Sugar Beet Science and Microbiology

Post written by Jenny Hannifin, Archive Research Assistant.

Did you know that scientific research using the humble sugar beet led to the birth of microbiology?

In the 1800s, agriculture and manufacturing industries struggled to meet the demands of a growing and changing population. Science was applied rigorously to solve domestic challenges, and the “industrialization of agriculture was reflected in the growth of the sugar beet, fermentation and other food industries.” (Needham, p. 189)  Scientists in the mid-1850s wanted to understand the chemical nature of living matter, not only for the betterment of agriculture, but for the sake of pure science.

Louis Pasteur (1822 –1895), famous for his vaccines and processes of sterilization, began his career by studying the crystalline structure of organic substances. He believed that asymmetrical structure, which produced optical activity (the polarization of light), was related to life itself, and that processes like fermentation worked because the substances involved were alive (what we now call microbes or microorganisms). Pasteur taught his students the principles of bleaching, sugar refining, and fermentation, including the processes used in the manufacture of beetroot alcohol.

Sugarbeets were a big industry in France, and one of the Lille distilleries asked Pasteur to help them solve a problem they were having with spoiled product. Pasteur analyzed the fermentation processes that he observed at M. Bigo’s sugarbeetroot distillery (circa 1856), and tied those observations to his research on the asymmetry of living substances.

What began as a search for the cause of spoiled beet alcohol led to a full-on investigation of fermentation. If the products of fermentation were alive, as Pasteur thought, then fermentation was a living process, not one of decay, as was believed by many scientists at the time.

But if that were true, where did that life come from? Could it spontaneously generate, as some believed (Pasteur thought not)? Fermentation was at the root of important scientific debates at the time, and investigating questions like these heralded the beginning of microbiology (the study of microscopic organisms).

Pasteur eventually proved that microbes in the air we breathe kick-start many processes (like fermentation) that are inherent in organic matter. Pasteur also determined many important principles about living microbes; for example, that microbes infecting animals caused disease, the so-called “germ theory” of disease.

Image: Wagons bringing in sugar beet harvest to C&S Depot on Mason Street, Fort Collins, Colorado, circa 1902.

 

Sources:

  • Needham, Joseph (ed.). The Chemistry of Life: Eight Lectures on the History of Biochemistry (1970: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge).
  • Geison, Gerald L. The Private Science of Louis Pasteur (1995: Princeton University Press, Princeton).
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Leave it to Beaver: Conservation of our natural and cultural heritage

Post written by Linda Moore, Curator of Collections

(A personal disclaimer: I grew up in Oregon–the Beaver State; in Corvallis, which is the home of Oregon State University and, of course, the mighty OSU Beavers. Our family drove around with twin stickers on our back-bumper declaiming “I’m a Beaver Believer” and “I’ve Got Beaver Fever.” I come by my love for these buck-toothed engineers honestly, and my “beaver fever” is unabashed.)

My experience with historical research has taught me that it can be almost impossible to pick up and follow a single topic: inevitably one thing is knotted on to another, tangled up with a dozen more, and sometimes tied on to its own tail. This has been the way it’s gone with my research on the beaver felt top hat of my last post. My research on that object made me curious to see what other artifacts of beaver history are preserved in the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery’s collections. Turns out it is an impressive inventory:

3 beaver felt top hats in addition to the one attributed to President Lincoln

1 elegant felt lady’s riding hat

2 wide-brimmed beaver felt Stetsons

1 pair of beaver fur mitts

1 bearskin coat trimmed at the collar and cuffs with beaver fur

1 sweet beaver fur cape and muff set, made from beavers trapped on George Campton’s ranch in Livermore about 1910 for his sister

1 old beaver trap, pulled out of the Cache La Poudre River and donated to the Museum in the 1960s

1 pelt from a beaver trapped by the donor himself in Colorado and donated in 1979

2 stuffed and mounted beavers (the largest and fattest dang beavers I’ve ever seen)

a set of beaver skulls

and, finally, various pairs of bright orange upper front beaver teeth

The presence of these beaver-related objects in the Museum’s collections reflects a steady involvement of the species in our region’s history, despite an economically driven “beaver fever” that severely depleted their numbers before Colorado had even become a state. The earliest historical trapping records of the Colorado Rocky Mountain region show sixty to eighty beaver present per mile of stream. By the turn of the 20th century the species’ population nationwide was as low as 100,000 individuals, very few of whom were here in the West.

Two sources I’ve come across recently not only decry the West’s loss of beaver populations, but advocate their protection and reintroduction as a means of conserving our region’s natural and cultural riches. Both recognize that in shaping the region’s waterways to their own purposes, beavers once played, and can play again, a vital role in maintaining the environments in which the region’s unique human history has unfolded. The first of these is Beaver World, a charming book by Enos Mills, a signed copy of which is in the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery’s Local History Archive. Mills was a passionate advocate for the natural world, and an astute direct observer of wild animals interacting with the environment. Beaver World was published in 1913, and in it Mills not only gushes about the beaver’s emblematic industriousness, “He works not only tooth and nail, but tooth and tail,” but more insightfully recognizes the role the species plays in maintaining both a healthy ecosystem, and a landscape humans find welcoming and pleasing:

Beaver works are of economical and educational value besides adding a charm to the wilds. The beaver is a persistent practicer of conservation and should not perish from the hills and mountains of our land. Altogether, the beaver has so many interesting ways, is so useful, skillful, practical, and picturesque that his life and his deeds deserve a larger place in literature and in our hearts.

