Dry Bean Production in Nebraska - The Early Years
The first reference of anyone growing dry beans in Nebraska was that of Charles Stroud in Bayard who grew 1.5 acres in 1895. Plants were pulled by hand and threshed by beating mature plants with a pitchfork, producing 17 bushels total. This story was related to us in Leon A. Moomaw’s book of western Nebraska history, “Pioneering in the Shadow of Chimney Rock.” No mention was made of the type of beans, so we are unsure of the market class, nor where Stroud obtained the seeds. There was obviously some interest in the crop at this time and several individuals were involved. The Bayard Transcript mentioned that “Johnnie Smith is making a thrashing machine to harvest his beans,” as well as running an advertisement by a grocer in Alliance wanting to buy “300 bags of beans – 100 pounds each.”
In 1917 the John H. Allen Seed Company (Sheboygan, Wisc.) apparently contracted with several Bayard area farmers to grow seed beans for them. They agreed to pay $5 per cwt (hundred-weight) and provide seed of various varieties, a threshing machine, and sacks to the growers. This experiment was not successful due to the climate of western Nebraska, which did not allow many of the bean varieties to properly mature.
Dry Beans Become Rooted in Nebraska
Aside from these early endeavors, the one person most responsible for introducing bean production into the North Platte Valley was Chester B. Brown. His father, O. B. Brown established a homestead near Morrill in 1893 and began farming. After 1910 and the addition of the sugar beet factory in Scottsbluff, sugar beets and potatoes were the primary crops grown in western Nebraska. Chester Brown began to contemplate growing another crop after producing more than 11,000 bushels of potatoes that could not be sold. After a trip through Idaho in 1923, he purchased great northern seeds and brought them back to Nebraska. He hypothesized that due to similar climate, elevation, and other growing conditions, producing dry beans in western Nebraska could be as successful as Idaho. After seeing good results from planting and harvesting 10 acres of beans on his farm, he then encouraged others in the area to try them as well.
By 1926, he had convinced enough friends and neighbors to grow beans that they collaboratively purchased a small cleaner, mounted it on a truck and went around from field to field cleaning and sacking beans, thereby formally beginning the industry in Nebraska. Brown began handling dry beans commercially in 1927 after renting a portion of a potato warehouse in Morrill. At this time most of the beans grown were concentrated in and around Morrill. In the 1930s production continued to expand.
Contracts Provide More Opportunity
Marketing the product after harvest was still one of the constraints prohibiting optimal success in bean production. Fortunately, this began to improve when H. J. Mentens of Hampton created a contract for bean to be provided to Grainger Brothers Wholesale House in Lincoln. He initially bought beans from various producers, but soon turned the responsibility over to Leon Moomaw who could consistently furnish beans from western Nebraska growers. In 1935 Moomaw established a bean processing plant 4 miles north of Bayard (later known as Moomaw corner).
Processing Expands to Meet Production
By this time in the mid-1930s production and processing had expanded greatly. Brown built new plants in Gering, Bayard, and Minatare and in later years more processing facilities were built in Mitchell and Lyman with two added in southeast Wyoming at Torrington and Lingle.
Production and processing conditions were still difficult with most work done by hand with few modern mechanistic improvements. In the fields at harvest, beans were pulled by hand, placed in piles, carefully loaded on wagons, and collated into stalks before being harvested with stationary threshing machines and bagged. Due to a lack of elevators, 100 lb bags were stacked by hand in piles 15-20 bags high. Even sorting was done by hand. Moomaw describes families spreading out 100 lb bags of beans on tables and removing all discolored beans – perhaps infected by bacterial diseases such as wilt and common blight? In 1939, an electric eye sorting machine was purchased, replacing the need for sorting by human eyes and hands.
Moomaw, L. A. 1966. Pioneering in the shadow of chimney rock … by one who was there. Courier Press, Gering NE, 549 pp.
Snyder, W. 1989. History of Dry Beans in the North Platte Valley – Chester B. Brown – Part I. (Updated by Greg Hinze), Bean Bag, Spring 1989.