Once Upon a Time: Sugar Beets in Bruce County

I was surprised to learn from Stats Canada that 25% of our domestic sugar supply is derived from about 1.2 million tonnes of Canadian-grown sugar beets, mostly from Alberta. I was further surprised to read this article by Donalda McClure which described sugar production right here in Bruce County 125 years ago.

The first attempt to grow sugar beets in Bruce County was in 1896, when the Wiarton Sugar Beet Manufacturing Company Ltd. was formed with a raised capital of $150,000. Farmers invested heavily in the project. Local beets had a very high percentage of sugar content and Wiarton had excellent shipping facilities by water. Buildings were started in 1901, using stone which was plentiful in the area. The main building was four stories high, 240 feet long and 120 feet wide, large enough to hold 6,000 tons of the crop.

First attempts at production were only partly successful. Faulty management and improperly installed machinery were blamed. The corporation lost $63,000 that first year. The Town of Wiarton provided substantial funds to help sustain the company. In 1903, a further loss of $200,000 was incurred. The farmers were on the hook for covering most of that loss.

          For larger view, Click on Image

Alex McGregor, my uncle, planted 60 acres of the crop on the Beaton farm in Grey County. Boys from Chesley were hired to thin the seedlings.

The beets were shipped to Wiarton in the fall for processing. We never heard my uncle talk about his loss but it must have been considerable.



In 1955, the Bruce County Soil and Crop improvement Association decided to re-introduce sugar beets as a cash crop to supplement turnips. Recalling the former disastrous experience in growing beets, the project was undertaken cautiously. They started in a small way by establishing a weighing station in Chesley. Norman Schmidt of Mildmay, the Association president, had a half-acre experimental crop.

POSTSCRIPT: It has been since learned that the Wiarton Company went bankrupt many years ago because of a terrible mistake. The entire annual crop of sugar beets was processed and stored in liquid form. Then someone opened the wrong valve and the entire production was poured straight into the lake.


Photos courtesy of Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre, A2015.016.680”, and “Courtesy of Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre, A2015.016.681”.


The original article from the 1988 yearbook of the Bruce County Historical Society was abridged by Bob Johnston