A Road Trip to Western Nebraska’s Amazing Agricultural History

Travel and Explore WyoBraska

| EXPLORED WESTERN NEBRASKA |


You cannot tell the recent history of the North Platte Valley without stressing the importance of agriculture. When dealing with the subject of agriculture in the North Platte Valley in the first part of the 20th century probably the most important crop was sugar beets. 


| AGRICULTURE ROAD TRIPPINGS

You cannot tell the recent history of the North Platte Valley without stressing the importance of agriculture. When dealing with the subject of agriculture in the Valley in the first part of the 20th century probably the most important crop was sugar beets.

When the sugar beet industry started to take hold in the valley starting in the first decade the first beets were grown and shipped to already existing factories in eastern Nebraska and Colorado. When the quality of these beets was determined to be very good and the growing conditions in most of eastern Nebraska were determined to not be conducive to growing beets (too much humidity lead to problems with disease) the industry began a move west except for a factory at Grand Island.

In the first quarter of the 20th century, seven sugar factories would be built in a stretch of about 75 miles from Bayard, Nebraska west to Torrington, Wyoming. These factories played a huge part in the rapid growth of the area in that time period. Although some of the facilities built for that industry are long gone, much of it still remains and is of particular interest to agritourism.

Aerial footage of the abandoned Western Sugar Factory in Mitchell, Nebraska. © Hawk Buckman

Let’s start at the beginning with the first factory built in WyoBraska (a local area reference to the Nebraska Panhandle and eastern Wyoming) and that would take us to Scottsbluff. After a few years of sending harvested beets out of the area, local developers decided it was time to have a factory for this increasingly important crop in the valley. In 1909 the assets of the failed Standard Beet Sugar Company of Ames, Nebraska including the machinery and much of the building itself, were acquired by the Scottsbluff Sugar Company. Those pieces were reassembled on the east side of Scottsbluff with the intention of processing their first crop at the harvest time of 1910. By 1910 the Scottsbluff Company had somehow been absorbed into the Great Western Sugar Company. That factory while the oldest is now the only one still operating for beet processing in the valley. That factory has been expanded and modernized several times over the last century and that process is ongoing today.

While the Scottsbluff factory itself is the main item here other facilities that GW (Great Western) built still remain today. When built the labor force needed to operate the factory was recruited, many from out of the area. These workers and their families in many cases needed housing. GW helped some with this situation by constructing some houses and also building several dormitories for single male workers. The Scottsbluff dorm is still located about a half mile west of the factory on East Overland and is currently serving as apartments after extensive renovations in the last few years.

A point of interest at this factory is the fact that in July 1996 the main sugar storage silos here blew up, fortunately at night and not during the campaign. One man was unfortunately killed. Had it happened during the campaign, with a full crew in operation processing the beets, many more would probably be injured or killed. If you look at the current office in dark stone you will note that it is kind of a clover shape. This is because the foundation of the destroyed silos was reconfigured as the foundation of the new factory office when new silos were built in a straight configuration behind it. The factory does occasionally give tours but you would need to contact them for more information about that.

Let’s move on across the river to the south lies the Gering factory, which was the second one built in the valley. In a period of about ten months, the Gering factory went from planning to construction to operation for the fall 1916 campaign. This factory ceased processing operations in the early 1990s. The sugar company still uses the silos for some sugar storage and has some activity in the lab. The Gering factory like Scottsbluff before it experienced labor shortages requiring the construction of some housing just south of the factory. Another dorm was built on 8th street and several houses were built as well. This dorm unfortunately was demolished in the 1970s. Most of the factory still remains and can be seen on east U Street & 7th in Northeast Gering.

The next factory built by GW was located at Bayard about 25 miles to the east. Constructed in 1916 it began operating the next year. Located on the west side of the city it also had a dormitory constructed just to the east of it. It too remains and was a bed and breakfast in recent years. I’m not certain of its current status. The Bayard factory also suffered a sugar silo explosion in May of 1972. Fortunately again it occurred at a time of year when minimum staff was on board and no one was killed. Those silos were not replaced for almost fourteen years. The Bayard factory is still mostly intact and can be seen at 804 West 8th Street in Bayard.

