Great Western Sugar Company

In 1901, a syndicate of sugar investors composed of local community members and primarily led by James B. Arthur, Peter Anderson, and Henry O. Havermeyer, created a company to build Fort Collins’ first beet sugar factory. Built in 1903, the town’s factory quickly came under the ownership of Great Western Sugar Company in 1905. In the late nineteenth century, the Great Western Sugar Company plants dotted the land from Kansas to Montana, and after Great Western Sugar assumed ownership of the Fort Collins sugar beet factory, it established itself as a major economic industry in town.1

While it might seem counterintuitive, a confluence of forces made Fort Collins an ideal place to cultivate sugar beets: physical geography, the natural environment, the development of mining, and the city’s irrigation system all contributed to rise of the sugar beet industry in this area. In order for the sugar beet industry to be viable, both farmers and the factory needed a plentiful source of water. Since the average amount of rainfall per is year is fifteen to twenty inches, beet farmers relied heavily on irrigation systems. Farmers diverted water from the Cache la Poudre and small creeks to irrigate beet fields. In turn, as agriculture developed along the Front Range, farmers built a complex web of canals and ditches to water their crops.2

Securing Water

In addition to beets, limestone, fuel, and the physical factory, sugar beet factories require vast quantities of water to operate. The Great Western Sugar factory was located on the north end of town near present-day Vine and Linden streets and in close proximity to a segment of the Cache la Poudre River. The short distance between the factory and the river afforded the company access to the region’s largest water source.3

Throughout its half-century presence in Fort Collins, Colorado, the Great Western Sugar factory struggled to maintain adequate and steady supplies of water. Great Western cobbled its water supply together from a variety of different sources. The company diverted water from the Josh Ames Ditch, and beginning in 1904 it pumped water directly from the Cache la Poudre River as well. The company also received treated water directly from the City of Fort Collins, which delivered water to the factory via a ten-inch pipeline, and purchased shares in the Colorado-Big Thompson Project in the 1950s. However, even with these sources of water the factory struggled throughout the twentieth century to maintain a steady and sufficient supply of water, which it needed for virtually every aspect of converting beets to sugar. Between 1910 and 1954, the Great Western Sugar plant’s daily allotment of processed water from the city decreased from 650,000 to 200,000 gallons. This, in turn, placed a great strain on the factory and often brought the company and city into conflict with one another over how much water the factory used on a daily basis. In the face of decreased access to the city’s water supplies and increased price rates, the Great Western Sugar factory supplemented the water it needed for processing beets directly from the Cache La Poudre River.4

The process of taking beets from organic plant material to a monoculture commodity involved a highly sophisticated factory system that needed vast quantitates of water to operate on a daily basis. In 1910, it was estimated that the factory processed nearly 70,000 tons of beet sugar and used nearly five million gallons of water a week as the beets moved through a complex series of pipes, valves, flumes, tanks, and machines.5 One can only imagine how many more beets and how much more water this required in later years. Moreover, the Fort Collin’s sugar factory operated primarily on steam, which further added to the amount of water it needed for its daily operations.

From Beets to Sugar

This infographic from The Silver Wedge (1936) a book published by the U.S. Beet Sugar Association explains mid-twentieth-century beet sugar production from start to finish.

This infographic from The Silver Wedge (1936) a book published by the U.S. Beet Sugar Association explains mid-twentieth-century beet sugar production from start to finish.

Many scholars describe the complex conversion of beets into sugar as akin to alchemy. The process involves a series of steps in which beets are first processed physically, then chemically. When beets arrived at the factory, workers transferred the plants from rail cars into flumes filled with running water. Inside these flumes, water flowed rapidly to clean and separate dirt and debris from the beets. While flumes helped remove dirt and debris, beets needed to be absolutely clean before they could be processed. After going through the flumes conveyor belts dropped beets into washing tanks. By the 1950s, these tanks evolved to include high-powered sprays of water that blasted beets clean as they travelled upward into the factory along a roller bed.6

Conveyor belts then then moved beets to a second set of washers that rinsed them again. Out of the second washer, belts carried into perforated drums that slowly rotated and drained any excess water. As the vegetables tumbled in the drums, they slowly moved towards an elevator that delivered the soggy plants to a factory worker who weighed the beets and periodically monitored their sugar content. Throughout this entire process, sugar beets steadily moved higher and higher in the factory space, which allowed processing plants to harness the power of gravity during the next stage: physical reduction of beets into sugar.7
Now clean and at the heights of the factory, conveyor belts dropped the beets into large vertical tubes that sliced and cut them as they moved through the tubes. In these columns the weight of the beets pressed them down as blades sliced and cut the beets. After cutting, beets moved into the battery diffusion of cells, which consisted of tanks filled with boiling hot water that extracted the sugar content from the organic material. The water in these tanks broke down the cellular walls of sugar beets and allowed the sugar to diffuse into the water, creating juice. While diffusion cells come in a variety of different designs, most often they “were two stories high and half as large in diameter.” To maximize efficiency, the beets and sugar water circulated through eleven to fourteen tanks per factory. The thick, sugary water moved throughout a series of complicated pumps, valves, and pipes that all worked to increase sugar extraction. In all, this meant that factories needed massive and steady flows of water for daily operations.8

