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Old photos of Minnesota sugarbeet harvest capture the Great Depression and the American dream

“Roots of the Red River Valley: Through the Lens of Russell Lee,” now on display in Moorhead, uses images of the late photographer to look at the 1937 sugarbeet harvest in Polk County and highlight the importance of migrant workers in the process.

Migrant workers in the sugarbeet fields on a Polk County, Minn., farm. Photo by Russell Lee / Courtesy of the Library of Congress / Special to The Forum
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MOORHEAD — The newest show at the Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County digs deep into the region’s agricultural and ancestral histories.

“Roots of the Red River Valley: Through the Lens of Russell Lee” uses the images of the late photographer to look at the northwestern Minnesota sugarbeet harvest in 1937. What really comes into focus in the show, however, is the importance migrant workers played in the process.

“I hope people walk away with the respect for the work, the whole process of sugarbeet farming. Hopefully they understand Hispanic families have deep roots here,” says Markus Krueger, programming director at HCSCC.

“This is a fabric of this specific region. There’s a profound impact on the Red River Valley,” says Ken Mendez, of Crookston, Minn., who assembled the 80-some images in the show.

Mendez found the shots researching images in the Library of Congress files, discovering Lee’s collection of images showing the crop’s harvest and delivery to the first regional sugarbeet processing plant in East Grand Forks, Minn.


The first sugarbeet processing plant in the region opened in 1937 in East Grand Forks, Minn. Photo by Russell Lee / Courtesy of the Library of Congress / Special to The Forum

In the 1930s, Lee was employed by the Farm Security Administration , a New Deal program, to document life, labor, poverty, unemployment, segregation and other issues that faced the country during the Great Depression. In 1937, Lee was tasked with capturing the sugarbeet harvest in Polk County, Minn. Lee set his sites on farms outside of East Grand Forks, Fisher and Crookston, and decided he would cover that fall’s work.

While images by his fellow FSA photojournalists, including Dorthea Lange, Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein, may be more famous, Lee was just as dogged in his task. He developed a rapport with the laborers, who not only allowed him to photograph them working in the field, but welcomed him into their modest housing to capture their time with family.

“Seeing these early Hispanic families and how they lived is fascinating,” Krueger says.

The sugarbeet work was what brought many Hispanic families to the Red River Valley, some of which made it their permanent home.

A migrant labor family as seen in their living quarters on a Polk County, Minn., farm. Photo by Russell Lee / Courtesy of the Library of Congress / Special to The Forum


Krueger points out that some of the migrant workers Lee photographed were likely working for the children and grandchildren of Norwegian and German farmers that settled the land just a generation or two earlier.

“There’s a respect for hard work between the old and new immigrant groups in the Red River Valley,” he says.

Looking at the photos now, Krueger says he has a newfound respect for their toils.

“A lot of these photos make my back hurt,” he says, referring to images of laborers bent over, swinging beet knives to pick and top the crops.

A migrant worker swings a beet knife in the sugarbeet fields of a Polk County, Minn., farm. Photo by Russell Lee / Courtesy of the Library of Congress / Special to The Forum

Mendez knows a little about the hard work that went into the harvest.

In 1927, the first year of the East Grand Forks sugarbeet processing plant, his then 17-year-old father came up from Mexico to work in the fields.


“How many 17-year-olds can say that a decision they made back then was life-changing? That’s why people came up here,” Mendez says.

The work kept him coming back, but the friendships he formed with the farmers eventually prompted him and his wife to stay.

Krueger says the Mendez family is one of — if not the oldest — Hispanic families in Minnesota, and the Red River Valley was home to some of the first Hispanic communities in the state.

While the family made friends with farmers, not everyone was as welcoming.

“When I was a kid, people told me to go back to where I came from,” Mendez says, explaining he was born in Polk County. “We welcomed the hard work in the fields. That makes me proud.”

Still, he doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of what the work was like.

“I can’t relate to the labor. My parents always believed that we would not do the labor they did. I can only guess as to how back-breaking the work is,” he says.

A migrant labor family in Polk County, Minn., sits down for dinner after work. Photo by Russell Lee / Courtesy of the Library of Congress / Special to The Forum

Mendez and a few others first put the show together on the University of Minnesota Crookston campus, where he works, but wanted more people to see the images. The pictures of the migrant workers laboring in the field, or packed together in small, spare housing units, may be eye-opening for some to see.

“At first I thought we were treated terribly and that was naive,” Mendez says. “Those shacks were the same kind of living for all people of lesser means.”

“On one hand, this shows ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ side of the Great Depression. But when you look at the people working, you don’t see the Tom Joad anger at the system,” Krueger says, referring to the main character in the John Steinbeck classic. “I see families working together and their pride and dignity. Those people working the field in those pictures, their kids and grandkids graduated from college. It’s kind of the American dream.”

Mendez sees something else — his ancestors. While Lee didn’t offer many details in notes or captions, Mendez wonders if his father worked on the same farm, somewhere, just out of the camera’s range.

“I wish I could ask the people in those photos if they knew my dad,” he says.

Spending the last few years with the pictures only underscores how much he misses his late parents and how much he wishes he would have asked them more about their experiences as migrant workers.

“I would have appreciated them more,” he says. “When you don’t ask them, they don’t tell you anything.”

If you go

What: “Roots of the Red River Valley: Through the Lens of Russell Lee”

When: Museum is open noon to 5 p.m. daily; this exhibit will be up through March 21

Where: Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County at the Hjemkomst Center, 202 First Ave. N., Moorhead

Info: Admission ranges from $8 to $10; or call 218-299-5511

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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