the sugar beets fields after their arrival.

The Volga Germans were viewed as humble, unskilled, and poorly educated people with a tenacity to perform the disagreeable and grueling job of beet labor. Interestingly, any negative opinions of them were dispelled when the immigrant families began to acquire property. Gradually ignorance as to their work ethic and tolerance of their customs shifted to awe and respect.

1916...
Records from Great Western confirm it sought to maintain a diversified labor force by suppressing any undue influence by a particular ethnic group...To further show its authority, Great Western reintroduced Mexican field labor into the fields, as well as a smattering of Negroes, Greeks, and Italians to compete with the Japanese...The Great Western Sugar Company would prove to agricultural laborers that no one was indispensable.

For decades on end, the Mexican-Americans were willing to work the soil for next to nothing in return. They performed the job Anglo-Americans refused to do.

World War II...
The internment of nearly half-a-million German, Italian, and Japanese prisoners of war in the United States was never fully documented in any American publication or report, except perhaps those of the U.S. Army.

In Colorado alone more than 15,000 men were interned in rural camps throughout the state so that they could work in the sugar beet, onion, and potato fields...for the majority of the prisoners their time in the fields and experiences in the camps unquestionably changed their lives, perhaps more so than if they had stayed in their homelands to fight against those who had become their eventual captors and benefactors.

The synergy that developed between farmers and prisoners was invaluable as both worked together to fulfill food shipments so vital to the American troops who were fighting in Europe and the Pacific.



(photo credit: Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, NDSU Library, Fargo, ND;
courtesy Brost Kalmbach Collection)



(photo credit: Library of Congress Prints
and Photographs Division)



(photo credit: U.S. National Archives)

 

Click on the short-handle beet hoe

to view the
Table of Contents and read a brief description of each chapter in
Footprints in the Sugar

 

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