Once the diffusion cells finished creating the juice, the liquid needed to be cleaned of impurities and any leftover organic material. Pipes moved the juice into liming machines, which added lime into the liquid. As the lime and juice mixed together a reaction occurred that chemically removed any of the unwanted impurities from diffusion, neutralized acids, and helped some of the solid impurities settle out of the juice. Next, juice was pushed through filter presses that pressurized the liquid, forcing out any remaining solid material. During filtering, factory workers separated the chemicals used in the process from the juice, sent some liquid back to be re-filtered, and shunted out waste to lagoons.9

After being washed in lime and filtered, the juice was sent through pipes to carbonation tanks, which infused the juice with carbonic acid that neutralized the liquids’ pH levels and removed any lime that had dissolved into the juice. Once again, to remove any impurities in the juice, the liquid was sent through another set of filter presses. This process would be repeated at least twice. Finally, pumps and pipes sent the juice to sulfur stations, which boiled the liquid with sulfuric acid. Boiling both balanced the liquids’ pH levels and bleached the sugar. Once again, workers filtered the liquid. At this point in the process, the beets had been transformed from plants to what factories termed standard liquor. The syrupy liquid moved toward its final steps in processing.10

Workers slowly evaporated the standard liquor in a series of large tanks. When workers thought the liquid had reached its highest sugar saturation point, the liquid was released into several vacuum pans, which is where the liquid was converted into crystallized form. The sugar was then transported to another portion of the factory where the sugar crystals were separated. In this part of the factory, the sugar was placed in large centrifuges while workers sprayed the spinning sugar with hot water to rinse off any residual syrup. After spinning and drying, the sugar crystals were sorted by size and weight to be packaged for sale.11

Waste

The history of Great Western Sugar and Fort Collins is also intimately tied to issues of water and waste. In the decades that Great Western operated, the factory produced millions of gallons of effluent, both biological and chemical. Like many other industrial plants across the country, the Great Western factory disposed of its waste in nearby waterways by constructing an open flume that transported waste from the factory into nearby settling ponds and then into the Cache la Poudre River. Not only did the waste damage local fish populations and pollute the waterway, it also caused the city to stink. Throughout its history, the factory also worked to make sure that it had adequate access to land to dispose of its effluent.12

While Fort Collins’ Great Western Sugar factory closed in 1954, its legacy of food production and consumption carries on. Much of the land that the factory formally occupied is now home to a number of the city’s burgeoning microbreweries. Both of these industries consume large amounts of water, and their products are ultimately bound for markets outside of the local community. Like Great Western, the city’s breweries may someday struggle to find adequate water supplies as the market for craft beer continues to expand and grow.

  1. Michael Goolsby and Michael McDermot, “A Brief History of Great Western Sugar Company,” Guide to the Records of the Great Western Sugar Company, Colorado Agricultural Archive, Colorado State University; Candy Hamilton, Footprints in Sugar: A History of the Great Western Sugar Company, (Idaho: Hamilton Bates Publishers, 2009): 88; Colorado State University Libraries, “History,” Great Western Sugar Digital Collection, last modified July 23, 2013, http://lib.colostate.edu/archives/greatwestern/history.html (accessed April, 04, 2014).
  2. Lydia Gray, “The Physical Environment” in Land Use Patterns, Practices and Problems in the Poudre Triangle of Northern Colorado ed. by Donald D. MacPhail, (Boulder, CO: Department of Geography, University of Colorado, 1970): 7-11; Samuel B. Nuckols and Thomas H. Summers, Farm Practice in Growing Field Crops in Three Sugar-Beet Districts of Colorado, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1921); Sierra Standish, “Beet Borderland: Hispanic Workers, The Sugar Beet, and the Making of the Northern Colorado Landscape,” (Master’s Thesis, Colorado State University, 2002): 35.
  3. Standish, “Beet Borderland, 35.
  4. Ron Sladek, “Great Western Sugar Historic Nomination Form,” (Historic Context Report, City of Fort Collins, 2013), 17-21; “Fischer, Ward,” oral history interview, 1991, Water Supply and Storage Company Collection, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University.
  5. Sladek, 20-21.
  6. Eric Twitty, “The Silver Wedge: The Sugar Beet Industry in Fort Collins,” (Historical Context Report, SWCA Environmental Consultants, 2003), 19-20.
  7. Ibid., 20.
  8. Twitty, 20-23. Quote is taken from Twitty, 23.
  9. R.A. McGinnis, “Juice Purification, I. History and Fundamentals,” in Beet-Sugar Technology, Second Edition, ed. by R.A. McGinnis (Fort Collins, CO: Beet Sugar Development Foundation, 1971): 161-166, 259-295.
  10. Sladek, 20-21; Twitty, 22-24; McGinnis, 161-190.
  11. McGinnis, 419-429,451-465; Twitty, 23-27.
  12. Sladek, 21-23.

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