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Guest Post: Beets in White Satin

By: Grant Vaughn - January 14, 2013

I was born in Nyssa, Oregon on the Snake River. My dad had just graduated from BYU and was preparing to leave for the National Boy Scouts of America Training Center in New Jersey before taking his first job as a Scout District Executive in Idaho Falls. So it made sense for me to be born in Nyssa where my Mom’s parents lived a few miles out of town on a dairy farm.

The most prominent feature of Nyssa is the large sugar factory near the river and the bridge that crosses to Idaho. After the harvest, through the fall and winter sugar processing, the factory put out a huge plume of smoke with a sickeningly sweet, burnt, acrid smell – not very pleasant. My Grandparents’ farm was up the hill far enough you usually could not smell it from there. But anytime you were in town – plug your nose!

As I was growing up I heard stories about my dad, mom and others working summers hoeing beets in the fields. My mom even thinned new beets. Dad lived in town and was not a farm boy. It was not pleasant work. My maternal Grandpa raised dairy cows and grew beets as a cash crop. My uncles (my Mom’s brothers) did as they set up their own farm endeavors in the area. And my mom would occasionally remind us of her preference for buying White Satin Sugar over U&I and certainly C&H because White Satin came from the Sugar Factory in Nyssa. After all, she had worked the beet fields.

I do recall chewing on some sugar cane at my maternal grandparents’ house which I understood had come from the Sugar Factory. Maybe it was some sort of promotional deal to compare and contrast or to established the scientific principle that processed white sugar is fungible – the same whether it comes from cane or beets. But I would much rather chew on sugar cane than a sugar beet. Chewing on ugly sugar beets just isn’t done.

Over time, I figured out that the Sugar Factory had to be the major economic engine of Nyssa. Most of the retail was in Ontario, 10 miles down the river near where I-84 crosses the Snake. And I learned that the Sugar Factory was owned by Amalgamated Sugar Company and a competitor to U&I Sugar Company owned by the LDS Church.

I found one reference to sugar beets in an old family letter. This is from my paternal grandmother to my dad when he was at college at BYU. At this time, my dad’s family no longer lived in Nyssa but on the other side of the river in Fruitland, Idaho, where my grandfather ran a bowling alley. The sugar beet culture seemed prominent even to a non-farming family.

March 3? 1954

. . . We are having the first spring rain. It isn’t cold at all. Most of the spring plowing is done + the fellows have been getting their beets etc. planted the last few weeks . . .

That’s what I knew before Ardis started posting ads from Church magazines about U&I and White Satin sugar. I’ve had to do a bit of research since.

There is a historical outline of the Amalgamated Sugar Company on Wikipedia which is pretty good. Most of the cited sources are from a book by J.R. Bachman, Story of the Amalgamated Sugar Company, 1897-1961 (Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho, 1961). Not wanting to cite to Wikipedia, I had to get that book! Google told me the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU had a copy so I asked my freshman son to check it out. He brought it home for me one weekend.

The Wikipedia references to the book seem to be accurate and I learned a few more things. The Ogden Sugar Company was founded in 1897 with a Board of Directors that included George Q. Cannon and David Eccles (whose son Mariner S. Eccles helped FDR establish the New Deal). One of their first actions was to lobby the Utah delegation to Congress trying to prevent the annexation of Hawaii – not a bad idea if you want to make money off sugar beets. In 1901, the Logan Sugar Company was founded by the same David Eccles. In 1902, Eccles’s Logan plant was merged with the Ogden Sugar Company, hence, the “Amalgamated” of the Amalgamated Sugar Company. In 1915, a sugar plant in Lewiston, Utah, built in 1905 by Charles W. Nibley and Rudger Clawson (among others) was also “amalgamated.” They also merged with the Oregon Sugar Company in La Grande, Oregon. Founders included David Eccles and Charles W. Nibley.

These sugar companies were run by prominent Utah businessmen and LDS Church leaders (sometimes the same people). Presiding Bishop Charles W. Nibley was a partner of Eccles and then Eccles’s heirs after he died in 1913. Nibley eventually had a falling out with the Eccleses and he went to the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company. Joseph F. Smith was on the Board for a short time in this period. Amalgamated Sugar was in varying forms of cooperation and competition over the years with the Utah Sugar Company established in 1888 by other members of the leadership of the LDS Church (Wilford Woodruff, Heber J. Grant, James E. Talmage, George Q. Cannon (again), and apparently financial contributions of the Church itself — along with official recommendations to other General Authorities to contribute). They built its first plant in Lehi, Utah (1891). That company became the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company when it expanded into the state to the north.

