Monday, August 20, 2012

Working the beets

“No Race Suicide in Globeville Where Beetworkers Live on Summer Wages” proclaims the Denver Republican from December 8, 1911. The story begins, “Globeville, the suburb of Denver ... has just half the number of inhabitants in the summer that it has in winter. Its Poles, Russians, Slavs ...went forth in early spring to work in the sugar beet fields and earn their keep for the winter.” The Republican continues enthusiastically, “The Fijalkowskis spent the summer working in the beet fields at Monte Vista. They consider their farm lands regular resorts.”
Globeville resident Ann Morgan remembered it differently. “At that time, they had no machines - you were the machine. In the spring, it was always cold and we would wrap our legs with gunny sacks and then newspaper.” 
John Werner, whose family emigrated from Russia in 1914, remembers childhood summers in the fields. "Children were good beet workers because their small fingers could thin and weed around the plants. We stayed in these very crude beet shacks, a two room affair with a cistern. Periodically the farmer would haul water to the cistern and fill your tank. Outside plumbing, kerosene lamps. It was a minority job. You had no knowledge of the language and no particular skill."
Earnings weren’t guaranteed but fluctuated along with farm prices and the weather. Anna Machuga Worth recalled, "A neighbor took me over to work the beets. Sad deal. It was a bad year...the grass hoppers got all the beets. So our family, after three months of hard labor, had to come home without a dime. The farmer took a great loss."
Yet the sugar beet crop was a way for large immigrant families with few skills to supplement their income. As Globeville’s first generation of immigrants moved up to higher paying jobs in the 1920s, newer immigrants, the Mexican-Americans, began to take their places.
Globeville resident Bea Trevino recalled, "My dad came over here from new Mexico in 1938 to work the beet harvest for a farmer by Longmont. I was a kid working on the farms picking beets, beans, tomatoes, pickles...then in 1950, I started working at Plus Poultry at 40th and Colorado Boulevard. My husband and I bought a house in Globeville in 1965."
Today, sugar from beets has been supplanted by sweetener made from corn, but much of the hand labor in farm fields is still done by immigrants hoping to make a better life for their families.

"No Race Suicide in Globeville Where Beetworkers Live on Summer Wages"
Denver Republican, December 8, 1911

Photo of beet wagons near Fort Morgan used with written permission from Chuck Fortarel