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Santa Fe - 1944-45

Rocky Ford, Colorado

Remembrances of D. K. Spencer 1956-1979

In April 1956, a force reduction at Lamar Colorado found my family moving to Rocky Ford where I have since lived, worked, and retired. Being only ten miles from La Junta, Colorado, I bounced back and forth between the two towns for the next thirty years, as my seniority would allow.

When I first came, the Agent was John E. Austin. He had been Agent at Lamar while I was there, and had bid in the Rocky Ford job just prior to my move. Norman Clifford was the Cashier, and W. J. Valley was the Car Clerk, and I became Bill Clerk, bumping John Loftus. Victor Hudson was first trick operator, C. Harold "Brownie" Brown was second and Bob Wheeler was third. Various clerks worked the three month long seasonal job. A few names I remember include Ray Hunter, Dick Willett, and Bill Hanagan. Agents after Austin were Frank M. Lucero, John F. Bart, and myself.

The railroad version of Morse code was still being used in 1956, and operators had to qualify in code. Clifford had learned the code in his many years of listening, and usually knew what a message said long before it was given to him by the operator. We knew something was amiss, when during a quiet moment Clifford would erupt griping about an incoming message!

We still had a Main street crossing watchman who flagged automobiles when trains were going through. His name was Bert Bius, and he had lost an eye during his service with a track gang, resulting in his lifetime job. We also had a section crew based at Rocky Ford.

Shortly after I arrived Valley died, and I took his place as Car Clerk, (and janitor!). I was the "sanitary engineer" for the whole she-bang! We still had a coal fired furnace, so ash removal was one of my daily chores, as well as window washing and floor mopping. I was pleased when we converted to a gas fired furnace in the 1960's.

We had a little bit of Less Than Carload (LCL) traffic that was handled on the Santa Fe Trail Transportation dock at La Junta, and brought to Rocky Ford by driver Bill Unger, and shipments that could not be delivered that day were handled by me in our little warehouse, but that business eventually died out.

We also had two stock yards, one on each end of town, and shipped a few cars of cattle after my arrival. Several stock feeding operations had been formed after 1900 using the ample amount of sugar beet pulp that had been generated by the sugar factory as feed. This business died during the 1950's with the advent of "in the field" handling by motor carriers.

Those Wonderful Onions

Onions, was and is, a popular product of the Arkansas Valley of Colorado. Over the years many produce dealers were headquartered in Rocky Ford that either grew onions locally, or brokered onions from other growing areas. When I first came, twenty to thirty cars from Oregon and Idaho were in the yards at any one time, waiting for diversion orders. The onions had been loaded into the old style refrigerator cars that were equipped with ice bunkers on each end with hinged lids (vents) that also had mechanisms to allow the lid to be partially propped open. Since onions required good ventilation, the partially opened lids allowed air to be scooped into the car from one end, and exhausted out the other end, as they moved enroute.

On arrival at Rocky Ford, I had to climb the end ladders to the roof to open or close the roof vents depending on the which side of 32 degrees the temperature was. I also handled the diversion orders, making "advance only" waybills covering diversion charges and any demurrage that might have accrued.

Locally grown onions were also loaded and shipped. Most of the field work was done in the daylight hours, and the loading and shipping done in the evenings. I worked many overtime hours readying cars for train pickup. As the years went by, the onion business went more by semi-trucks, since they could be loaded at the onion storage sheds, saving the extra expense of hauling to rail cars. Gradually the rail shipping of onions dried up.

Sugar Beets

At the turn of the century, beet sugar factories in Colorado were popular businesses. Rocky Ford had the Northern Beet Sugar Company (later American Crystal Beet Sugar Coompany); Swink had the Holly Beet Sugar Company; Sugar City had the National Beet Sugar Company, and several Great Western Beet Sugar factories in northern Colorado towns.

In 1900, with the establishment of a factory in Rocky Ford, we were the western end of a branch line that ran north of the Arkansas river eastward to Holly, Colorado, a distance of about 100 miles. It was known as the Arkansas Valley Branch, (AV) and had connections with the main line at Swink, Las Animas, Lamar, and Holly. Each of these stations also had sugar beet factories which over the years closed, leaving only Rocky Ford and Swink with factories on the Santa Fe, and Sugar City on the Missouri Pacific line. The A.V. line served farming communities of Cheraw, Ft Lyon, Hasty, McClave, Wiley, Wilson Junction, (with a spur to May Valley), Bristol, and Hartman, plus many blind sidings. Most of these towns had grain elevators. Later Swink became the western terminus, and the Rocky Ford to Swink tracks were removed, except for the portion that ran alongside of the Rocky Ford factory which was known as the AV and Agee tracks, and were important sugar beet storage tracks. Agee was the name of a former rail division superintendent.