The corporate history is rather hard to follow, in part, because there was a lot of crossover among the managers, owners, and even factories of Amalgamated, headquartered in Ogden, Utah, and the Utah-Idaho Company producing U&I Sugar. The LDS Church owned interests in both companies, generally having more involvement in Utah-Idaho. And there was even the threat of an antitrust lawsuit against Amalgamated that was resolved without litigation. The LDS Church sold all its interests in Amalgamated by 1941, terminating the directorships of Stephen L. Richards and Sylvester Q. Cannon who represented the Church’s interest. The Church divested itself of U&I during the 1970s, the period in which it was ridding itself of most commercial activities that had seemed necessary in an earlier time to help establish the Great Basin economy.

The Nyssa Sugar Factory was the first built by Amalgamated rather than obtained by acquisition. It was Amalgamated’s crown jewel. It came on-line in 1938 with the Owyhee Project of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that opened up farmland to grow sugar beets. There was an unofficial Mormon migration of Utah families to eastern Oregon in the 1940s that included both sets of my grandparents. As a teenager in Nyssa, my dad found a wonderful artifact of that migration that I latched onto as part of my license plate collection:

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I shouldn’t have to explain the irony of this particular centennial plate discarded in a vacant lot in Nyssa, Oregon, the new “This-is-the-place” for some Mormons.

There is also a bit of irony in that all the conservative beet farmers up there were and are heavily subsidized by the federal government with Reclamation water projects, price supports, tariffs, inexpensive loan programs, etc., etc. This was equally true for U&I Sugar producers over the years. If the federal government had given up on these projects, eastern Oregon and the entire Snake River Valley would have dried up and blown away. I do know some Indian tribes that would like it all back even under those conditions.

It is also interesting to note that during the war years with the shortage of labor, there was a German POW Camp from Rommel’s Afrika Corps at Nyssa. My Mom remembers POWs coming to work on her dad’s farm. Her parents told her that one of them had been a famous violinist in Germany. There was also a Japanese-American contingent working the fields as some from the West Coast took the opportunity to live in old New Deal migrant camps to work in the beet fields rather than go to the internment camps in the desert. Many of them stayed and became prosperous farmers. And, the Bracero Program of FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy with Latin America brought in Mexican nationals (legally) to work the fields – many stayed.

Eventually, the cost of environmental compliance for the aging Nyssa plant (that smell included poisonous sulfur dioxide), a fatal industrial accident, along with the constant economic challenges of the sugar beet industry propped up by federal protection and subsidies, all led to the closing of the Nyssa plant in 2005 leaving a thousand or so workers jobless. The farmers could still truck to the remaining Amalgamated factory in Nampa, Idaho, where my parents now live (and it still stinks during production season).

There was something else of interest in Nyssa with regard to Amalgamated. Because corporate headquarters were in Ogden, occasionally corporate people would come up to check out things at the Nyssa plant. The company built a guest house in Nyssa known as “the Sugar Beet House.” It was the largest house in town and a mystery to most of the locals, especially the farm families who lived out of town and only grew the beets (or the cows).

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In 1995, my parents rented the Sugar Beet House for a family reunion. It was one of the highlights of our family adventures over the years – mainly, because we were able to have possession of the mystery house and it was fascinating. My parents stayed in the downstairs suite that must have been set up for a housekeeper. The rest of us took upstairs rooms that had private baths (I only have two siblings with spouses so it worked out). The kids stayed in a bunkhouse kind of room and there was an odd bathroom with side-by-side toilets which our young boys didn’t have any problem using. The girl cousins weren’t so enthused. There was a long living room across the front of the house to the right of the front door. And to the left was a huge dining room and kitchen. It was perfect for a family reunion connected to some degree to the culture of beet production and the Amalgamated Sugar Company maker of White Satin Sugar.

Amalgamated put up a sign in Portland, Oregon, one of its distribution centers, in 1940. It is quite a landmark in Portland, although it has been bought out and changed several times over the years.

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Amalgamated still has sugar factories in Paul, Twin Falls, and Nampa, Idaho, the latter being corporate headquarters. I still try to find White Satin when sent to the store for sugar (even if my wife is a C&H Sugar snob – she told me to say that).

U&I? Apparently the name now belongs to a British company marketing Brazilian cane sugar. How’s that for a strange turn of events?



21 Comments »

  1. I wonder how many of the British company’s customers have the slightest idea what the “U” and “I” really stand for!

    Thanks for this, Grant. I had no idea just how widespread the Mormon interest in sugar beets and factories was. This humanizes the business story, too.

    I’ll bet you’re the most famous native son of Nyssa, no?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 14, 2013 @ 10:35 am

  2. LOL. We’ll see how much competition in famous sons or daughters of Nyssa turns up.

    There’s only a 30-some year window when there was a “modern” hospital in Nyssa in which native sons or daughters could be born. It was built in the 1950s and closed in 1989. The name was Malheur Memorial General – and I think you can translate the County name for us. It comes from French-Canadian fur trappers.

