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The Sugar Beet Workers

A field of sugar beets near Raymond, Alberta in July 1904. Sugar beets were the underlying reason for the diversity of people who came to the area. Farmers did not want to grow the labour-intensive beet crop because they couldn't get hired hands willing to work that hard for the little money paid. And, if the farmers couldn't or wouldn't grow the beets, then the sugar factory couldn't succeed. The factory had to have a minimum supply of 4,000 acres of beets each season in order to break even financially. So, to make the total process work, somehow field workers in significant numbers had to be convinced to move to the area.

Japanese in sugar-beet field in southern Alberta, ca. 1941-1945. Although the Japanese were possibly the first to arrive, one of the early attempts to resolve this labour stumbling block was to attract workers form the nearby Blood and Peigan Reservations. This worked reasonable well, and there are Raymondites who remember the great clouds of dust rising in the west as trains of horse drawn wagons, loaded with Indian workers, wound their way to the beet fields. An Indian encampment was established for several harvests along the heights overlooking the creek which winds through what is now the Raymond Golf Course.

Despite the Native hired hands, the available labour supply still did not meet the demand for workers. In 1908 the Raymond beet crop was so small that the Knight Sugar Factory had to import cane from the Caribbean (the Knights owned cane fields in Cuba) and sugar beets from Germany in order to productively utilize the Raymond plant's total processing capacity. This was obviously not a viable plan.

It was on one of the beet-buying trips to Europe that a representative of the plant visited Belgium and Holland to try and recruit workers. Much of Europe was in the midst of a terrible depression at that time. Illness and unemployment were rampant and the sinister clouds of war were gathering on all horizons. The result, in 1906 to 1909, was a flood of the strongest, hardest working men and women ever to come to the beet fields of Raymond. Hungarians, Dutch, Belgians and Croatians all became a vital part of the intricate tapestry of life in the community.

The sugar company realized homes would have to be built to accommodate these people so carpenters were hired to build several homes south of the factory along the east side of the coulee, along Highway 52. These homes were constructed from cheap material; no insulation was used. They were called wooden shacks. There was no interior wallboard or paint. They were actually built to keep out the wind and rain. In winter, the food and water would freeze in these homes. Conditions for these new workers were not what they expected. They had left brick homes with lovely gardens and fields to come to live in such poverty.

One of the first immigrants to arrive was born in 1868 in Holland. His occupation was as a farmer. In 1909 he signed a contract with the Knight Sugar Company to emigrate to Raymond and work with the sugar company. His pay was one dollar a day and, with careful, frugal living, he was able to send for his children in 1913.

The family sailed with their uncle from Antwerp, Belgium on the Montreal. They remember how hungry and sick they were while crossing the Atlantic. Another week was spent travelling by train across Canada before they arrived in Raymond.

One of his sons who arrived in Canada in 1913 was a boy of seven years. The family was among the 100 or so other families who arrived here from Belgium and Holland. With other families they settled into Belgian Row. After a brief education it was off to work for the young boy. He remembers one farmer he worked for who paid him $10 a month. This was a good wage in those days for a ten-year-old boy. When this work was done there the farmer gave him his first horse and a dog and he moved on to another place.

He vividly remembers the cold winters, days of dragging the hay bales to feed the sheep in the sheep camps where he worked with his father. He recalls the winter temperatures that left the cattle dead, frozen in their tracks to be found in the spring.

He married in 1935 and took up land on the Milk River Ridge and in Coalhurst, where he and his wife raised seven children.

Although everyone was new to this area and trying to make a new life, it was difficult for the Japanese and European immigrants because they could not speak English. They enjoyed getting together in the evenings for dancing and socializing. One older resident of Raymond remembers sitting on his porch in the summer and listening to the music from Belgian row.

Shortly after the 12-year contract was honoured, the Knight Sugar Company was closed in 1914. This same year saw the outbreak of World War I and the price of grain became more profitable than growing beets, and with less work.

The immigrants were looking elsewhere for work. Some went to south Bend, Indiana and worked in the sugar industry, but came back to Southern Alberta in a year or so. Others moved into British Columbia.

Today only the coulee remains. The buildings have deteriorated and Belgian Row had become part of Raymond's historical past.

Excerpt courtesy of Evelyn Hendry from the Raymond Museum and Archives.

See also:

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