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Dossier: Brighton's "Sugar Sweet" Times of Sugar Beet Days & Great Western Sugar Co.

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

Sleuthing Brighton Colorado, with a full Investigative Report by the Brighton History Detective® (aka Robin Kring)

Case Number: 00013, Identify Mural Subject

Mural Location: “Historic Brighton at Founders Plaza” by Hans Joseph Geist

Subject Identified: Brighton, Home of Great Western Sugar Co. Showcase Factory

GREAT WESTERN SUGAR (GWS) CO., Established in 1917 as the GWS Showcase Factory. Just to the north of Brighton’s historic Main Street, a group of huddled sugar silos stand tall against the sky-blue backdrop of this Colorado plains city. They are part of a sugar-factory complex consisting of several red-brick buildings that together were once billed as “The Great Western Sugar Company’s Showcase Factory.” Designed with state-of-the-art equipment and beautiful landscaping, the handsomely-crafted visitor’s gate welcomed dignitaries from around the world, including on one memorable day in 1954, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower toured the factory and met with Local Sugar Beet Growers (like Louie J. Ehlen).

The factory, originally built in 1917, brought “sugar sweet” times to the community over the next sixty years, as an agricultural hub responsible for the community’s thriving economic opportunities. Colorado was the state with the largest number of beet sugar factories (16) in the United States, and GWS owned and operated 13 of them. First consolidating seven beet sugar factories in 1905, including the earliest built in 1901 to one built in 1905, and later building five factories from 1906-1926 (including the Brighton factory in 1917), as well as acquiring the Fort Lupton factory, originally built in 1920.

Beet Sugar was the “White Gold” of Colorado

Beet sugar was not only integral to Brighton’s prosperity, but was considered the “white gold” of Colorado, with the beet-sugar industry producing more money than the mining industry. The beet-sugar industry produced $378 million (in its first three decades), compared to the mining industry’s $195 million. The beet sugar industry also relied on sustainable resources, rather than depletable resources.

It was the culmination of a prediction made by a Littleton farmer and visionary, Peter Magnes, who, in 1860, was the first to successfully grow sugar beets in the Colorado Territory. “If we had sugar beet factories in Colorado (similar to flour mills scattered around) farmers could produce more gold than all the mines in the mountains.”

Magnes worked with metallurgist, Jacob Schirmer, to procure experimental trials for sugar content, discovering the Colorado-grown sugar beet actually yielded greater sugar content than that of Germany, the leader in sugar beet production and processing. The Colorado-grown sugar beet yielded 14.5% sugar, compared to Germany’s average of 11%. This would prove beneficial to local growers, as crop prices were calculated on sugar content. Magnes further calculated growers could realize an unprecedented net profit of $2,625 per acre.

Although Magnes and others would form and invest in Colorado beet-sugar processing plants, many would fail. Even Brighton’s first sugar company, The Keyes Syrup Factory (1905), would not last long. It would take multiple attempts and learning experiences to produce successful businesses.

Once perfected, Colorado would prove to have the ideal growing conditions ― climate, sun, water, and soil. The South Platte River Valley was especially suited with growing high-sugar content beets, due to its cool nights, warm days, low frost, and high number of sunny days. Its dry plain’s rain and snowfall also well-coordinated with the beet’s life cycle. Sugar beets would prove to be the highest-paying plain’s crop and, as an industrial crop for raw material, offered growers an advance factory contract.

Brighton, and other Colorado GWS communities, would also benefit from the sugar beet’s two-for-one product advantage, beet sugar and beet pulp (used as cattle feed). There would also be auxiliary-industries growth for communities, including real estate, farm supplies, coal and railroad jobs.

Sugar Beets Enriched Our Multi-Cultural Heritage

The influx of sugar-beet immigrant labor enriched our communities with a multi-cultural heritage. Among them, were the Russian-Germans, who brought valuable dry farming and highly-sought sugar-beet techniques. Naoichi “Harry” Hokasono is responsible for bringing the Japanese to the Brighton area in response to labor needs and opportunities. After WWI, a large number of Hispanic Americans from the southwest and Mexican Nationals worked as temporary migrant farm workers, with many permanently relocating year-round, taking advantage of GWS housing incentives and help in securing year-round employment off-season in the community.

Many laborers were later able to purchase company and other housing, as well as purchase their own farms with savings and/or share-cropping opportunities.

