Yellowstone Genealogy Forum


Great Western Sugar Factory

[Extracted from Original Title Abstracts and Billings Gazette 24 September, 1960, and extensive files from Harley O’Donnell] 

Revised Monday, March 13, 2006 (Added photo and video information)

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In 1883, the town of Billings established an irrigation system and a created the ability to eliminate ‘crop rotation’ in the fields, and the sugar beet industry was created. On March 14, 1905, articles of incorporation were filed by I. D. O’Donnell, Col. H. W. Rowley, P. B. Moss, & M. A. Arnold of Billings, and F. M. Shaw, a non-resident and sugar specialist. The charter called for the creation of  land plats for homes, methods for collection of money, and other business enterprises. Many home site restrictions were created. A construction contract for the factory was issued that month, and 5,500 acres of  land were contracted to grow beets. The investors raised $750,000 for machinery to process the beets. Beets were originally topped in the field by hand, and the local school children vied for a job. Later the entire beet growing operation was mechanized.  In 1932, the plant built a new chimney, a new generator, boiler, dryer and storage bins added the next year. Carbonation and filtering stations were added in 1934. In 1937 the boilers were replaced. Unit gas heaters and packaging equipment were added in 1949. The factory had only one job that was listed as ‘dangerous’, the shoveling of sugar in the storage bin tops. Sugar doesn’t flow, and piles up in high mounds; it also will not support the weight of a person, and acts much like ‘quick-sand’. A harness from the top of the bins suspended the shoveler, and he shoveled the sugar out flat, thus permitting more to be stored in the bins. To reach the top of the bins, one had to ride a vertical leather belt tram that was in continuous movement. The belt had small hardwood steps, about 4” x 16” attached to it every three feet. One grabbed the smooth surface of one step, and placed their feet on the second one, holding on real tightly as you ascended-or descended.

Beets from the waiting area were first transported up a ramp and into a hopper on the second floor where they were initially sliced for the first processing operation. The slicer was a reel-wheel with numerous cutting blades, approximately 10 feet in diameter, attached. Beets have a tendency to stick to the hopper sides, and had to be cleaned off the walls. This was performed by three or four persons who were given wooden sticks to push the beets from the sides before the cutting blades interfered with the pushing operation.  Timing was tricky, and most of these people used their hands instead. Most had lost one or more fingers as a result.  By definition, this was not considered to be a dangerous job. All mechanical operations were performed by a series of leather belts, from one central drive unit. 

In 1906 the factory was nearly complete, and processed 55,000 tons of beets, making 161,000 bags of sugar. The initial production rate of 712 tons of beets processed per day had been increased to over five times that amount, making this factory the largest producer in the world for many years. From 1906 to 1960 the factory produced some 4 billion pounds of sugar. Edmund Schunter was founding manager, with Fritz Schunter as superintendent the first year. Next year managers were W. S. Garnsey, Jr., and E. F. (Doc) Ogburn.  Great Western took over the factory on April 27, 1918.  Photo on the left was taken c1911 from Sacrifice Cliff by Baumgartner Studios.

In 1906 the factory bought $50,000 worth of cattle and sheep to fatten them on the silage waste pulp. Other local ranchers saw no value to use beet pulp for this purpose, or for that matter, even to raise beets. They quickly reversed their thinking after seeing the results. Within five years beets were being transported from northern Wyoming, and the land holdings had grown to 15, 694 acres.



The Sugar Factory celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2006. A video has been prepared “as a start” to the planning process for some members of the Centennial Committee. It concentrates on the early land explorers, irrigation, sugar factory development, beet industry & farming, and the 1923 Grimrock Ranch operations. (87 Meg CD – about 13 minutes duration, playable on a computer).  Contact WebMaster for details.


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