My Life in Zion

The life and views of a Latter-day Saint in the 21st Century…

They Picked His Beets

“And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.”

– King Benjamin to the People of Zarahemla

The Utah Territory achieved prominence in nineteenth-century America for its efforts to produce sugar from sugar beets, and the production of beet sugar contributed substantially to Utah’s economy for almost one hundred years.

A first bold attempt was made in the early 1850’s when leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints studied French manufacturing, formed a company, imported 500 bushels of beat seed, transported heavy machinery from Liverpool to New Orleans, then by riverboat to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and thence via fifty-two ox teams across the plains to the Salt Lake Valley, where it was placed in a factory at “Sugar House,” south of Salt Lake City. Though beets were raised and processed, the factory never quite managed to solve the chemical problems of converting beets grown in alkali soil into granulated sugar.

With the further development of the beet and its manufacture, and with the increased population in the territory, a renewed attempt was made in the 1880’s. Particularly active in keeping interest in the industry alive was Arthur Stayner, a horticulturist from England, who used his energies and property in experiments with sugar cane, sorghum cane, and sugar beets. Eventually his hard work paid off in the Territory and a streamlined process for sugar production was found. Incorporated in 1889, the Utah Sugar Company, which was largely financed by the Church, sponsored studies, analyses, and investigations leading to the completion in 1891 of a $400,000 beet sugar factory at Lehi. Constructed by E.H. Dyer, this 350-ton capacity plant was the first beet sugar factory in the United States built with American machinery. When asked their motive in using the agency of the church to promote an enterprise of this nature, Mormon officials replied that this was one means of fulfilling their covenant to redeem the earth and build up the Kingdom of God. The success of the Lehi factory encouraged Mormon capitalists to establish factories in other settlements, and eventually 17 similar factories would dot rural Utah from Ogden to Elsinore (where my own grandmother was born).

And so the history of the sugar beet industry in the western United States is intimately interwoven with the history of the Church. As impoverished Saints arrived in the valleys of the Wasatch Front many of them took up the cross of sugar beet farming, and secured a livelihood by the hard labor of the daily toils of the farm.

Having set the scene, I now wish to share with you a story that was shared by Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone in the General Conference of April 1973. After beginning his conference talk by introducing the staples of Saintly service and Church Welfare, Elder Featherstone said, “I have a great friend, Brother Les Goates, a great and gifted writer…He told how welfare first came into his home.” Elder Featherstone then shared Brother Goates story in Brother Goates’ own words:

“[T]he welfare program began in the Old Field west of Lehi on the Saratoga Road in the autumn of 1918, that terribly climactic year of World War I during which more than 14 million people died of that awful scourge ‘the black plague,’ or Spanish influenza.

“Winter came early that year and froze much of the sugar beet crop in the ground. My dad and brother Francis were desperately trying to get out of the frosty ground one load of beets each day which they would plow out of the ground, cut off the tops, and toss the beets, one at a time, into the huge red beet wagon and then haul the load off to the sugar factory. It was slow and tedious work due to the frost and the lack of farm help, since my brother Floyd and I were in the army and Francis, or Franz, as everybody called him, was too young for the military service.

“While they were thusly engaged in harvesting the family’s only cash crop and were having their evening meal one day, a phone call came through from our eldest brother, George Albert, superintendent of the State Industrial School in Ogden, bearing the tragic news that Kenneth, nine-year-old son of our brother Charles, the school farm manager, had been stricken with the dread ‘flu,’ and after only a few hours of violent sickness, had died on his father’s lap; and would dad please come to Ogden and bring the boy home and lay him away in the family plot in the Lehi Cemetery.

“My father cranked up his old flap-curtained Chevrolet and headed for Five Points in Ogden to bring his little grandson home for burial. When he arrived at the home he found ‘Charl’ sprawled across the cold form of his dear one, the ugly brown discharge of the black plague oozing from his ears and nose and virtually burning up with fever.

“‘Take my boy home,’ muttered the stricken young father, ‘and lay him away in the family lot and come back for me tomorrow.’

“Father brought Kenneth home, made a coffin in his carpenter shop, and mother and our sisters, Jennie, Emma, and Hazel, placed a cushion and a lining in it, and then dad went with Franz and two kind neighbors to dig the grave. So many were dying the families had to do the grave digging. A brief graveside service was all that was permitted.

