Until the late 1700s, Europeans could access sugar only by importing refined sugarcane grown in tropical areas. In 1744, a German chemist discovered a way to produce sugar from sugar beets, a hardy plant found in the Mediterranean region, and by the 1810s, France had more than 40 sugar beet factories. In the United States, however, there was little success producing sugar from sugar beets until Henry T. Oxnard decided to try his hand at it.
Oxnard built a sugar beet factory in 1890 in Grand Island, Nebraska, using equipment imported from France. After building a second factory in Nebraska, he set his sights on California, and built a plant east of Los Angeles and another one in Ventura County. In 1899 he consolidated his four factories to create the American Beet Sugar Company. After building a factory in Colorado, he moved the company’s headquarters to Denver.
While Oxnard was building his empire, the fledgling sugar beet industry was making inroads in Minnesota. Randolph Probstfield in Moorhead was the first recorded person to grow sugar beets in the state. A sugar beet factory was built in St. Louis Park in 1898 and rebuilt in Chaska after burning down in 1905. Carl Wigand, a farmer in Crookston, grew his first crop of sugar beets in 1918 and sent them to be processed at the factory in Chaska. Wigand’s beets, grown in the fertile soil of the Red River Valley, were so impressive that the Minnesota Sugar Company, which operated the Chaska factory, encouraged him and his neighbors to grow more.
Henry Zitkowsi, the general chemist for the American Beet Sugar Company, learned about the excellent growing conditions in the Red River Valley, and visited in 1924. Upon his recommendation, the company bought the Minnesota Sugar Company’s factories in Chaska and Iowa, and completed a factory under construction in East Grand Forks. American Beet changed its name to the American Crystal Sugar Company in 1934.
The expansion of American Crystal Sugar into the Red River Valley coincided with the introduction of Latino and Chicano migrant workers from Texas to Minnesota. Entire families came up for the sugar beet planting season (April/May–June) and harvest (September/October–November), and American Crystal provided housing. For the laborers, however, the work was hard, and the housing was often dilapidated. During the winter months, they either returned south or settled in the Twin Cities area.
During World War II, labor shortages led sugar beet farmers to rely more on migrant labor from Texas, as well as on African Americans from the south, Jamaicans, and German prisoners of war. After demand for sugar increased when war sugar rations ended, American Crystal built a factory in Moorhead in 1948 and one in Crookston in 1954. Although it built a factory in Drayton, North Dakota, in 1965, competition from sugarcane imports led to the closure of many of the company’s factories outside of the Red River Valley during the 1960s, including the first factory Henry Oxnard had built in Nebraska.
In the mid-1930s, the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association (RRVSGA) was formed to represent hundreds of beet growers in the Red River Valley and increase beet acreage. It also advocated for more factories, and lobbied congress on behalf of the farmers. Over the following decades, the relationship between American Crystal and the RRVSGA became contentious. Growers were disgruntled with their contracts, what they say was the company’s lack of willingness to grow, and poorly maintained factories and equipment. Al Bloomquist, hired in 1962 to direct the association, became a respected advocate for sugar beet growers.
Things came to a head when the Chaska factory was closed in 1971. The RRVSGA made a daring proposal to buy the American Crystal Sugar Company and make it a cooperative. More than 70 percent of the association’s membership voted in favor, and the purchase was finalized in 1973 for $86 million, making American Crystal the first farmer-owned sugar beet cooperative in the country. A new headquarters was built in Moorhead in 1974, and a research center opened in Moorhead in 1977. The company added a factory in Hillsboro, North Dakota, in 1975, but it continued to divest itself of factories outside of the valley, selling its last one in 1982. The company that had started in Nebraska, founded a town in California, and was once headquartered in Colorado was now a part of the heart and soul of the Red River Valley.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.