How it all began.
SUGARBEET FESTIVAL MATURES AFTER A DECADE: A LOOK BACK AT THE FIRST EVENT
By Steve Edwards
I’ve certainly heard about the Sugarbeet Festival but moved to Chinook, too late last year, to get to experience it. Asked to do a pre-event story for the upcoming Festival running September 26-28, I decided to try to find how this community festival got started.
I was told Chuck Hewitt, a retired teacher, came up with the idea more than a decade ago. Chuck had helped me with a story about geocaching when I first arrived in Blaine County, and I knew where to find him.
Chuck Hewitt, “Father of the Sugarbeet Festival”
I found Hewitt having coffee with his regular mid-morning group at the Chinook Senior Center. When asked about the beginnings of the Sugarbeet Festival he smiled and said “it all started with a song I heard on the radio. The song was Tracy Byrd’s 1994 recording of “The Watermelon Crawl.””
Hewitt mused “The song was about a traveler who comes across a watermelon festival someplace in Georgia. Part of the song was about drinking watermelon wine and crawling home rather than driving-just to be safe. I got to thinking that sugar is the main ingredient of wine and there’s lots of sugar in sugarbeets. I began to form the idea to honor the legacy of raising sugarbeets in the Milk River valley with a community festival.”
He took the idea to the Chinook Chamber of Commerce and “they liked it” Hewitt said. They liked it so well they elected Hewitt president of the group, just so he could get the event going. And he did get the festival idea rolling. The first Sugarbeet Festival was staged in early October of 2005 in conjunction with Chinook High’s homecoming football game.
Hewitt wrote new lyrics for the Watermelon Crawl, to the same tune that gave him the idea, but called it the Sugarbeet Crawl. Adam Murphy, a local disc jockey and musician, even made a CD of the song with the new lyrics.
The first Festival was a success and has lasted for a decade. Hewitt said “I had the idea but a lot of other people did the work to make it happen. I knew that if it were to last it would have to be embraced by the community. I steadily reduced my role in the festival and now others make it happen. That’s a good feeling for me.”
The First Sugarbeet Festival, 2005
After talking with Hewitt I began to browse the newspaper archives at the “Blaine County Journal” to get a feel for what the first festival looked like. Other locals also provided memories and information about festival themes and how those changed over the years. In many ways the core of the festival remains very much intact but the details have changed.
Per Chuck Hewitt, part of the idea of staging the festival in conjunction with CHS’s homecoming didn’t last very long. He explained “the high school often can’t schedule a homecoming game until late in the summer or early fall. That made it difficult for festival organizers to set a date and begin planning. It got complicated and finally the two events were separated. We moved the Sugarbeet Festival to an earlier date just to improve the chances for good weather. Sometimes that’s worked and sometimes it hasn’t.”
The “Journal” was full of pre-event stories in the weeks before the first festival. Readers were encouraged to share memories about sugarbeet farming and processing. Hewitt added “we wanted to have a king and queen of the festival and asked people to nominate candidates who had been connected to the industry.” The first royalty was Roy Finley, King, and Lucille Nash, Queen. Dave Briere, who had started working at the U and I Sugar Factory as a teenager, was first Parade Marshal.
Coincidently, that was the year the refurbished ‘Lady in the Glass’ neon sign was hung back in the Lohman Block. A “look alike” contest was held and Bonnie Weber won. The whole event was a fundraiser to help pay for the work to repair and erect the sign.
Practice sessions to learn the Sugarbeet Crawl were held at the high school. A story repeated several times, from locals reminiscing about the first festival, was about the three ‘Gilbert sisters’ who came to the street dance and did the Sugarbeet Crawl.
In a letter to the paper, nominating her brother Lewis to be Sugarbeet King, posthumously, Elsie Gilbert Nelson wrote “Lewis and I were doing the ‘Sugarbeet Crawl’ when I was six and he was four. We both thinned behind Papa and our oldest sister, Zella.” The Gilberts raised sugarbeets east of Harlem.
Several events that still survive after ten years include the sugarbeet growing contest, the Fun Run/Walk, the Saturday parade, a car show and food vendors. Food vendors remain a big favorite. The first event featured the ‘sugar mall’ for vendors with products made with sugar. A local church sold Krispy Kreme Donuts in the sugar mall-a special treat not normally available in Chinook.
Other events seemed to fade over time and be replaced. The first festival had a display of vintage sugarbeet related farm machinery. The Blaine County Museum created the “History of Milk River Valley’s Sugarbeet Industry” with photos and memorabilia from an earlier era. The coloring contest went away at some point in time.
Events have changed and new faces got involved over the ten year history of the Sugarbeet Festival. The yearly themes have focused on a variety of the economic engines that drive the economy of the county. But the essence of the Sugarbeet Festival is still very much unchanged-a time for fun and to reflect on what it means to live on this little patch of the prairie.Learn More About Chinook