It wasn’t the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929 that was the defining economic development for Manteca in the 1920s.
It was the Great Drought of 1924. It was also the same year the dreaded hoof-and-mouth diseases decimated dairy herds.
The drought was the catalyst for the single most enduring economic investment made by Manteca’s voters.
Up until 1924, bonds to build the Melones Dam were soundly defeated. Manteca farmers and residents couldn’t see the benefit of the dam for flood protection or water supplies since the Woodward Reservoir completed in 1916 seemed to serve the South San Joaquin Irrigation District well.
But the drought of 1924 changed all of that.
Farmer after farmer suffered severe losses as only three rounds of irrigation were available from March until October when irrigation runs normally occur every 10 to 15 days.
It required 46,000 acre feet of water to make the needed 30-minute-to-the-acre irrigation round. But when the first irrigation started, only 36,000 acre feet was in storage at Woodward Reservoir.
The first run was enough for 20 minutes of coverage on March 19, 1924. It left Woodward Reservoir completely drained.
Spring run-off allowed 22,000 acre feet to accumulate by the end of April. This time the run was decreased to 15 minutes per acre.
Some relief was provided to farmers on May 16, 1924 when 1.22 inches of rain fell in three hours. Unfortunately, it severely damaged the alfalfa crop’s first cutting. It triggered a summer shortage forcing dairymen to import feed at high costs from Washington.
The third and final round of irrigation came on June 3, 1924. Woodward Reservoir was drained and the run was only half of the required 30 minutes per acre.
G.K. Parker, SSJID superintendent in 1924, told the Bulletin the farmers could have been saved with one more run in August but there was nothing the district could do.
Voters passed bonds for Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River. Two years later on Nov. 11, 1926 the dam was dedicated.
The Melones Dam saved Manteca area farmers several times over the next 20 years when lack of rain wrecked production in other California farming regions.
The name “Melones” is Spanish for melons. It was attached to the Stanislaus River area where the dam was built because the gold nuggets found in the area reminded Spanish and Mexican miners of melon seeds.
The Melones bonds also put SSJID in the unique position of not receiving any federal assistance to develop its water storage system. It was the federal government’s decision decades later to build a component of its water system at Melones that brought Washington into the picture. Both the Oakdale Irrigation District and SSJID share rights to over 320,000 acre feet of water behind the New Melones Dam since the federal project required the elimination of Melones Dam.
Melones Dam played a key role in SSJID long range water planning that today is allowing it to bring treated surface water to South County cities as well as move into retail electricity sales that may eventually yield Manteca residents rates as low as those in the Modesto Irrigation District.
The hoof-and-mouth disease cost South County farmers 340 head of cattle and losses of $17,625 to further compound the economic disaster of the drought.
The 1920s also saw voters approve the building of Manteca’s first high school.
The election to form the Manteca Union High School District took place on May 19, 1920. Nineteen men in the community then borrowed enough money on their own to construct temporary wooden buildings on the same site that now houses Manteca High School.
A $200,000 bond election carried on Dec. 23, 1921 and the campus, with its fabled bell tower, was dedicated on Jan. 27, 1923.
The auditorium seated 550 people in “handsome, comfortable opera chairs.”
The first graduating class of 1923 consisted of 10 students.