A Change of Sugar-Beet Times

Brighton prospered through her “sugar sweet” sugar beet and GWS times, until the post-WII war years saw a gradual decline in the profitability of the GWS company operations. The beginning of the end of our sugar beet era was marked when the January 7, 1977 edition of The Brighton Blade printed news of the GWS Company decision to close the Brighton factory. The newspaper reported that the factory employed 65 to 85 people year-round and required from 236 to 260 workers during the annual campaign (the period from October to February when beets are processed at the factory).

Competition from cane sugar and corn syrup, as well as the introduction of artificial sweeteners, are often blamed as the causes for further decline in sugar beet prices, and closure of Colorado’s GWS factories. But Chris Mapes, Dir. WH & Logistics for Amalgamated Sugar Company, best described the “perfect storm” that brought down Colorado’s “house of sugar” in the 1970s. Many were not unique to GWS, nor the beet-sugar industry.

The “perfect storm” included: the advent of high-fructose corn syrup; soft sugar prices; the energy crisis with its skyrocketing fuel prices; strengthened environmental laws, rising maintenance costs of the old factory buildings and equipment (many built in the early 1900s); and the inefficiencies of small-scale technologies capacities. The GWS factories were built within 20 miles of each other to accommodate getting sugar beets to factories in the days of horse-and-wagon transportation, and without the paved roads and highways of today. With modern transportation and highways, fewer factories were needed and it became more efficient to increase capacity in a smaller number of factories. For example, it costs less to run one boiler vs. three, as well as maintain one factory vs. several.

“GWS just could not weather the storm,“ summed up Chris Mapes. And so, four GWS factories were closed between 1948 and 1967, largely due to insufficient capacity. (Windsor’s factory closing was connected to declining crops and stream pollution from wet-pulp damage.) Four additional factories, including Brighton’s, were closed in the 1970s as a result of the “perfect storm.” The remaining four factories closed between 1985-2003, following the decision to close the company, resulting from several years of economic struggles, including the silver-investment financial crisis and connected convictions and bankruptcy of the Hunt Brother owners, (1980-1985).

”Sugar-Sweet” Times Left Brighton Proud

The Amalgamated Sugar Company bought the Brighton sugar factory complex in 1985 and today uses portions of the facility as a regional office for a storage and terminal site. The Fort Morgan factory is the only remaining active former Colorado GWS factory, benefiting from the capacity efficiency of one factory processing sugar beets from multiple states. The factory is now owned by Western Sugar Cooperative, made up of over 1,000 growers in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana, including Brighton’s single-remaining sugar beet farm, owned and run by John Weigandt. Today, beet sugar accounts for 55% of sugar produced in the U.S. The Western Sugar Cooperative is one of four firms dominating the Colorado’s sugar-beet production and processing, generating $1 billion in 2019.

Reflecting on Brighton’s contribution to Colorado’s sugar-beet era, she can be proud of her contribution to helping diversifying Colorado’s economy, and eliminating it reliance solely on mining and ranching. Brighton played a memorable part in proving immigrants could make the dessert bloom. Her sugar-beet industry help populate the plains and build the railroads. Finally, her sugar-beet era brought prosperity to agricultural communities and enriched our lives with a “sugar sweet” heritage.

©2015-2023 Robin Kring, including excerpts from Brighton’s Sugar Sweet Times, Colorado “White Gold” Colorado ― Beet Sugar, and A Postcard History of Brighton.

Discover More About the Artist and the Detective

Learn more about the Artist, Hans Joseph Geist, behind the Historic Brighton at Founders Plaza mural, in the Brighton History Detective® dossier, The Case of the New Mural and its Artist (Hans Joseph Geist). See more of Hans art at: Art by Hans Geist on Facebook.

Find more Investigative Case Reports, by Brighton History Detective®, each revealing the identity of one of the 20 intriguing Brighton characters and places, painted on the mural. Investigate the sleuthing and writing stories of yesteryear, mystery, and intrigue on the Clear Creek Publishing Authors Blog site, including: New Fiction, Victoriana, Event Planning Extraordinaire, Colorado History, and Cemetery Chats.

The Historic Brighton at Founders Plaza mural is located on the southwest corner of Main St. and Bridge St., in Brighton, Colorado. The mural is a project of the Brighton Cultural Arts Commission, whose mission is to increase arts and culture awareness and promote cultural and scientific opportunities in our community. It has been made possible with funding from the SCFD and Brighton Lodging Tax Grants.

®Brighton History Detective is a registered trademark of Clear Creek Publishing.

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