The beaver’s role in maintaining healthy, functional Western ecosystems is the central focus in the much more contemporary article “Voyage of the Dammed,” carried in The High Country News. Writing at a time when water conservation is a high-profile problem and many of its proposed solutions carry high price tags, author Kevin Taylor outlines the position of environmentalists and other concerned citizens who advocate, at least in part, leaving it to the beavers:

The humble, hardworking rodent, through its dams and ponds, can extend the release of water late into summer, saturating the ground and healing watersheds. It has the power to re-create the primordial, wetter West that existed for millennia.

The article extends the beaver’s vital restorative role to cultural values as well. Taylor quotes a Coeur d’Alene tribal elder, 86-year-old Felix Aripa, who sees within the native ecosystems restored by beaver activity the roots of cultural restoration: in the returning native plants, fish, and animal species are embodied the cultural riches of language and long-held cultural knowledge.

These two sources have whetted my appetite for learning more about this species, and for doing what I can to promote its ongoing presence in our region. I understand that in caring for the beaver artifacts which lie within the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery’s collection — clothing, tools, and scientific specimens — we preserve the history of a species which plays a central role in the Native American traditions of this area, as well as in the story of the region’s surge in population and development in the 19th century. As I read the strong praise Enos Mills gives this species and the excited plans of those advocating its restoration, I’m thrilled with the possibility that within today’s beaver population is preserved a solution to our region’s compelling need to conserve both the health of the environment and the wealth of our cultural and historical heritage. “I’m a Beaver Believer” indeed.

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Battery A: Bound for Europe

Camp Merritt (in New Jersey) was the final stateside station for Colorado’s WWI Battery A soldiers. On January 23, 1918, they boarded the steamship Baltic, bound for Europe.  After a stop in Halifax, Nova Scotia, they set forth on January 27, escorted by a British cruiser (and later in the journey, eight destroyers). These precautions were necessary to ward off U-boat attacks.

On February 5, 1918, the artillerymen witnessed the sinking of the troopship Tuscania by UB77 off the Irish coast. The Doughboy Center website (http://www.worldwar1.com/dbc/tuscania.htm) tells us that “The Tuscania was the first ship carrying American troops to be sunk, and public opinion in the USA regarded its loss as an outrage.”

Hurdle’s scrapbook page shows a typical transport convoy; the Prince George; and a shot of the Tuscania taken from the Baltic.

 

The soldiers disembarked at Liverpool, traveled by train across England, then across the English Channel. Heavy seas were running, and “packed like sardines,” the men uniformly became seasick before finally setting foot in France. In a letter home, John Hurdle discussed the seasickness – and a dubious remedy for it – on the trip across the Atlantic:

“We went on the boat in the afternoon, and before midnight had several cases of seasickness while the boat was still tied tip to the pier. … One of the boys in B Battery had a sure method of preventing seasickness [eating onions]. … But let me give you a tip—if you ever take a sea voyage, don’t eat onions, and don’t let any of your associates eat them, because they don’t help any…”

 

Two days of discomfort riding in boxcars on French railroads brought the regiment to Camp de Souge, where it spent the next two months in additional training. The highlight came when the regiment received its artillery piece, the 155 mm Grande Puissance Filloux (GPF).  John Hurdle’s gun crew called their GPF “Gila Monster,” and Hurdle would later give a very extensive description of its use in the war. Here’s a picture of it, labelled “My gun, ready to move, in position.”

 

Post by Doug Ernest.

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WWII POWs in Colorado

Did you know that during WWII German prisoners-of-war were held at a camp just west of Greeley on Highway 34? POWs from Camp 202 were dispatched to farms in Larimer (and Weld) counties, often to bring in the sugar beets. The camp housed about 3,000 prisoners (about 2,500 were held in the camp in Trinidad; 12,000 in Colorado Springs).

 

 

The Archive has a booklet called World War II German Prisoners of War in Larimer & Weld Counties (published by the Pioneer Association in 2011; cover photo above), which includes recollections of local area residents of their interactions with the POWs. Below is my favorite story from this booklet, titled “Remembering Mr. Helmke,” by Ruth Wagner Haake (trust me, you’ll be glad you read it to the end).

 

If you’d like to learn more about WWII POWs in northern Colorado, you can:

  • Read Janet Worrall’s lecture (a Fort Collins Historical Society Program from 1995)
  • Visit the Camp 202 website which includes pictures of the site as it looks today
  • Learn about the preservation of the Camp 202 site at Colorado Preservation, Inc
  • Flip through the vertical files “LC – Military – POW Camps” and “CO – Military” at FCMoD’s Local History Archive
  • See the original (1944) beet field manifests from this camp at the Local History Archive

And for personal recollections about WWII in general, check out this page – our World War II Oral History Excerpts, on the History Connection website.

 

Post by Jenny Hannifin

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Pictures at an Exhibition

Visiting a new exhibit at a museum can be a moment of perfection. Freshly painted walls, meticulously hung pieces, descriptive text, and targeted lighting all combine to create an experience that takes the viewer to a new place and offers a fresh perspective on the world.

But believe us when we say that getting there is quite a journey!

Here are a few pictures of the assembly process going on right now at FCMoD for the upcoming exhibit Earth from Space, opening November 18.

Exhibit panels freshly printed and laid out to dry.

This exhibit – part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) – features spectacular satellite imagery collected over the past 30 years which allows us to observe oceans, mountains, land surfaces, and human activity with a unique perspective. Rare views of events such as dust storms, forest fires, volcanic eruptions, and hurricanes are accompanied by text that explains how satellite imagery is gathered and utilized. Included in the exhibit is a digital video globe that displays global processes such as ocean temperature and weather patterns.

Museum staff install a vinyl image in one of the exhibit’s window alcoves.

Come see Earth from Space, at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, opening November 18.

Museum staff prep an exhibit component for installation.
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