    Comment by Grant — January 14, 2013 @ 11:11 am

  3. Sweet! Sorry, couldn’t resist. Nice piece of history, Grant. I remember White Satin sugar from living in Utah, but I don’t see it here in Redmond, WA, where I now live. Having spent summers on my uncle’s farm in Gooding, Idaho, I am only too familiar with thinning beets, and getting paid 10 cents a row, which was great at the start of the process, as the field was laid out with the furrows in a diagonal pattern. I would make great money in the morning, but by afternoon, the rows would just get longer, and my uncle would point out that I couldn’t quit until we had gotten past the center and the longest furrow, or the average per row price he was paying my brothers and I wouldn’t work for him.

    Comment by kevinf — January 14, 2013 @ 11:12 am

  4. Among the byproducts of sugar beet production, the leftover pulp is frequently used as a cheap cattle feed. (So are the beet tops, but they’re not available year round.)

    I wonder if the connection between the Vaughn family dairy farm and the beet factory run deeper than just proximity.

    Comment by The Other Clark — January 14, 2013 @ 1:56 pm

  5. Nice! Most of my family stayed in the Salt Lake area or moved south (St. George and Arizona) so I have connections to alfalfa and ranching, but not sugar beets.

    I did, however, have friends and co-workers in college who spent their teenage years thinning beets and moving pipe. (Is moving pipe connected with the sugar beet industry?)

    Comment by Amy T — January 14, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

  6. Amy, moving pipe is associated with all sorts of crops. It means moving the pipe for the big sprinkler irrigation systems you see in the fields these days. In my beet-thinning days, we still had water turns where we had to divert irrigation water from the canal into ditches, and then into the furrows to irrigate the crops, using a shovel and building mud dams, or wooden gates covered with canvas.

    Comment by kevinf — January 14, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

  7. When I was in high school there were always rumors of jobs in Idaho “moving pipes”–but they were, for me at least, like the end of the rainbow with its pot of gold. Anytime I tried to get close, they disappeared.

    I was in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, a few years back, and saw huge piles that I later found out were sugar beets. I don’t remember if the factory was in operation that month–probably late October or November–but I also don’t think I was ever downwind of it.

    Still, I wonder if a sugar beet plant smells worse than a paper mill. Or, for that matter, than Geneva Steel used to smell.

    Comment by Mark B. — January 14, 2013 @ 2:47 pm

  8. I never moved those big pipes with the sprinkers. But my nephews and cousins have done plenty of that work.

    I did help my farm Grandpa set out irrigation pipe in the early 70s. That was in concrete side ditches where we put our thumb over the curved end of an aluminum pipe off-and-on in a careful manuever as we pushed the straight end up and down the ditch until it would spurt out and you would lay it in the furrow to run down the row.

    This city boy got pretty good at it after my grandpa laughed at my first attempts in which I squirted myself in the face with dirty irrigation water.

    Comment by Grant — January 14, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

  9. Moving pipe. Finally a subject I can speak authoritatively about :-)

    Pioneers used flood irrigation from the beginning, but it was obviously limited to certain areas. Sprinkler pipe made it possible to water land that was too hilly or too high above or far away from a water source. Pipe moving probably lasted 40 years or so. In the early ’90′s in Eastern Idaho, 10c per length of pipe was standard. Even at those rates wheel lines were almost as cheap, and today’s massive center pivot systems have pushed pipe movers to become as common as typewriter repairmen.

    Comment by The Other Clark — January 14, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

  10. While there was a center pivot irrigation system just across the canal from my house, on my drive into Idaho Falls (up to 2008) there were still a few fields near US 20 that had pipes that had to be moved around by hand. A farmer would hold a long piece of pipe balanced in the center, as if he were walking a tightrope, and the ends would bounce synchronously as he walked downfield.

    Comment by Raymond Takashi Swenson — January 14, 2013 @ 4:04 pm

  11. Oh, and I appreciate the Moody Blues pun in the title. My home teaching companion in Idaho Falls said he wanted to have their music palyed at his funeral.

    Comment by Raymond Takashi Swenson — January 14, 2013 @ 4:07 pm

  12. Raymond, half of the readers here don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

    But, which song does he want? “Go Now”? “Your Wildest Dreams”? There are a lot of options.

    Comment by Mark B. — January 14, 2013 @ 5:01 pm

  13. Thank you Raymond for noticing.

    A girl in my 9th grade, early morning seminary class (Rose Hill chapel which was the Redmond/ Bothell/ Kirkland Ward building at that time for KevinF’s benefit) actually convinced our teacher that “Days of Future Past” was “spiritual” music and it was played as prelude to class forming. It was either that or the teacher’s pick of show tunes, usually “The King and I” This was in the days of Tom Trails on film strip and before Mormon pop music made its debut with “Like unto Us.” I’m sure this will cause serious digression on this posting.