The Mitchell factory, located on the West side of town was the next one built by Great Western. It’s another amazing story of construction as the factory was completed again in about ten months and received its first crop for processing in October 1920. (With all of today’s bureaucratic red tape it probably would take five years just to get all the needed permits approved!) The factory closed after the 1996 campaign. As with the other factory cities, a dorm was constructed just east of the factory and still exists today as a nursing/retirement home. The sugar silos (which are easy to see for miles at all the remaining factories that had them) are still being used for bulk sugar storage.

| IN THE FIELD



Minatare was the next town in line for a factory. With a convoluted history for its construction due to economic conditions, major competition between Great Western and the Holly sugar company for a city site, and a start and stop saga that extended for almost eight years, Minatare finally got its factory in operation for the fall 1926 campaign. Located on the south side of the town south of the Burlington railroad, they too had a dorm built just north of the tracks from the mill. The dorm is visible there today. Minatare’s factory was a long time coming and existed for just a short time as it closed in 1941. Much of the factory complex was demolished in 1953. Part of a few buildings remain as does the main office which now serves as the office for the Silver Spur Cattle Company. Minatare never had any sugar silos as they were all built in the 1950s, long after the factory had shut down. The office and what’s left of the factory building is visible on the east side of the highway running south from Minatare.

Moving to the far western edge of Scotts Bluff County (and the state of Nebraska!) the last GW factory was announced for construction in Lyman in 1926. The first beets were processed there in the fall of 1927. Again competition between GW and Holly Sugar delayed the construction of the facility while the two companies fought over territory. Some type of agreement, maybe formal, maybe verbal was apparently reached under which GW would not enter Wyoming and Holly would stay out of Nebraska. GW went much deeper into the construction of Housing at Lyman. There was a different style dorm built in downtown Lyman still there today although I’m not sure of its current use. They actually constructed a number of homes in a well-planned small subdivision south of the factory across the Union Pacific tracks, the Park Place addition, which carries the unofficial name of “Sugartown”. Most of the homes there still exist today and most are occupied! The factory itself is on the northeast edge of Lyman. Again Lyman’s factory operations would be short-lived as they ceased processing after the 1949 campaign. No sugar silos were ever built there as well. Most of the buildings are gone now with parts remaining. The office, now all boarded up, sits it the testimony of what was once.

The final stop on our Sugar Beet Agra tour is in Torrington Wyoming about 30 miles west of Scottsbluff. The mill there was again a long time coming as the GW/Holly competition dragged on for several years. The Holly sugar company began operations at the Torrington mill in the fall of 1926. Again a series of false alarms for construction frustrated the people there for many years. The factory is actually located in South Torrington west of Highway 85 south of the North Platte River. This mill has about half a dozen sugar storage silos. The mill operated for many years and was acquired by GW through a lease from American Crystal sugar in 2002. GW operated the mill for sixteen years announcing they ceased processing there after the 2018 harvest. Again the storage silos are still being utilized for bulk sugar storage. Most of this facility is still intact and visible from US Highway 85.

Much of the historic structures are still visible in 2022 but that could change as sugar storage needs and property taxes on the old facilities may lead to their demise in the future.

| CREDITS & RESEARCH

Lawrence ‘Larry’ Gibbs is a native of New York who after leaving the military married, and moved to Gering, Nebraska 55 years ago. Larry is the author of “Nebraska Sweet Beets: A History of Sugar Valley”. Available on Amazon Books or your favorite book store.

Story by: Lawrence Gibbs
Photography by: Hawk Buckman



Explore WyoBraska

WyoBraska Expeditions Partnerspot_img
Travel Nebraskaspot_img
Visit WyoBraskaspot_img
Visit Gering, NEVisit Gering Nebraska

Explore Western Nebraska

error: Content is protected !!