High plains heritage
Jack Preston, museum historian and area rancher, with a horse-drawn wagon once used to haul sugar beets from the field.
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.”
According to local records, the Standard Beet Sugar Co. contracted for 150 acres of sugar beets in 1904. The next year the acreage tripled, and in 1908, a group of local businessmen and growers traveled to Denver to talk to officials at Great Western Sugar about building a sugar factory in Scottsbluff. The following year, the sugar company purchased and relocated a plant from Ames, Neb., to Scottsbluff, and in 1910 contracted with local growers to raise 12,000 acres of beets.
Because early planters were not well adapted to beet seed (about half the size of a grain of rice), it took long hours of hand labor to block and thin the rows of beets. First German-Russian and Japanese immigrants, then German POWs during World War II, and then migrant workers from Texas and Mexico, were brought in to block out sections of the sprouting beets with short-handled hoes. When the plants reached about 4 inches in height, the workers chopped or pulled all but one beet plant from each remaining clump.
From 1916 through 1927, additional sugar factories were built in the surrounding Nebraska towns of Gering, Bayard, Mitchell, Minatare and Lyman, and Torrington, Wyo., and the railroads laid nearly 100 miles of spurs to reach some two dozen sugar beet dumping stations. About 75,000 acres of beets were produced in the valley in 1929, and 88,000 acres by 1933. But as production began to decline and factories became more efficient, the Lyman and Minatare factories closed in the 1940s, the Gering factory in the 1980s, and the Mitchell factory in the 1990s. Today, the Scottsbluff factory is the only panhandle sugar factory still in operation.
Jack says dry beans came into the area as early as the late 1890s and early 1900s, when a handful of area growers began shipping their crop to markets as far away as Missouri and Michigan. Dry bean production kicked into high gear in 1923, when Morrill, Neb., grower Chester B. Brown planted and harvested 100 acres of great northern beans. Brown, who encouraged other area growers to plant the crop, went on to establish bean warehouses and a packaging and distribution company that shipped dry beans to markets across the country.
“Great northern and pinto beans quickly became the area’s second most important cash crop, and our museum features several pieces of bean planting and harvesting equipment,” says Jack. “Early on, beans were cut by hand, loaded on a wagon with a pitchfork and hauled to a bean huller. In 1896, a blade was invented to cut the beans just under the soil surface, but harvesting remained labor intensive until the introduction of the first mechanical harvester.”
The museum’s horse-drawn bean equipment includes a planter, cultivator, vine cutter and a Wiard Universal bean harvester, designed to cut or pull two rows that were then gathered by a set of cleaners and raked into a windrow. There’s also a horse-drawn bean sled built by Chester B. Brown around 1923, which was pulled to the field on a set of runners, then flipped over to cut two rows of beans with hand-forged knives.
The Allis-Chalmers Model 66 all-crop harvester, an example of which is on display at the museum, was introduced in 1936. The tractor-drawn Model 66 and its successor, the Model 72 (introduced in 1960), would soon revolutionize dry bean production in the area. Some of these small but versatile harvesters are still used today to harvest dry beans, small grains, flax, sunflowers and other seed crops.
While beet acreage has declined, the Nebraska Panhandle still produces about 41,000 acres of sugar beets annually. Nebraska is also a top bean-growing state, producing about 107,000 acres of great northern, pinto, light red kidney, pink, black, navy and garbanzo beans each year.
There’s far more to see than sugar beet and dry bean equipment at the Farm And Ranch Museum. There are dozens of antique tractors, threshing machines and horse-drawn implements of all types, including a 1931 centennial replica of an 1831 McCormick reaper. Jack says the museum currently has about 3,000 pieces of equipment, most donated from within a 500-mile radius. The museum also has a one-of-a-kind home movie (since transferred to tape and DVD) shot by a local farmer who documented sugar beet, bean and corn production from 1938 to 1945 at his farm near Minatare. FC
Read about sugar beet equipment in the Upper Midwest: “Minnesotans Sweep Up Vintage Sugar Beet Equipment.”
For more information: The Farm And Ranch Museum is open May 1 to Oct. 1, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays, or by appointment. The museum is located at 2930 Old Oregon Trail, Gering, NE 69341; (308) 436-1989; www.farmandranchmuseum.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: firstname.lastname@example.org.