Ghost Crops of Cache
Sometime in the late 1860s, the news circulated in Cache Valley that gold had been discovered in Montana and northern Idaho. Even better was the news that the miners digging it out needed to eat. The railroad had not yet penetrated into the valley, but there were wagons, oxen and mules to pull them, and plenty of grain and vegetable crops in the valley for export. So began the production of cash crops in the valley, freighting produce up through Idaho and Montana to fill the miners’ pantries.
By the time the railroad came to Cache Valley and points north, wheat, oats and barley were shipped by way of the railroad line on the west side of the valley, near Cornish. “Hundreds of railroad cars went up there,” reports Edis Taggart, long time Lewiston resident and local historian.
Besides grain, and like the rest of Utah, Lewiston area farmers tried growing a wide variety of cash crops. Tomatoes were grown here and shipped; also cannery products–peas, beans, cabbage, and carrots. Field corn and alfalfa were and have been long-time staples. One staple–for 67 years–was the sugar beet.
According to Utah Agricultural Experiment Station’s early publication, Rocky Mountain Farming (1907), the climate here was judged as excellent for raising peas. Seed bought directly from the cannery could be planted early in the season with a grain drill, needing only one or two irrigations before the pods were filled and ready for harvest. This harvest would occur around the first of July before any serious heat had settled in. Above is a photo of early farmers cutting peas with horse-drawn mowers in Idaho.
At harvest, the pea plants were cut with hay mowers to which had been added devices for rolling the plants into windrows. These windrows were then loaded into a truck by means of an elevator–much like the elevators for lifting hay bales–and then hauled to the pea vinery for separating the peas from the vines. “There were vineries all over,” Edis says. Among those he mentions was the vinery along Highway 91 between Richmond and Smithfield, used for storing hay until destroyed by fire about ten years ago.
The vines, stripped of peas, were then sold back to the producers to feed stock. Residues in the field were plowed back into the ground, primarily to exterminate the pea weevil. In later years, sheep cleaned off the fields. Farmers also harvested peas with combines as shown in the photo below.
The beans planted during the first half of this century were the pole variety, involving the time-consuming placing and stringing of poles. The poles were supplied by the cannery along with the seed. These bean plantings, never exceeding two acres and often covering as little as a half-acre, could still be seen throughout the valley as late as 1951. Cultivation and weeding was necessarily done by hand, and so was the harvest. The harvest alone averaged out to almost two-thirds of the total production cost involved. Altogether, labor connected to growing beans involved over 500 person-hours in the field.
Aside from the usual plagues of pests and disease–most especially a virus that nearly decimated bean production during the war years–the yield, quality, and market value of the beans depended upon the timing of picking and the period of development of pods, and the weather had much to do with all of this. Less time-consuming production came in the fifties with the development of bush beans, allowing mechanical cultivation and harvesting.
Around the end of the eighties, Siligan, a California company, bought out Del Monte and closed its cannery in Smithfield. Around four years later, the Franklin Del Monte plant was closed down as well, effectively ending vegetable production in the valley, including the small acreages planted to corn, cabbage, and carrots.
The same combined bean harvester picking up beans from the windrows, viewed from the front
Here’s a vegetable that may seem an odd
crop to attempt in frigid Cache Valley with its short growing season, but
starting in the 1920s and on into the 1930s, tomatoes were indeed raised
in this area, picked green, and packed in three packing houses here in Lewiston.
Two of these buildings stood on either side of Lewiston’s Main Street near
the old train station, at 180 North Main. Edis tells of another packing house
about two miles west of the center of Lewiston in an old school house.
The tomato business was a godsend,” says Edis. “During the 1930s, there wasn’t any cash circulating in the valley, and tomatoes meant a cash crop.” Renée blames soil fatigue, leading to decreased productivity, for the end of tomato production in the 1950s.
Potatoes were not just an Idaho product -- they were grown here, too. A bagging plant for potatoes was located about a mile from the center of Lewiston on 800 West and Sid Karren remembers bagging there when he was young. They were bagged in the field initially, brought in and dumped on the belts, culled for blemished potatoes, and then bagged again for shipping.
But potatoes never caught on here as an important crop, partly because Idaho did such a good job of growing them, but mainly because of an infestation of wire worm (Limonius agonus ) in the valley. This 1½ -inch long, cylindrical worm is actually the larva of the Click Beetle, and feeds underground on the roots, stems, and tubers of many plants, including potatoes, ruining them for market. Edis said that they often migrated to the germinating seeds of barley.
The most enduring of the root crops–and the one rummaging up so many memories for long-time residents–was the sugar beet. During the peak year for sugar production, 1920, 309,000 tons of sugar beets were reported to have been produced on more than 18,000 acres in Cache Valley. The time consuming work of soil preparation, cultivation, thinning, and harvesting kept area farmers–and their families–busy producing beets from 1905 when the Lewiston Sugar Factory came into operation until 1972 when the factory’s obsolete machinery forced it to shut down.
But aside from the memory of working in the fields to produce this persnickety root, almost any long time resident around here can tell you about the beet pulp, used to feed both milk cows and beef cattle. The aroma, I can testify myself, hung heavily over the area, especially during the infamous Cache Valley inversions in the winter.
Sid Karren remembers traveling out by horse and wagon to the Lewiston Sugar Factory for beet pulp during the late thirties when he was in his teens: “My dad sent the wagon out early every morning to pick up a load of pulp to feed his beef cows. At 20 degrees below zero, let me tell you, that was one cold ride.” Sometimes, he’d let the horses go along by themselves and get out and run along the side of the wagon just to keep warm.
To get the pulp, horses and wagons had to go down into the pit, wait until the wagon was loaded, and then turn around and come back up–a complicated process, depending upon the team doing the pulling. Sid remembers this one balky horse that hated that up-and-down nonsense and wouldn’t pull his weight with the other one to get back out. When ice complicated the matter, it made matters worse, which were already bad enough with slippery beet pulp coating the ramp. The breathing-in of the odiferous beet pulp must have been invigorating, too -- for both horses and humans.
In speaking of beet dumps–the locations for farmers to dump their beets for later pickup–Sid points out that they, like the pea vineries, were all over the valley, and all over Lewiston. At the peak of production there were five separate sugar factories in the valley–in Lewiston, Logan, Cornish, Whitney, Idaho, and Amalga. Of the five, Lewiston’s factory was the last to be abandoned–in 1972–and that closing signaled the end of sugar beet fields in Cache Valley.
Charles S. Peterson, writing in 1951 in his Life In Utah and Idaho, points out the need for diversification and intensification of crops in Cache Valley. At that time there were a variety of outlets for such things as peas and beans, and the sugar factories were still running at capacity, so diversification and intensification were still options. Absent these, dairying has filled the breach for now and, it would seem, for the foreseeable future.
Mayor Russell N. Hirst, Writer Joan Shaw, Research Associate Melanie Shaw,
Consultant Anne Buttars, Acting Curator/Head, Utah State University's Special Collections & Archives
Link for books to browse on the subject of early farming in the American Intermountain West:
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