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1940s: War brings major changes in Manteca

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POSTED December 26, 2009 1:45 a.m.
Editor’s note: The following is part of a series recapping Manteca history as the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close.

World War II was a defining moment in Manteca’s history.

Not only did dozens of young men cut short high school educations or abandon farms jobs to enlist in the days following Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, but the economic struggles on the home front plus the impact of returning waves of soldiers laid the foundation for the next 20 years of the community’s growth.

The men at war were first and foremost on Manteca residents’ minds. Manteca High Principal Joe Bisig regularly penned long letters to local servicemen. Their replies were shared with other residents in the pages of the Manteca Bulletin.

The war brought an end to Manteca’s reputation as a major tomato growing region due to acute labor shortages.

It also forced the suspension of Spreckels operations as farmers were forced to cutback drastically on their acreage.

Spreckels closed the Manteca plant. The machine shop was converted to war production for the Navy while the warehouses were used for storage of naval supplies.

Spreckels tried to coax growers to plant acreages in 1943 by offering to import laborers from Mexico and ordering 100 Dixie beet choppers to ease the need for labor.

Some farmers accepted the offers but most were fearful of the depressed sugar prices and the real fear they may not have the labor to harvest the crops which would mean financial ruin.

It wasn’t until 1946 that Spreckels was able to reopen. Within two years, the plant was reaching its capacity of 1,850 tons of sugar beets a day.

Spreckels staged a company-wide celebration of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Salinas refinery.

Production in Manteca hit 243,948 tons in 1948 producing wages of $665,222 for the year and payments to South County farmers of $3.4 million.

Spreckels’ 50-year celebration for Salinas was also a big event in Manteca. A number of sugar cubes in jars placed around Manteca gave those correctly guessing the number a chance to win a year’s supply of free candy.

Baking contests and plant tours were also part of the hub-bub. But perhaps the most memorable event was Spreckels’ decision to pay its Manteca employees in $2 bills to demonstrate how much revenue Spreckels’ contributed to the Manteca economy.

Merchants were literally inundated with the $2 bills driving home the point Manteca was extremely reliant on Spreckels’ economic vitality.

Returning soldiers triggered a small population boom as marriage, home sales, and child births soared almost overnight.

A victorious America was on the march. Manteca was no different. Returning soldiers took up leadership positions in the community.

Among them was John McFall whose father Hope McFall died in battle in World War I before he was born. McFall returned to Manteca after completing his World War II service with the Army Security Intelligence Corps. An attorney by training, McFall opened a law office and was elected to the Manteca City Council and then the mayor’s post in the 1940s.

McFall eventually went on to gain election to the California Assembly in 1951 and then Congress where he rose through the ranks to the second most powerful Democrat as then Speaker Tip O’Neil’s floor whip in 1971.

Another example was George Murphy Jr. who had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In April 1946, he purchased Louis Meyer’s share in the Manteca Bulletin and became the editor. Meyer and Murphy’s father George Sr. had purchased the paper in 1923.

The senior Murphy sold his half interest to James Summers in 1947. In 1949, Murphy Jr. bought out Summers to become the sole owner

There was plenty of news for Murphy to cover.

The 10-room, two-story brick Yosemite School burned in a fire on Aug. 7, 1948. School trustees secured space throughout Manteca at the American Legion, MRPS and FESM halls so classes could be conducted that fall.

It was the same year the South San Joaquin Irrigation District in conjunction with Oakdale Irrigation District secured $52 million to build the Tri-Dam Project on the Stanislaus River after Pacific Gas & Electric agreed to a contract to buy the power from the three dams until 2005.
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