    Comment by Grant — January 14, 2013 @ 5:11 pm

  14. “Pipe moving probably lasted 40 years or so.”

    Heh. Pipe moving is still part of the twice-yearly rotation for the brethren in our stake. But I think this welfare farm grows corn (otherwise there’s overhead sprinklers).

    Comment by Coffinberry — January 14, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

  15. For the Moodies at funerals, I suggest:

    Isn’t Life Strange?
    Never Thought I’d Live to be a Hundred
    The Voyage
    Never Comes the Day
    [or the all-time classic: Legend of a Mind

    Comment by Grant — January 14, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

  16. There was an U&I sugar factory in Gunnison, Utah in south Sanpete County. I grew up in Aurora, Utah in Sevier County, about 15 miles south of Gunnison. I often went with my father to get beet pulp to feed our cattle. It really had a very strong smell. Later they sold dried beet pulp in large paper bags for cattle feed. It did not smell, but I would take a taste sometimes since it was very sugary.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — January 14, 2013 @ 11:40 pm

  17. Is there a difference in the taste of the meat from the cattle that are on sugar beet pulp, compared to grass or grain fed?

    Comment by Julia — January 15, 2013 @ 10:49 am

  18. Grant,
    I was also born in Nyssa (1947). My father started with the U & I Sugar Company during his senior year of high school in Lehi, Utah. The company switched from 12 hour to 8 hour shifts after the workers went on strike the winter campaign of 1921-22. My father and his twin brother crossed the picket lines initially and then decided they didn’t want to do that again, but were hired after the strike when additional workers were needed for a third shift. They worked the swing shift while still attending high school. Father worked for the U & I (primarily in eastern Idaho) until he got on with the Amalgamated Sugar Company to help build the Nyssa plant. My father continued at the Nyssa plant until retiring in 1968 as the Assistant Superintendent.

    My parents had moved from Nyssa to a small farm in Parma, Idaho by the time I was born. But our lives revolved around the Nyssa sugar beet factory and our LDS Ward in Parma. It was absolutely understood that there would be no alcohol, coffee, tea, tobacco or cane sugar in our house.

    Even though he was retired, during my sophomore and junior years in college, my father thought it would be good for me to make some extra money during the 3-week Christmas vacation by working at the Nyssa factory. He would have me go down at midnight and sit on a bench to get hired. He instructed me that if I were to stay for an hour they would put me on, because someone would be sick or not show up. It happened just as he said, which was great for earning some money, but I always thought I was going to die about 6 a.m. in the morning for the first couple days. It certainly gave me an appreciation for those who work a rotating shift. I also gained an understanding of the beet sugar refinery process. It was like one constant chemistry experiment done on a massive scale. It’s staggering how much sulfur and lime is used in the process.

    I also spent many summers working in the sugar beet fields – hoeing, cultivating and irrigating. What is amazing is that they could harvest 40 to 50 tons of sugar beets per acre. That is an incredible amount of growth from water, air, fertilizer, and a few trace elements that is all made possible by the miracle of photosynthesis. You would think the fields would all drop 4 or 5 inches each year to produce 40 to 50 tons of produce. It is miraculous what sunlight, water, air, soil and can create from a tiny beet seed.

    Thanks for the research and for sharing the information above. It brought back memories and made me grateful again that I don’t have to work a grave yard shift.

    Comment by Wayne Goates — January 15, 2013 @ 6:54 pm

  19. Wayne-
    Thank you so much for your personal history with relation to sugar beets, especially the Nyssa Sugar Factory! I bet you know some of my family. My farm Grandpa was bishop of the Nyssa 2nd Ward in the mid-60s. I have an Uncle that is your age and a couple of Aunts a little younger.

    My Bowling Alley Grandpa ran the Gay Way Bowl (yes, that’s what it was called) in Fruitland from 1953-1978. When they lived in Nyssa 1946-53, my dad and siblings were active in the Nyssa 1st Ward, but not my grandparents.

    If you want to e-mail me at grant.vaughn [at] gmail.com I’d be glad to hear from you and share names more directly than on the open internet.

    Comment by Grant — January 16, 2013 @ 12:16 am

  20. Just found this great post while running a search to find if White Satin is still beet sugar. In the mid eighties I worked for a year at KIVI, the ABC affiliate near the Nampa plant. Some days the smell was pretty strong. White Satin is sold in our nearest Cash & Carry, and I’m going to get a bag if I can determine that it’s still beet and not corn.

    Thanks for a great read and a memory blast.

    Comment by Kathleen — October 11, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

  21. Thanks, Kathleen! I think White Satin is still the good stuff! Let me know if you find out anything different.

    Comment by Grant — October 11, 2013 @ 5:45 pm

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