Managing Nature’s Shortcomings in Colorado’s Sugar Industry

In the late nineteenth century, the U.S. sugar industry expanded westward, colonizing settler towns from Michigan to Colorado and California. Histories of U.S. sugar imperialism generally begin with the 1898 Spanish-American War and the illegal annexation of Hawaii. This paper instead considers the industry’s domestic expansion through beet sugar production. Middling sugar capitalists, hoping to disempower the New York Sugar Trust, imported European experts, machinery, blueprints, and beet seeds to land seized in the nineteenth-century. As this new offshoot of the industry spread across the continent, it confronted new challenges in unfamiliar environments. These obstacles and failures forced growers and companies to improvise and innovate. Recent scholarship has demonstrated how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cane sugar plantations gave rise to modern managerial technologies as slaveholders and overseers experimented with new methods for exerting control over slaves. This paper complements new directions in race management scholarship by examining the practices that beet sugar companies employed to control land and labor in an era marked by emancipation, mass migration, corporate monopoly, and national expansion. It brings forward industry efforts to manage variously racialized workers, unruly beets, and unpredictable environments. To show how the land mattered in managerial strategies, this paper focuses on periods of drought in southeastern Colorado in the early twentieth century. Drought destabilized power dynamics between sugar companies, growers, workers, and the state. It pitted growers against companies, agricultural workers, and banks. It put people on the move, and undermined workers’ movements for better conditions. It raised questions: who was responsible for “nature’s shortcomings” and who would bear its burdens? Drought revealed limits to company control. It also exposed new pathways for reconsolidating power over agricultural workers.