Posted on Feb 15, 2023

Last week we had 2 speakers representing the Beet Worker Project and the contributions of Hispanic workers to agriculture and the economy of northern Colorado. Betty is best known for her educational efforts (via films and presentations) and as a force behind the 2021 statue “Hands that Feed” (Vine and Lemay) as well as her work at the Museo de Tres Colonias. Chuck may be known to the men in the audience as the barber at Carmel Barbershop in downtown Fort Collins for over 50 years.  Betty spoke of the history of 3 neighborhoods and the hard work of Mexican immigrants in the sugar beet fields that once surrounded our city. Chuck shared a very personal story because he was one of those workers!

Betty started with the history and naming of 3 neighborhoods. Buckingham Place was named after a successful local businessman, Charles Buckingham. Andersonville was named after another FTC businessman, Peter Anderson.  Alta Vista was created by the Great Western Sugar Beet Company (GW) to build homes for immigrant workers who would sign a 5-year contract for permanent workers. After WW I GW turned to the Hispanic (largely Mexican) community to work as agriculture laborers. Discrimination was obvious and blatant at that time. Although these field laborers “put food on the table” for the entire population of northern Colorado they were not welcome in Fort Collins restaurants (“No dogs or Mexicans allowed”) or downtown shops. It was understood that they would the safe zones were their neighborhoods in the Tres Colonias.Unfortunately, (albeit less obvious) discrimination against brown-skinned people continues to the present.
GW provided a service as an employer for so many immigrants who were recruited to come work at great Western and  fleeing the depressed economic conditions in Mexico. But the work was hard, the wages low and there were very few benefits (e.g., no place for women workers to toilet in the fields). A worker was paid $10/day to work one acre of beets. The entire family was required – children as young as 7 (Chuck) and women with babies on their backs. Bending over a line of beets from sunrise to sunset led to chronic back injuries in both young and old. Workers not only grew and harvested sugar beets but all regionally-grown vegetables here and throughout the Midwest. This contribution to the economy was enormous and has been (and still is) largely forgotten.
Finally, Betty reminded us that we should come together as one community because we share the same goals - success for ourselves and our children in a world where discrimination is still a  huge issue. Until all people of color are welcome and accepted it is important that all members of the community have a place at the table when and where decisions are made that affect us.
Next, Chuck Solano shared his personal story. Chuck, as mentioned, worked as a barber cutting the hair of local celebrities like Stacy Plemmons. Chuck carried with him 2 short-handled  “tools of the trade” that required  bending over in the fields.
Chuck was born in 1940 in Mexico and was taken to northern Colorado by van to work with his family for GW. He showed us his very short-handled hoe (now illegal). All 4+ members of his family were required (thinning, harvesting and “topping” the beets) to complete one acre and receive the daily pay of $4 to $11 - about $40/week. All the while, discrimination was obvious - Mexicans needed to shop and recreate in safe zones like “Ragtown” in Eaton. The sign "no dogs or Mexicans” was later replaced by "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”.
His early live was difficult. His dad was an alcoholic. Holidays were the worst. While turkey with all the fixings was eaten by those around him, the family had the usual fare on Thanksgiving - beans, potatoes and tortillas.
One Christmas was different – the family was visited by local Rotarians who gave them a ham, stuffing, pumpkin pie and Christmas presents for each member of the family!
Chuck had a formal education only to the 6th grade. He joined the military and used his spare time to read and educate himself.  He passed the test and got his GED. He became a Fort Collins barber for over 50 years, retiring only when his eyesight began to fail. He shared that all his hard work was rewarded as he saw his children become engineers, teachers and a State Farm Insurance agent.
He ended by showing us his second “short-handled” tool for “topping” beets. Turns out his family were the last to hand-top sugar beets in Weld County!