The Beet Goes On
As I have remarked in many a post, I am completely smitten with shooting abandoned and derelict structures, a photography genre known as ‘Urban Exploration’ or just plain Urbex. From abandoned factories and decaying mental institutions to shuttered hospitals and old ghost towns, these historic structures are very atmospheric and possess a highly palpable emotional energy. In my opinion, the best way to visualize what our civilization will look like hundreds of years from now is to explore our ruins today. Urban exploration has become all the rage these days, and while some explore these ruins simply to soak up the cool atmosphere, photographers revel in documenting what occurs when nature takes over.
As a person who utilizes the digital technique of HDR (high dynamic range) photography, I am able to combine multiple exposures of the same scene – some overexposed, some normal as metered, and some underexposed – that are then combined into one large digital file and processed using special software. This results in great detail throughout the entire image, from the deepest shadows to the brightest highlights, with an unmatched tonal range and color gamut, something never before possible when shooting film (analog). The classic dilemma of whether to expose for the highlights or shadows is no longer an issue. Some people remark that the end result looks three-dimensional, and with that I concur.
In recent months I have been exploring the area in and around an abandoned sugar mill here on the California Central Coast in a long-since defunct ghost town named Betteravia, the French word for sugar beet roots. Betteravia, located just west of Santa Maria in Northern Santa Barbara County, was a sugar mill company town founded on the former Rancho Punta de Laguna around the turn of the 20th Century that existed for nearly ninety years in various forms. In its heyday, Betteravia supported a population of 350 residents, most of whom were employed by the Union Sugar Company (now part of Sara Lee Corporation).
The community once consisted of 65 cottages, a hotel, church, schoolhouse, post office, amusement hall, general store, gasoline station, and a fire department, which were either moved or razed in the 1960s. The sugar mill extracted sucrose from sugar beets, a tuber from which thirty percent of the world’s sugar is derived, as opposed to sugar cane.
In 1897, the Union Sugar Mill was completed at Betteravia and, in 1899, the Southern Pacific Railway completed its branch from Guadalupe to Betteravia to service the mill. In 1950, the Union Sugar Company decided it no longer wanted to remain in the renting business and gave notice to all residents to evacuate. The homes were sold for an average of $50 each. Most of the homes were bought by the renters and moved to other locations, while some were purchased by other individuals.
In 1986, Holly Sugar (Imperial Holly) purchased Union Sugar, taking over the operations at Betteravia. On March 8, 1988, the sugar refinery plant suffered a major dust explosion and fire (a common occurrence in sugar processing) which resulted in the severe injury of eight employees, seven of whom were critically hurt. Following the closure of the Imperial Holly sugar plant in 1993, Betteravia became a ghost town with many vacant and demolished buildings, thereby ending the so-called beet train era.
In 1997, the sugar mill was demolished; however, the site still contains two large, hermetically sealed silos, a decrepit but partially intact refinery building, and a towering furnace stack. These structures make excellent fodder for architectural and urbex photography. In this post, I am focusing on the exterior of the silos, refinery building, and an odd looking tower covered with graffiti. It reminds me of the work of famed Dutch artist M.C. Escher.
I named one of the tall tower images Tower of Babel (after the graffiti – see above image), and another Escher’s Tower. For photographs of the interior and other vantage points, please visit my main gallery page and see my prior post Little House of Horrors. I will add another post with more images in the near future.