“The folks had scarcely returned from the cemetery when the telephone rang again and George Albert (Bert) was on the line with another terrifying message: Charl had died and two of his beautiful little girls—Vesta, 7, and Elaine, 5—were critically ill, and two babies—Raeldon, 4, and Pauline, 3—had been stricken.

“Our good cousins, the Larkin undertaking people, were able to get a casket for Charl and they sent him home in a railroad baggage car. Father and young Franz brought the body from the railroad station and placed it on the front porch of our old country home for an impromptu neighborhood viewing but folks were afraid to come near the body of a black plague victim. Father and Francis meanwhile had gone with neighbors to get the grave ready and arrange a short service in which the great, noble spirit of Charles Hyrum Goates was commended into the keeping of his Maker.

“Next day my sturdy, unconquerable old dad was called on still another of his grim missions—this time to bring home Vesta, the smiling one with the raven hair and big blue eyes.

“When he arrived at the home he found Juliett, the grief-crazed mother, kneeling at the crib of darling little Elaine, the blue-eyed baby angel with the golden curls. Juliett was sobbing wearily and praying: ‘Oh, Father in heaven, not this one, please! Let me keep my baby! Do not take any more of my darlings from me!’

“Before father arrived home with Vesta the dread word had come again. Elaine had gone to join her daddy, brother Kenneth, and Sister Vesta. And so it was that father made another heartbreaking journey to bring home and lay away a fourth member of his family, all within the week.

“The telephone did not ring the evening of the day they laid away Elaine nor were there any more sad tidings of death the next morning. It was assumed that George A. and his courageous companion Della, although afflicted, had been able to save the little ones Raeldon and Pauline; and it was such a relief that Cousin Reba Munns, a nurse, had been able to come in and help.

“After breakfast dad said to Franz, ‘Well, son, we had better get down to the field and see if we can get another load of beets out of the ground before they get frozen in any tighter. Hitch up and let’s be on our way.’

“Francis drove the four-horse outfit down the driveway and dad climbed aboard. As they drove along the Saratoga Road, they passed wagon after wagon-load of beets being hauled to the factory and driven by neighborhood farmers. As they passed by, each driver would wave a greeting: ‘Hi ya, Uncle George,’ ‘Sure sorry, George,’ ‘Tough break, George,’ ‘You’ve got a lot of friends, George.’

“On the last wagon was the town comedian, freckled-faced Jasper Rolfe. He waved a cheery greeting and called out: ‘That’s all of ‘em, Uncle George.’

“My dad turned to Francis and said: ‘I wish it was all of ours.’

“When they arrived at the farm gate, Francis jumped down off the big red beet wagon and opened the gate as we drove onto the field. He pulled up, stopped the team, paused a moment and scanned the field, from left to right and back and forth—and lo and behold, there wasn’t a sugar beet on the whole field. Then it dawned upon him what Jasper Rolfe meant when he called out: ‘That’s all of ‘em, Uncle George!’

“Then dad got down off the wagon, picked up a handful of the rich, brown soil he loved so much, and then in his thumbless left hand a beet top, and he looked for a moment at these symbols of his labor, as if he couldn’t believe his eyes.

“Then father sat down on a pile of beet tops—this man who brought four of his loved ones home for burial in the course of only six days; made caskets, dug graves, and even helped with the burial clothing—this amazing man who never faltered, nor finched, nor wavered throughout this agonizing ordeal—sat down on a pile of beet tops and sobbed like a little child.

“Then he arose, wiped his eyes with his big, red bandanna handkerchief, looked up at the sky, and said: ‘Thanks, Father, for the elders of our ward.’”

In six days Brother Goates lost not only his son and three grandchildren, but at the height of harvesting season could have also lost most of his sugar beet crop if it had not been for the Saintly service of his brethren.

“And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.”

– King Benjamin to the People of Zarahemla

They picked his beets, and in so doing served their God.

Perhaps we should go and help someone we know pick the beets in their lives.

That is my prayer.

Your pal,


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2 thoughts on “They Picked His Beets

  1. Becca on said:

    Luke and I were up all night rocking sick babies. One hitch with having four babies ages three and under, is a lack of arms (in all forms of “arms”). I got an email saying you’d made this post. After reading it, we both agreed that three hours of sleep is hardly a trial; we are not planning their funerals. Thank you so much for sharing this story and helping us put a little sleep deprivation into perspective.

  2. I am glad that you enjoyed the post, and I hope that you, Luke, and the babies are all doing much better by now!

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