In 1942, it took a village to bring in the beets

By: 
Amorette Allison
Star History Columnist

In the fall of 1942, lots of brave young men and a quite a few women from around Miles City had gone to join the military service. It was a wonderful thing except that it was harvest time in southeastern Montana.

Sugar beets needed to be harvested and digging beets wasn’t a one-person job in 1942. It took lots of individuals to harvest the beets and there weren’t many around to spare.

Plus sugar was needed, not just for sweetening food but for making explosives, so the harvest was vital to the war effort.

Which is why the headline on the Sept. 29, 1942 Miles City Daily Star said “VOLUNTEER TO HELP IN BEET HARVEST WORK. Mass Meeting Last Night Unanimous In Acting On Proposal To Aid.”

The opening paragraph said: “A large number of persons attended the mass meeting of citizens in the Elks Home last night and responded to the call for help to be extended to the Custer County area.”

To make everyone who signed up feel more patriotic about picking beets, the list for volunteers to sign up was headed with the words “Volunteers on the Home Front.” The article explained “that the registrants would be given calls to go to the beet fields to undertake the work of topping beets or shoveling as quickly as the placements could be made.”

Before anyone signed up, of course, speeches had to be made. “A review of the history of efforts was given by W. F. Flinn.” Mr. Flinn “read a long list of telegrams and much correspondence” directed to the authorities “wherever they could be located,” requesting assistance for the harvest.

At one time, an article had appeared in the newspaper suggesting that “evacuees” in Wyoming would be sent to the beet fields. Those “evacuees” were being held in the Japanese Internment Camp at Heart Mountain. For whatever reason, the “evacuees” never arrived. Perhaps they were having too many problems settling the citizens into their “relocation centers” to send them away so quickly.

Harold Kraudy, speaking for the Montana State Industrial School” as the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility was known then, said that “what manpower outside the immediate needs of the institution would be allocated to the general plan of volunteers.” A certain number of students at the SIS were needed to run the farm and dairy that fed the students and they couldn’t leave their agricultural chores to perform other agriculture chores without problems arising.

The school board was in a bit of a tizzy. The principal of the Custer High School reported that “due to legal technicalities and lack of information from the State Board of Education, it would be impossible to make a decision on the matter until a regular meeting of the school board, with a full attendance, could be held, which would still be a week away.”

However, “36 boys, members of the classes in animal husbandry, have today volunteered to take their places in assisting local farmers” as of Oct. 1. They apparently weren’t going to wait for the School Board’s approval. Their parents would sign permission slips excusing them. The paper stated: “The action taken by these boys is in line with the principles of the National FFA organization, of which they are members, it is pointed out.”

The 29 members of the football team followed the FFA members. Again, parents signed permission for their sons to take a week off from school “and the boys feel that they will come back to school ready to tackle the best of teams.”

The Sacred Heart High School students didn’t have to wait for a school board meeting. “The students are free to go wherever they may be needed,” said the article “and the matter of their absence for the present from classes will be adjusted.”

There were, of course, also adult volunteers who could arrive to help the harvest at their convenience. The article doesn’t specify but it implies a number of men from various professions would take some time off to help. 

In fact, there was no newspaper on Monday, Oct. 12, because the Star employees were harvesting beets. The note on the Sunday, Oct. 11 paper, said that Star-owned radio station KRJF — the earlier call letters of KATL — would publish special bulletins during Monday in order to keep everyone informed. They even thanked their advertisers for letting them take the day off publishing a paper for the harvest.

In future harvests, Italian prisoners of war would help with the harvests and there are still a few older citizens of Miles City who remember the prisoners, who were held at the Eastern Montana Fairgrounds, wearing jackets with POW spelled out on the back. There are stories about those prisoners, too, but for now, the sugar beets of 1942 were safely harvested.

(Contact Amorette Allison at 406-234-0450 or mcreporter@midrivers.com.)

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