Minnesotans Sweep Up Vintage Sugar Beet Equipment

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The first rear-delivery scrub chain, built by the late Raymond Baatz, Nielsville, Minn. He used a 6-row Hesston, scrub tower from a Heath and elevator from a 4-row Farmhand. Photo by Ron Peterson, Fisher, Minn.

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There may be more antique sugar beet equipment tucked away on Red River Valley farmsteads in Minnesota and North Dakota than any other place on earth.

After all, sugar beets have been grown commercially here since 1919, and the region leads the nation in sugar beet production with 600,000 to 700,000 acres grown annually.

A few years ago, Crookston, Minn., farmers Allan Dragseth and Roger Odegaard set out to preserve the area’s history of sugar beet production. In 2004, they formed the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Museum, Inc., purchased two buildings and several acres of land and began retrieving vintage equipment from tree rows and old sheds.
Today, the museum occupies 13,000 square feet of indoor display area and 11 acres of outdoor display and farm ground. Exhibits include horse-drawn walking plows, cultivators, weeders and beet lifters, and dozens of tractor-powered beet thinners, toppers, harvesters, lifters and loaders dating from the 1940s to ’60s.

Allan, a self-described “saver” whose grandfather and father began growing sugar beets here in the early 1920s, says he and Roger probably donated 40 percent of the equipment on display, with the remainder coming from farmers within an 80-mile radius.

“We have 15 1-, 2- and 3-row beet harvesters, including International Harvester, King-Wize, John Deere, Farmhand, Marbeet, Hesston and Scott Urshal models,” says Allan. “One of our unique items is a Harvall harvester that looks like a torture chamber. It was developed by American Crystal in the mid-1940s, and has shoes that dug the beets out of the ground, and two spiked wheels about 6 or 7 feet tall that impaled the beets and raised them up to spinning discs that cut off the tops.

“We also have a machine with the first rear scrub chain developed by the late Raymond Baatz. He started with a 6-row Hesston, and added the scrub chain tower from a Heath and the elevator from a 4-row Farmhand. He changed the spiral on the grab rolls to deliver to the center, so it worked from the start.”

The museum also exhibits a shop-built, self-propelled harvester built by Max Campbell in the early 1950s. Campbell started with a CO-OP tractor with a truck rear end he reversed to run backward. He mounted two rows of lifting wheels up front, added an elevator and a hopper from a McCormick-Deering HM-1 and built a platform for the operator to run it like a self-propelled combine. “We’ve heard he only built six or seven, and we have three we found in the trees in northern Minnesota,” says Allan.

The museum has acquired a half-dozen vintage beet lifters and several rotobeaters, including Olson, Farmhand, Allis-Chalmers, Alloway and John Bean models. Topping units include IHC, John Deere and Tonsfeld models, as well as a home-made version, and there are examples of both rear- and side-delivery beet loaders. Beet thinners on display include a 1953 Dixie model, and Black Welder, John Deere, Vicon and Eversman models. The museum also displays the original row finder developed and patented in the mid-1960s by Lyle Kiel, Crookston.

While the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Museum is currently open only by appointment, museum organizers invite the public to an annual harvest festival held each September. More than 450 visitors attended the 2008 event to see vintage beet harvesting equipment in operation and watch bundles of wheat threshed with a steam engine-driven threshing machine. FC

Read about a museum bent on keeping dry bean and sugar beet equipment alive: “Nebraska Museum Preserves Sugar Beet and Dry Bean History.”

For more information: Red River Valley Sugarbeet Museum, care of Allan Dragseth, (218) 281-2550; www.sugarbeetmuseum.com.

Jerry Schleicher is a country humorist and cowboy poet, and a regular contributor to GRIT magazine. He grew up on a crop and cattle operation in western Nebraska, and now lives in Missouri. Contact him at 8515 Lakeview Dr., Parkville, MO 64152; e-mail: gschleicher1@kc.rr.com.