Huge community turnout for sugar factory centennial

More than 800 people attended a special celebration hosted by the Western Sugar Cooperative in Constitution Park on Thursday, celebrating 100 years since the factory set up shop in Lovell. Since the factory began churning out bags of sugar in Lovell, thousands of man-hours have gone into producing what is considered some of the finest sugar in the country and many families have been supported through the jobs generated by the factory.

“Though we are one of the smallest sugar factories here in North America, if not the smallest factory, we have great beets,” said factory manager Shannon Ellis. “And because of the great beets we have around here, because of the farmers and the dedication of the current and former employees we’ve had over the years, we’ve always managed to do pretty darn good here. We’re very proud of that.”

Lovell Area Chamber of Commerce President Joseph Shumway congratulated the company on its success and shared a series of fun facts from 100 years ago with those attending the event.

“A hundred years ago a dozen eggs cost 34 cents, a gallon of milk cost 18 cents and a pound of coffee cost 30 cents,” he said.  “Agriculture was the most common industry Americans worked in. The United States did not have a national anthem. The Eiffel Tower was the tallest structure in the world. The first dedicated gas station opened in Pittsburgh; before that selling gas was a side business for various stores. A hundred years ago the word teenager did not exist, also there were only 230 recorded murders in the United States.”

Shumway compared these and other facts with life as it is today.

“A hundred years ago the typical American spent one-third of their income on food every year and that’s twice what we spend right now,” said Shumway. “There was no such thing as a plastic bag to keep a sandwich fresh. Instead, the cooks of those days would wrap the sandwich in a dry towel and then wrap it again with a towel wrung out in hot water. I’m glad I didn’t live back then.”

He compared the population from 100 years ago to the current demographics.

“A hundred years ago there were a hundred million people in the United States and more than half of them were under the age of 25,” said Shumway. “Now, we have 300 million, but the share of people under age 25 has fallen to about one third and the share of people over 65 has tripled.”

He talked about the positive economic impact the factory has had on the community.

Many old friends saw each other for the first time in years during the Western Sugar Cooperative factory centennial celebration Thursday at Constitution Park. Here, Sheila Hansen hugs former plant manager Dan Lesser during the event. David Peck photo
Many old friends saw each other for the first time in years during the Western Sugar Cooperative factory centennial celebration Thursday at Constitution Park. Here, Sheila Hansen hugs former plant manager Dan Lesser during the event.
David Peck photo

“One hundred years ago the Lovell sugar factory opened its doors with its first campaign and had an original factory capacity of 600 tons of beets per day and the first beet campaign was 37,520 tons,” said Shumway. “It was a pretty big accomplishment for this community.”

He noted the substantial economic impact the sugar factory continues to have on the Lovell economy. He called it a “job creator” and an important “base of employment” for the area but added that its influence and positive effect on the community “goes beyond the jobs it creates.”

“Based on the core values of the company, which are safety, integrity, openness and trust, teamwork, entrepreneurship and social responsibility, I would suggest the positive influence on people and on the community is really what makes the Lovell sugar factory so special,” said Shumway.

He asked those attending to pause for a moment and consider the impact the factory has had on families and the community and its commitment to the Lovell area.

“A lot of things have changed over the years,” said Shumway. “Our sandwiches are fresher, there are a lot more cars on the road and our lives are longer, but one thing remains the same – the commitment of Western Sugar to the families and businesses in Lovell.”

Next up Big Horn County Commissioner Felix Carrizales spoke to those attending. Carrizales, a former beet grower from a family of people who worked in the sugar industry, also had positive things to say about the impact of the factory on families in the community.

Carrizales noted that his family has been involved with the factory for at least 50 years. His said his father was a grower and he and other family members were re-haulers. Though he no longer raises beets he said the factory was a positive influence for his family and has been very helpful to them.

He talked about fond memories of the “smell” associated with the sugar factory in Lovell because it reminds him of the positive memories associated with his family and the sugar factory.

State Rep. Elaine Harvey was the next to address the crowd. She spoke about the “code of the west” and a history of beet growing in the area.

“In 1901 Rufus P. Snell, Sr. experimented with growing beets in the Big Horn Basin. By 1907, many others were growing beets in the area and sending those beets to Billings by train for processing,” she said.

She added that beets, along with other products extracted from the earth (like silica and bentonite) created the economy for the area. She talked about the people who came to Lovell to work the sugar beets in the early days, including people from Mexico, Germany and Russia. She said the sugar beet farms that were developed by those people have become a rich part of the history of the area.

Harvey presented Ellis with a brand she found while helping clean out an attic. She speculated that it was either a pallet brand or a bag stamper that was used in the early days of the factory.

Mayor Angel Montanez congratulated the factory on its 100 years of “sustained business” in the area and thanked them for their community involvement and leadership.

Beet grower and Park County State Representative David Northrup talked about the impact Western Sugar has had on his family. He talked about his memory of the seed coming in bowls and how a relatively small truckload of beets represented a day’s work. He talked about how much of the work was done by hand and how his family could only handle working about four acres of beets until modern technology, like GMO beets, made the process far less labor intensive.

“We’ve progressed a lot in agriculture and we want to keep progressing,” he said.

Ric Rodriguez, vice chairman of the Western Sugar Cooperative board and a grower, talked about how the factory has been through a number of owners but is currently owned by the growers. He said the factory being in the area is probably the reason many have stayed in the area. He thanked the employees for their contribution to keeping the factory going strong, noting that it is still one of the “best factories in the nation.” He attributed that to not only the quality of the beets grown in the area but the commitment by the employees at the factory.

“It’s a family atmosphere here and you guys watch out for each other,” he said. “I like that you have strong core values.”

The final speaker was Rodney Perry, CEO of the Western Sugar Cooperative.

“Looking back at all the pictures from a hundred years ago, I see a lot of great people that started this facility and I look at the
employees that are at the factory today and see the same kind of work ethic,” said Perry. “This is somewhat of a family facility and we don’t have that at other plants, but we are trying to create that in other places, too.”

He credited the growers and the employees for the factory being in Lovell for 100 years.

“Our future is to be here a long time; another 100 years would be fantastic,” said Perry, who committed to investing in the plant in the future. He noted that millions have been spent on improvements in recent years and more projects are planned for the future.

“Our job as management, as leadership, is to make sure this facility is well-maintained and we invest in it the future for the employees and for the growers and for all of us,” said Perry. “I think we’ve done an awesome job for our customers. We hardly ever have a complaint, as to the quality at this facility.
It’s really unusual to have such a good quality record and it takes everyone at the factory to make that
happen. We appreciate that and we also appreciate
the support of the community and we want to continue that for a long time to come. We’ll try to do our job and make it a successful business for a long time.”

By Patti Carpenter