The Billings Outpost

Volga Deutsch made mark in Billings sugar beets

A half-dozen young men stood outside the Great Western Sugar factory gate, smoking and trading lies. Two were veterans of several campaigns, three were “automatic rehires” - men who worked here last year and were invited back - the last two were newbies, first-time applicants, hoping for an interview.

In 1907 the railroad, the state, this city and Eastern Montana agriculture were in their infancy. And major change was on its way from Russia in the form of German peasants and a turnip-shaped plant loaded with sugar. Overnight Great Western Sugar Co. became a gargantuan part of the local economy. The company hired 1,100 men the first season. The new railroad hauled carloads of sugar both east and west, returning with lumber, machinery, household and commercial goods.

The massive infusion of money, both wages and cash purchases, filled tills and gathered in drifts in the accounts of capitalists who cornered it and built hotels, stores and manufacturing plants.

Immigrants recruited to work in the sugar industry came with their bags packed with European culture and industrial-age job skills. Shortages of carpenters, plumbers and mason butchers and brewers were quickly filled.

Billings boomed and a dozen foreign tongues filled the streets, bars and store aisles.

Germans predominated, particularly those from Russia’s Volga River region. Speaking a brand of German slightly out of sync with their mother tongue, The Volga Deutsch built churches and schools.

Whole villages pulled up stakes and caught trains, ships and more trains to build homogeneous neighborhoods clustered about Little Flower Church, new Lutheran churches and pubs where English was seldom heard.

The Germans were hated by many as immigrants have always been. The Germans were unique in that they were white but would perform stoop labor demanded in the beet fields.

By 1937 they amounted to 20 percent of the immigrants entering the country. They became and remain the largest ethnic group in America.

Unlike most immigrants, these Russian Germans, often called Rooshuns, had experience raising sugar beets back in Russia. They did not object to stoop labor but were not willing to make a career of it. They wanted land. They worked with their heads down, saved their money and bought it.

By 1937 beet acreage in America was owned predominately by Germans – Volga Deutsch. Americans were confused by the label. They would ask, “What nationality are you?”

The newcomers would respond, “German.”

“But you came from Russia. Doesn’t that make you Russian?”

The Volga Deutsch would reply, “A hen might lay an egg in an oven, but that doesn’t make it a biscuit.”

By the late 1930s the sugar beet industry in the United States was dominated by Germans who had lived generations along a distant Russian River.

Germans arrived in Montana by a circuitous route with a parade of historic giants paving the way.

Columbus’ arrival in America put potatoes on the tables of Europeans, who suffered periodic famines. German populations grew, then migrated to the European giant, Russia.

On the Volga, the Don and Donett basins and places like Poland, Austria and Italy, the flood of Germans puddled in German-speaking villages where the old home culture, religion and language soon dominated.

Here in Billings they built homes, churches and shops that catered to a trade that could speak little English.

From that high point of production in the 1930s, the Western Sugar Co.’s workforce has been decreased by botanical and technological forces.

For example: The sugar beet seed pod holds nine germs. Nine plants grow from it. Then, someone with a short hoe had to hack away the eight extra plants.

Improvements to harvesting machines and cultivators cut the number of field hands needed. Sugar beet processing almost ended in Billings when the company neared bankruptcy.

A group of speculators played with assets for a time, then sold to a British company. The group of farmers who bought the company next are still in charge.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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