Northern Beet Sugar Company
(Later, American Crystal Beet Sugar Company)

Much of our work revolved around the beet sugar processing plant. Sugar beet processing season began about October 1 usually covering 90 to 120 days, with over 300 cars of beets on hand daily. During the off season we were either shipping sugar, or receiving supplies for the next season.

In the early days, sugar beets were hauled by horse and wagon. To reduce the amount of travel time, rail side beet dumps were located about 3 miles apart, and rail sidings were built at each dump. Each siding had a name, perhaps for small towns that had died away, or some railroad official or local personage they wanted to honor. Many had small depots in times past. East of Rocky Ford was Krammes and Newdale. West of Rocky Ford was Fayette and Vroman.

Our commercial rail yard was alongside of the main line, about a mile in length, with the usual business spurs. The depot sat in the middle. Most of our main yard was devoted to storage of beets. We had two tracks that paralleled the main line that were about 1/2 mile long that could also be used as passing tracks, but were usually full of beets. They were known as "west" or "east" Pass and Melon depending on which side of the depot the cars were on. We also had two more tracks about 1/4 mile long also for beet storage, and a long track on the east end of town.

One of the problems of our yard was the eight street crossings that required "breaking the joints" for highway safety, and shortened our rail capacity.

The factory was located north of town, accessed by a spur from the main line, across two more street crossings, and had several long beet storage tracks.

Like the "mud hops" (yard clerks) of larger stations, I started each day, regardless of weather conditions, walking each track recording loads and empties, then back to the office for clerical and janitor work until quitting time. During beet season, many days were 12 hours long, and I worked everyday. The pay was good, but tiresome!

Winter weather was hard on the beet business. The process for unloading sugar beets was to place them on an elevated track over a large concrete hopper with a water sluice in the bottom. The drop bottom doors allowed the beets to fall into the hopper, assisted by streams of water from overhead hoses. In severe winters, the beets would be frozen in the cars, and workers would bang on the sides of the cars with sledge hammers to loosen the beets.

One winter we had about 200 carloads that were so severely frozen they had to be unloaded with a dragline and bucket. The cars racked up heavy demurrage charges in the process. The beets were placed on the ground, and when thawed and starting to rot, were loaded into farmers trucks for cattle feed at $1.00 per truckload. Cattle loved the sweet taste, and would chew on each beet contentedly!

We had a two trick switch engine assigned each year to do the beet work, and they were kept busy most of the day and evening. While many Colorado division trainmen served, Conductor John Brenhizer probably put in more switching hours than anyone.

As with any processing plant, there were inbound commodities that were needed to run the plant. We received limestone and sulfur used for purification of sugar, and molasses used in the startup process. After sugar was being made, we shipped molasses for cattle feed, and liquid sugar for soda pop bottling companies, as well as sugar both in bulk and in bags. The bulk sugar was stored in concrete silos, much like a grain elevator. We also shipped sugar beet seed.

When the powdered limestone was added to the beet juice in the purification process, the juice was then filtered through small sheets of canvas, known as filter cloths, to remove the limestone. One lasting memory in many households even today, 20 plus years after closing, is the used filter cloth. They were sold in bundles for use around farms and homes as utility coverings similar to a tarp, and everyone in a sugar town knows immediately what they are when displayed!

When I moved to Rocky Ford the price of a pound of sugar in the grocery store in 1956 was 11 cents, and when the sugar factory closed in the 1970's it was still 11 cents per pound! Government support of the cane sugar production in off shore companies and always rising production expenses in antiquated plants, with little room for profit is what has nearly killed the beet sugar industry. It closed the Rocky Ford factory for sure!

Beginning of the End of the Rocky Ford Agency!

In the early 1970's the Order of Railroad Telegraphers and the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks unions merged, and resulted in merging and dovetailing our two seniority districts. In 1973 the cashier's position was abolished, and since the Morse code requirement to hold the Agents/Train Order clerk position, had been eliminated I passed the rule book examination and bumped Agent John F. Bart on March 1, becoming a one man agency.

When the sugar factory closed, the business dropped down to almost nothing resulting in the closure of the depot on January 10, 1979, and my bumping onto the cashier position in La Junta, but that's another story, and will be the last of my series !

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