When Things Speak: The Beet Knife

The sugar beet knife became an important tool for Germans from Russia who were new immigrants to the United States. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
The sugar beet knife became an important tool for Germans from Russia who were new immigrants to the United States. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
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May 2, 2015 - 8:30am

In the 1870s, thousands of Germans from Russia left Russia for the United States. By 1910, the US census counted 13,000 Germans from Russia in Nebraska alone. Diane Wilson says these new immigrants started transitioning to American life by continuing a lot of their own traditions, especially when it came to work. Wilson says she learned all this because of a tool in the historical society’s collection: a sugar beet knife.

Music used in this piece is "Cylinder Two" and "Candlepower" by Chris Zabriskie / CC BY 4.0


(Photo courtesy Sheldon Museum of Art.)

This story is part of a series "When Things Speak" featuring curators and their stories about objects they chose for the Things Speak exhibit at the Sheldon Museum of Art

The Things Speak Exhibit closed on February 8, and  all objects featured in the exhibit have returned to their home collections.You can visit the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia weekdays from 9am-4pm and on Sundays from 1pm-4pm.


They’re really kind of sinister looking in a way. The blade is maybe a foot long? And then width-wise, I don’t know, three inches perhaps. But at the end of the blade, the far end of the blade, there’s this little hook. That’s the part that’s the most unusual.

It looks like a machete with a wooden handle, and then this funny little hook at the end. And I’ve heard a lot of stories about people cutting their fingers off when they were using them.  So I started getting curious about what was that hook for?

Sugar beets are like beets except they’re much larger. When the beets are harvested, they would be harvested in a pile. And that beet knife with the little hook at the end allowed them to pull one beet out of the pile. And then the machete chopped the green end off of the beet.

When Germans from Russia first came over here to the US, this was like in the late 1800s the early part of the 1900s, there weren’t a lot of social services to help them then. And they had to make a living. Working in the beet fields was a way for new immigrants to come and kind of get enculturated. They would learn to speak English while they were out there

And they were migrant, but not exactly the way we think if migrant workers. Because they did not follow a harvest. Like if somebody was following a, picking apples or something, harvesting fruit, they would follow the harvest as it progressed north. That’s not what happened here. The German from Russia family would make a contract for a particular number of acres and the family would come and stay  and they would tend the field all summer up and through harvest.

They would have a little shack right beside the field that they were tending. And they would bring all their belongings with them. So what they needed for the summer. And the kids would come along and help. The number of acres they would tend depended on how many bodies they had in their family that were working.

The children would miss out of school at the end of the year, ‘cause they had to head out to the beet fields before school ended for the year. And they would stay up until October. So they would miss the beginning of the next school year. But as time went by there started being changes, and there were special classes for the children that were going out to the beet fields to help them kind of catch up.

It was very labor intensive work.

This wasn’t just people from Lincoln. Lincoln was probably the biggest center but there’s a lot of Germans from Russia in Sutton, and Scottsbluff, Henderson, Hastings. There were beet fields in several areas in the US. Some people went to Michigan, some went to fields in Scottsbluff and western Nebraska, Gering.

There’s a lot of stories to tell. That one just really captured my imagination . I just found out it just so interesting what they had to do to survive here. And that the whole family was involved. My mom and dad grew up on farms, so I could kind of really imagine what that must have been like. And that was one of the things that was interesting to me about it.



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