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Manteca: War years yield to tranquil 1950s

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POSTED May 23, 2013 1:22 a.m.

Editor’s note: This is the third of a six-part series taking a look back at Manteca’s first 95 years as an incorporated city. Voters approved incorporation on May 28, 1918.

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 ground work 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 and 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 Spreckels was able to reopen. Within two years, the plant was reaching its capacity of 1,850 tons of sugar beets a day.

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.

After an initial post-war surge in, it wasn’t a time of earth-shattering events in the course of Manteca’s growth.

The 1950s was an era when Manteca High and its sports teams and band served as the focal point of the community. Cruising was gaining in popularity and Manteca was viewed as a small San Joaquin Valley farm town by those passing through from San Francisco en route to Yosemite Valley or traveling Highway 99 that served as the main route connecting Los Angeles and the rest of the Pacific Coast states.

A four-way stop with a suspended red blinking light at the start of the 1950s marked where Highway 99 and Highway 120 crossed at what is now the corner of Yosemite Avenue and Main Street. The Highway 99 freeway would take the traffic load off Main Street as 1960 neared.

Worst flood, fire in Manteca history

Two of the worst disasters in Manteca history - the flood of the winter of 1950-51 and a fire that devastated a large chunk of the central district in 1952 - occurred during the decade.

The 1950-51 disaster made the January 1997 floods that covered 70 square miles south of Manteca, damaged 700 homes and racked up $100 million in losses pale in comparison.

Unusually severe storms from Nov. 13 to Dec. 8 caused extensive flooding from the Durham Ferry/Airport Way bridge on the San Joaquin River to Bowman Road in French Camp.

Prime farmland was under water for weeks.

By January 1951, levees had broken on both sides of both the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers. Highway 50 west of Mossdale was closed for several weeks after flood waters washed away bridges. Flood waters came within four miles of downtown Manteca. The county hospital was threatened.

More than 2,000 people were been evacuated between Mossdale and French Camp. The same widespread flood today would force the displacement of over 15,000 people.

Stockton also suffered major flooding with 125 blocks covered in water for up to eight days with the water reaching a height of six feet in spots.

What was possibly Manteca’s largest fire in history started in the back of the Courtesy Market on Dec. 11, 1952 and quickly spread to the furniture store next door. The fire was first spotted by Dr. Robert Winters at the southwest corner of Center and Main streets. Winters ran two blocks to report it.

The grocery store, barber shop, Sadie’s Beauty Shop and furniture store sustained over $200,000 in damages or the equivalent of almost $1.9 million in today’s dollars.

Tri-Dam Project dedicated in 1957

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District’s $52 million joint undertaking with Oakdale Irrigation District on the Stanislaus River - the Tri-Dam Project - was dedicated on June 15, 1957.

Attending dignitaries from Sacramento noted the most remarkable thing about the project was that it was funded entirely by SSJID and OID without any aid from the federal government.

FRIDAY: The 1960s and 1970s bring boom times to Manteca as the community starts its transformation into a Bay Area suburb.

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