IMPERIAL – The Imperial Valley Historical Society lit up the sky as they held their Friday Night Lecture Series at the Pioneers Museum Friday Night.
Board member Norm Wuytens and Museum Director Leanne Rutherford separately took turns at the lectern to enlighten the room on the evening’s historical walk into yesteryear.
Wuytens spoke of the air beacon, which he differentiated from an airport beacon that directs commercial and private planes safely into port.
These beacons were placed 40 miles apart across the United States, about the distance one can see into the horizon in a plane, to guide pilots through the airpaths of the sky.
This beacon was already located at the museum when Wuytens came aboard. The exact location during its use from the 1920’s to the 1960’s (when they became obsolete due to radio frequencies), was unknown, except records indicated it was placed in Imperial, but not at the airport.
However, the tower it sat on was at the airport. Annual visiting snowbirds volunteered their time and energy to restore the 52 foot tower while Wuytens took it upon himself to rewire and restore the actual beacon.
Wuytens explained that at one time, 1500 beacons lit the sky for pilots, but now only 20 exist. Most of those are inside museums.
Only one is on a tower, outside of a museum, and working. That is the newly refurbished beacon at the Imperial Valley Pioneer Museum.
After the lecture, the room emptied to the back lot to watch the beacon light the sky.
The 500,000 candlepower light lit up as Wuytens threw the switch reminding everyone of how pilots guided their planes in simpler days.
Following Wuytens, was Museum Director Leanne Rutherford, a daughter and a sister of a beet grower who explained how the sugar industry came to be.
After a short history of Holly Sugar and the beet industry in the Imperial Valley, Rutherford impressed the crowd with the area’s phenomenal ability to grow the sweetest and highest yielding beet crop in the United States.
“For instance,” Rutherford said, “22 tons is the normal yield elsewhere, but in the Valley, we average tonnage anywhere from 42 to 47 year after year, with some fields topping 80 tons.”
She went on to say that 3% of all the sugar comes from the Imperial Valley.
Rutherford introduced Ron Tharp, agricultural manager of Spreckles Sugar plant, or as the valley still calls it Tharp said, “Holly Sugar.”
With Tharp was Ben and Bonnie Goodwin, the Executive director of the California Beet Growers Association.
Rutherford, Goodwin, and Tharp all pulled the levers that brought the iconic Holly Sugar neon sign back to life that every longtime resident remembers from sitting on the 4 silos.
The sign now lives, after a several thousand dollar restoration job, at the Pioneers Museum west side.