Brinkman family delivered first load of sugarbeets to Caro factory in 1899

By Rob Clark, Director of Communications and Community Relations

Michigan Sugar Company

CARO, MICHIGAN – Outside Michigan Sugar Company’s agriculture office in the small community of Caro, Michigan – just a stone’s throw from the oldest sugarbeet processing factory in the United States – sits an antique side lifter once pulled by a team of horses through farm fields owned by German immigrants.

Though it once was restored, the old wood and steel side lifter shows its age and the results of being exposed to the elements for many years – most noticeably, the bits of lichen now sprinkled about.

To the casual observer, it is simply an old piece of farming equipment, repurposed as the centerpiece of an agricultural office welcome sign.

But, explains Ray Brinkman, who lives 8 miles north of Caro in the small town of Unionville and recently celebrated his 90th birthday, there is more to the story than that.

First Load of Beets to Caro

“That side lifter was used by members of my family on their farm,” says Brinkman. “It dates back to my grandfather, William Deitrich Brinkman, who came to America from Germany in 1869 at age 12. A team of horses pulled it and it lifted the beets out of the ground.”

In the early 1990s, the Brinkman family donated the side lifter to Michigan Sugar Company. It was refurbished and installed by former Agronomist Phil Brimhall and recently retired Caro Ag Manager Kent Graf, who wrote about the Brinkman family in the fall 1999 edition of Sugarbeet Update, the former quarterly publication of Imperial Sugar Company, which owned Michigan Sugar Company before it became a grower-owned cooperative in 2002.

In the article, Graf points out William D. Brinkman began farming in 1875 on 80 acres of land in Fairgrove Township in Tuscola County.

“William D. and a son Henry worked these farms until 1939,” Graf writes. “Another son, William F., managed the Frank Bach farm for 22 years.”

On Oct. 9, 1899, William D. Brinkman made history when he hauled the first load of sugarbeets for processing to the factory in Caro, then known as the Peninsular Sugar Refining Company. He used horses and wagon to bring that first load of beets nearly 10 miles to Caro from the Fairgrove area. They have been slicing beets in Caro ever since.

According to Graf, in 1946, William F. Brinkman purchased land in Tuscola County’s Almer Township from the estate of Lloyd Humes and worked the land with his sons until 1954.

“Raymond, the youngest of his boys, missed the 1953 beet harvest because of military service, but he purchased an 80-acre farm in Section 27 of Columbia Township just east of Colling in 1955 and began his own farming operation,” Graf writes. Ray Brinkman would eventually farm the fields in both Almer and Columbia townships, growing sugarbeets, corn, soybeans, dry beans, and pickles.

Family History

The Brinkman family history can be traced back to Diedrich and Hedewieg Brinkman, who lived near Hanover in the territory of Niedersachsen in northwestern Germany. Diedrich and Hedewieg were Ray Brinkman’s great-grandparents and had five children – Mary Rohlfs, Diedrich, Kate Montei, Henry, and William D. Brinkman, who was Ray Brinkman’s grandfather.

William D. Brinkman and his wife Catherine Layer Brinkman were parents to 12 children – Winford, Emma, Lily, Henry, Blanche, John, Geo, Mary, Chas, William F., Frank, and Bertha. William F. Brinkman was Ray Brinkman’s father.

William F. and Bertha (Rayl) Brinkman had six children – Donald, Charlotte, Dorothy, Ray, Herb, and Wayne. Dorothy, Ray, and Herb are still living.

A family coat of arms completed in 1977 notes family members came to the United States in the late 1860s to escape uncertain political conditions in their homeland of Germany.

“Sailboats were the mode of transportation, three weeks was the duration of the voyage, farming was their way of life,” the document reads. “They were a hardy stock, ready to make a new family life in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

“All God-fearing people.”

100th Anniversary Celebration

On Nov. 8, 1952, Ray Brinkman married Margaret Ann Hall in Fairgrove. Less than a month later, he was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to Camp Atterbury in Indiana for basic training. On May 1, 1953, he shipped out from Fort Lewis near Tacoma, Washington, for Korea, where he served 21 ½ months, rising to the level of corporal and overseeing a motorpool division.

“I hated to go, but I wouldn’t give the world for my experience there,” said Ray Brinkman. “They knew I was a sugarbeet farmer and they let me out to come home to harvest my sugarbeets. I only missed that one harvest.”

Ray and Margaret Brinkman have five children – Shelley, Sheryl, Jan, Nancy, and William Ray – nine grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Shelly earned her bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and her master’s degree from Pepperdine University and lives in the Seattle area. Sheryl earned her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern Michigan College and lives in the Seattle area. She has two children. Jan earned her bachelor’s degree from Grand Valley State University and lives with her husband Clint in New Berlin, Wis. They have two children. Nancy lives in Sebewaing and works as a hair stylist. She and her husband Paul have three children. William Ray earned his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and works as a business consultant. He and his wife Melanie live in Oakland, Calif., and have two children.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of that first load of beets delivered to Caro in 1899 by William D. Brinkman, on Sept. 20, 1999, Ray Brinkman and his son William Ray used a horse-drawn wagon to deliver the season’s first load of sugarbeets to Michigan Sugar Company’s Caro factory. Family members gathered with Michigan Sugar officials to celebrate the occasion.

Three years later, Ray Brinkman found himself serving as an ambassador for Michigan Sugar as the company’s growers contemplated buying the company and forming a grower-owned cooperative.

“Just prior to the decision being made by the growers to buy the company, I would get in my car and show up on people’s farms to encourage them to buy into the company,” he said. “I was sure then that it was so important that this company survive and make it, which it did quite well.”

Ray Brinkman continued farming until he retired at age 70. Today, Mar-Ray Farms Inc. comprises 600 acres of Tuscola County land spread out from Gilford to Gagetown and in between. All the acres are rented out.

On April 30, 2020, Ray Brinkman celebrated his 90th birthday. A large gathering was planned in Frankenmuth, but those plans had to be changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, a drive-through birthday party took place with around 70 vehicles pulling through the Brinkman’s circular driveway and friends and family members offering up well wishes.

Looking back, Ray Brinkman said his family’s history with Michigan Sugar Company is a point of pride and one he remembers fondly.

“I think it is fantastic to have been a part of it,” he said.