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Sugar beets brought mayor-elect to Manteca
Ben Cantu, who will be sworn in as Manteca’s eighth directly elected mayor on Tuesday, is shown in front of the original Manteca city hall that opened in downtown in 1923 across from Library Park

Sugar beets brought Ben Cantu’s family to Manteca.

Cantu — who is being sworn in as Manteca’s eighth directly elected mayor on Tuesday — at one time drove trucks laden with harvested sugar beets to the Spreckels Sugar plant that served as the city’s dominated private sector for 75 years before being demolished 20 years ago to make room for the Spreckels Park development.

“Our work day started at 4 a.m. and went to dusk,” recalled the 71-year-old Cantu.

Cantu’s father Benjamin left the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas and traveled to California seeking better opportunities and to create a better life for his family. When he got settled, he sent for his bride Elvira who traveled by train from Texas when she was 8 months pregnant with Cantu. 

Cantu ended up being born in Bakersfield and raised in the farming community of McFarland located 6.5 miles south of Delano along the Highway 99 corridor.

His dad launched a sugar beet harvesting business. He’d contract with clients in Imperial Valley for early spring harvests, then work on farms in the Bakersfield area in the spring, before moving on to the Manteca area for the summer harvest. They would truck harvested sugar beets to Spreckels Sugar in Manteca, Holly Sugar in Tracy, and Imperial Sugar in Stockton.

Cantu started working alongside his father at age 11 driving tractors in the field harvesting the sugar beets that averaged nearly five pound apiece. When he turned 15, Cantu started driving truckloads of sugar beets to the refineries.

Traffic mishap led

to Manteca move

What brought the Cantu family to settle permanently in Manteca was an incident in 1960 that almost got him and his son killed.

They were returning home from working the season in the Imperial Valley driving a truck pulling a trailer carrier a tractor when they lost their brakes descending the Grapevine coming out of the Los Angeles Basin and heading down into the San Joaquin Valley.

“It wasn’t straight like it is today, it snaked its way down,” Cantu recalled.

Cantu noted the truck reached speeds of more than 100 mph. Several CHP units ran interference to clear traffic for the out-of-control truck. It took several miles after the truck reached the valley floor for it to come to a stop.

“My dad took the incident as an omen,” Cantu said.

He made the decision to stop traveling to various regions of the state and to settle in one area. The Cantu family selected Manteca as they already had a lot of friends in the area.

Cantu continued driving sugar beet trucks while going to San Joaquin Delta College to pursue studies in architecture. His intent was to get a degree at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo when he was approached by the City of Manteca about working as a planner in the Community Development Department.

Cantu continued his education while working with the city. He completed courses through the University of San Francisco.

He spent 34 years working with the city. 

Cantu recalled that when his family moved to Manteca in there were about 15,000 residents.

They bought a home on Powers Tract — Manteca’s original post World War II subdivision east of Manteca High — from the late Antone Raymus. Their side yard bordered Spreckels Sugar giving them a view from their front window of the factory and the four 15-story sugar silos that for years served as Manteca’s most identifiable landmark. It was also less than a block from the railroad tracks.

“I grew up in Manteca,” Cantu said. “Downtown was the center of the community. My brother and I would ride our bicycles downtown to the 5 & 10 where the (Spin Cycle) laundry is now located. We’d [ay 25 cents to see a movie at the El Rey and got a candy bar for a nickel. We left our bicycles outside unlocked and when the show was over they would still be there.”

On Tuesday Cantu will be one of two Manteca High graduates serving on the current council. The other is newly elected Councilman David Breitenbucher who by coincidence just recently bought the home where Cantu grew up.

Cantu met his wife Mary at Manteca High where he immersed himself in science and math classes.

He also was a member of the model rocket club.

“I was kind of nerdy,” Cantu, who graduated in 1969, said with a slight chuckle.

The Cantus have two children. Their son Benjamin is an anesthesiologist in Chicago. Their daughter Elizabeth, who suffers from schizophrenia, is among the homeless in Manteca.

Cantu is a model

railroad enthusiast

Cantu’s favorite way to relax is to immerse himself in his model railroading hobby that he pursues through the HO scale format. 

His love for railroading was inspired by his grandfather work worked as a section manager for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. His mother Elvira was raised in a railroad section home on Sarita, Texas.

Today Cantu serves as the business agent for the Tidewater Southern Railway Historical Society that maintains a layout at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds in Stockton.

The Tidewater Bike Way is built on the spur that served Manteca that at one time had seven packing houses and provided passenger service to Stockton that also allowed local teens to go to high school before Manteca High opened. The Tidewater Southern ran from Stockton to Turlock.

Cantu’s favorite modern-day railroad is the Santa Fe.

``I also like building things,” Cantu noted.

He plans to continue operating his business BC Planning.

Cantu is a past president of the Manteca Kiwanis — he is still a member — as well as having served as a lieutenant governor for the service organization. He attends St. Anthony’s Catholic Church and is a member of the Knights of Columbus. He also serves on the Valley CAPS board.

As an architect and history buff, Cantu has a strong passion for historical buildings in Manteca including the original city hall built in 1923 at a cost of $20,000.

The two-story brick building fronting Poplar Avenue across from Library Park when it opened not only housed the city clerk and city marshal offices on the first floor but also the post office along with the city jail and fire engine. The second floor was designed for council chambers as well as the dormitory and club room for the fire department. Even at that, there was space left over to initially lease four rooms to the San Joaquin County Health Department.

Cantu will take the oath of office on Tuesday, Dec. 11, at 5 p.m. at the Civic Center council chambers, 1001 W. Center St., along with council members elect Breitenbucher and Jose Nuno.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email