CROOKSTON – A gallery that shows the 1937 sugar beet harvest is on display at the University of Minnesota Crookston, portraying not only the labor involved in the industry, but the people who toiled at the work and, in some cases, chose to live in the region.
More than 80 photographs make up the exhibit – called “Roots of the Red River Valley” – that hangs in the Bede Ballroom at Sargeant Student Center at UMC. The photographs taken 82 years ago by Russell Lee, a Farm Security Administration photographer, depicts farm laborers and farm families who lived and worked near Fisher and Crookston, as well as sugar beet processing in East Grand Forks.
Ken Mendez, a UMC student services specialist, worked with Megan Beck Peterson, of UMC student activities, and Lauren Wallace, a UMC student, to bring the exhibit to UMC.
Mendez whose parents were migrant workers, became interested in the Library of Congress photographs because he wanted to see the kind of work his parents and older siblings did in the sugar beet fields. He didn’t fully appreciate the hard, labor-intensive work they did until he viewed the photographs.
“I’m learning about my family through those pictures,” he said. “I never saw the fields.”
The photographs are part of a collection of thousands taken by photographers for the Farm Security Administration. Lee was among a dozen photographers assigned to chronicle rural American life. Each photographer for the project, which was funded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was assigned to a region of the United States. Besides Polk County, Lee also took photographs in eastern Minnesota and in North Dakota, Mendez said.
Lee’s work in Polk County is focused on the sugar beet harvest. Besides people, his work shows trucks, equipment and farming tools used in 1937.
“It speaks to the history of the area," Mendez said. “The sugar beet industry is so huge here.”
He hopes that the exhibit will give viewers, especially children, a greater understanding of the hard, labor-intensive work that went into making a living years ago.
"Hopefully they’ll appreciate grandma and grandpa a little more,” he said.
Mendez, Peterson and Wallace selected photographs for the exhibition they believe will teach viewers about the sugar industry. The photographs, for example, give glimpses of migrant families having dinner together, workers using knives to cut sugar beet tops off the plants, and picking up beets from the field. There also are photographs of the first sugar beet factory, built in East Grand Forks in 1926, and of farmers shoveling sugar beets.
“We looked for photos that have dynamic composition and interesting elements,” Peterson said.
Besides depicting the visual history of the sugar beet industry, the exhibit also shows how the sugar beet industry influenced society, as many migrant laborers stayed in Polk County and raised families who are living there generations later, Peterson said.
“I think it’s impacted people that way, as well,” she said.
A gallery opening will be at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 4, in Bede Ballroom. Gallery daily hours are from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesday. A special Thursday Commons presentation and panel discussion will be held at noon Nov. 7 in Kiehle Auditorium. The photographs will be in the UMC library after the exhibit ends this week and available for display in other areas.