Nebraska Museum Preserves Sugar Beet and Dry Bean History

High plains heritage

| January 2009

Standing in the shadows of the Scotts Bluff National Monument, one of the most famous landmarks along the old Oregon Trail, the Farm And Ranch Museum in Gering, Neb., is a testament to early settlers who saw the North Platte Valley not just as a route to the West, but also as fertile farm land.

Founded in 1988, the museum today occupies 100 acres of outdoor exhibit space and cropland, and features more than 12,000 square feet of indoor display space. “Our mission is to interpret and preserve the agricultural heritage of the High Plains,” explains Jack Preston, museum vice president and historian, and a rancher whose family settled in the area 120 years ago. “Last year 6,000 to 7,000 visitors from nearly every state in the union and several foreign countries came to see exhibits featuring sugar beet, dry bean, corn and hay production, irrigation, ranching, and conservation tillage.”

Displays featuring the early days of sugar beet and dry bean production are key draws and include excellent examples of horse-drawn sugar beet equipment. There’s a 1-row walking beet lifter (which loosened beets from the soil, where they were pulled up, topped and piled by hand) and a walking beet thinner. The museum has a horse-drawn “V” sled, which was pulled through the field to create a smooth bare strip of ground where workers tossed hand-topped beets, along with horse-drawn cultivators and drills, and an authentic Great Western Sugar scale house.

Vintage tractor-powered beet harvesting equipment from the 1940s includes an International Harvester 1-row harvester, which could top, lift, clean and load 5 to 6 tons of beets per hour. The museum has a Scott Urshal 1-row harvester, manufactured by the Ohio Sugar Beet Combine Co.; a John Deere 54A 1-row harvester and a locally manufactured Sishc beet loader, which picked up a windrow of beets and loaded them into a truck or wagon. There’s also a Marbeet harvester, as well as tractor-powered Dixie, Silver and Black Welder model beet thinners from the early 1950s.

Jack says the sugar beet industry brought a new era of financial stability to the valley. But farmers quickly found they couldn’t raise sugar beets without irrigation, and they couldn’t afford irrigation without sugar beets. And neither was possible without the arrival of the railroads.

“The first local irrigation canals were dug in the late 1880s,” Jack says, “and in the early 1900s, work began on the Pathfinder and Gering Ft. Laramie canals, constructed by the federal government to carry water stored in eastern Wyoming into the Nebraska Panhandle. The first Burlington railroad tracks reached Scottsbluff, Neb., in 1900, and Union Pacific tracks were completed to Gering in 1910.”