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1930s: Farm woes, fires, and floods

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POSTED June 25, 2014 9:36 p.m.

Editor’s note: The following is part of a series recapping Manteca history.

 

The 1930s could be characterized as Manteca’s “quiet decade” if it weren’t for the first major flood of the 20th century, labor strife, fires, and diseased sugar beets temporarily shuttering Spreckels Sugar.

The Depression and the Dust Bowl also combined to plant the seeds that would change the course of growth in Manteca and the rest of the Central Valley as tens of thousands of Midwest farmers came to California.

Things were looking bleak as the decade started. Spreckels’ Manteca plant had been closed since 1922 due to disease that devastated sugar beet crops. The shuttered plant meant the loss of hundreds of jobs.

Immigrants from the Dust Bowl were arriving in the Central Valley by the thousands to provide stiff competition for low-skill agricultural jobs. The result was a drop in pay for locals who competed for the same type of work.

Manteca’s economic future brightened in 1931 when disease resistant seeds developed by Spreckels and the Department of Agriculture were distributed to farmers. The plant resumed limited operations that year. By 1933, the Manteca plant was again producing commercial sugar.

Sugar beet production increased steadily until 1939 when Manteca farmers produced the largest crop ever. Spreckels Sugar enjoyed a 140-day run with 250,997 tons of beets sliced and 715,768 bags of sugar produced.

Everything, though, wasn’t sweet at Spreckels.

In 1936, more than 300 workers voted to unionize for better wages and benefits. Carl Boinditz, a 49-year-old machinist, was selected as the first president of Sugar Operators Union Local No. 20733 affiliated with the American Federation of Labor.

The organizing process occurred with little trouble unlike in nearby Tracy where violence flared at the Holly Sugar plant.

Manteca Canning Company also had its share of labor problems.

The cannery, located at Oak and Vine streets where the brick winery warehouse still stands today, had let houses southeast of its plant that had been built in the 1920s for migrant workers fall into disrepair.

During the 1930s after years of neglect, the shanties became known as Manteca’s own Hoovertown.

Labor organizers built on the plight of the migrant workers, low wages, and long hours in a bid to form unions.

Labor strife was common place up and down the Central Valley. Manteca was no exception.

Farmers felt the “radicals and communists” of the movement should be stopped at any cost. Farmers had their trucks overturned. Several South County farmers were injured in the most violent flare-up in the county at Stockton Food Products when they tried to cross the picket lines to take their crops in to be processed.

Eventually, many South County farmers were deputized by Sheriff Harvey Odell to keep the peace. The strike was finally settled on April 9, 1937, when the labor movement agreed to leave the canneries. The American Federation of Labor eventually ended up representing most cannery workers, including those in Manteca, after the strike ended.

Manteca got its first taste of a major flood of the 20th century in February 1930.

Levees failed near River Junction 10 miles southwest of Manteca near the Airport Way bridge where the 1997 floods occurred.

Boats were used to aid marooned families along the river while cattle were driven to higher ground near Manteca.

Most roads were closed with the only access to Stockton being via French Camp Road.

The Paradise Cut levee broke on Stewart Tract on March 17 of that year. It closed Highway 50 and made travel to the Bay Area impossible unless it was by boat.

The water level at Mossdale measured at 20.45 feet, the highest ever recorded.

Barricades at Main Street and Yosemite Avenue directed traffic to Stockton.

Fires also were a major concern in the 1930s with one of the biggest in Manteca history happening on June 1, 1939 when flames engulfed the Diamond Match Lumber Yard on South Main Street and then spread to a nearby Southern Pacific packaging shed and threatened the downtown district.

The blaze brought SP railroad tank cars full of water and apparatus. Manteca volunteers Jack Orr and John T. Smith were commended for bravery after they risked injury by rescuing a Manteca Rural engine which had become engulfed in flames.

Volunteers stayed on the scene all night to contain the blaze. Damages hit $30,000.

The decade also saw the fire department almost lose the 1927 American LaFrance engine currently on display at the Manteca Historical Society museum.

The department in June 1934 found itself unable to make the last payment of $252.72 on the LaFrance engine.

A committee went to San Jose and arranged an extension with the mortgage holder.

Volunteers and their wives began a furious round of dances, bake sales and a door to door solicitation enabling them to clear the account by the Aug. 9 deadline.

Community cooperation also led to the formation of the Manteca Library Association in 1939 that secured funds to keep the library open 66 hours a week in subsequent years.

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