Twenty years ago Spreckels Sugar — which was intertwined with Manteca’s prosperity and history for 75 years — fell victim to changing sugar beet economics and tougher California air quality rules.
The sugar refinery that employed 230 full-time and part-time workers when it was shuttered on Jan. 9, 1996 is the subject of a special program being offered Thursday, March 10, by the Manteca Historical Society.
It is part of the annual membership meeting that starts at 6:30 p.m., at the museum, Yosemite and Sequoia avenues, with the election of officers.
The Spreckels Sugar presentation is being hosted by Mark Abram, a museum board member and long-term Spreckels worker who had the distinction of helping oversee the dismantling of the sugar refinery and warehouse.
A sugar shortage triggered by World War I indirectly gave birth to Spreckels Sugar — a name that was synonymous with Manteca prosperity for almost eight decades.
At one time Manteca was identified by travelers on both Highway 99 and the 120 Bypass by the sight and smell of Spreckels Sugar. The four 15-story sugar silos were the tallest structures around while the smell from the processing — and the use of sugar pulp to fatten cattle at the adjacent Moffat Feed Lot - created an aroma that penetrated even the thickest fog to let travelers know they were passing through Manteca.
Its namesake — the 362-acre multi-use Spreckels Park that replaced the factory site — has Manteca’s only “history park” with an artistic bent that serves as a monument to the sugar company’s contributions to Manteca’s growth as a South County trade center during much of the 20th century.
The park created at a cost of $250,000 by AKF Development and maintained by a private landscape maintenance district is tucked behind the Chevron Station off Spreckels Avenue. It has four pseudo sugar silos designed from over-sized culvert pope accented with a brick base from the old factory.
You will also find Spreckels Sugar warehouse bricks on the entrance features to the business park as well as along the front entrance of the shuttered Kelley Brothers Brewing Co. downtown. The only other trace of Spreckels Sugar can be found in the street signs of the 177-home Curran Grove neighborhood that rose out of the old Spreckels almond orchard on the southeast corner of Powers Avenue and East Yosemite. It was named after the former owner of the land that was once covered with Eucalyptus trees. That subdivision has streets named after several popular Spreckels plant managers over the years.
It all started with
a “sweet land deal”
Spreckels Sugar sent agricultural scouts out of their Salinas operations in search of a prime location for a second favorite to meet the demand created by the World War I sugar shortage. They needed the right property soil conditions and climate but they also needed an irrigation system capable of supplying farmers with water every eight to 10 days. Thanks to the existence of South San Joaquin Irrigation District, Manteca got a solid look.
The company had shipped 28,000 pounds of seed from Germany to Manteca prior to the war’s start as it had already been looking to add additional sugar beet production acreage. The first sugar beets from the South County were tested in 1915 in the Spreckels refinery near Salinas. They showed a high percentage of sugar that averaged about 25 tons per acre earning farmers $5.50 a ton for their first crop
By the end of 1916, 60 farmers had 7,000 acres planted.
Spreckels had a dumping station, storage tanks, and tank house in Manteca. Spreckels Sugar decided the freight bill for sugar beet shipping was cutting too deeply into profits.
Spreckels wanted to build a plant in San Joaquin County but Manteca wasn’t their first choice. Farmers started a petition on March 17, 1916 to urge Spreckels to locate in Manteca. Meanwhile, Spreckels made it clear they preferred Mossdale near Lathrop or Stockton as both sites had access to rail and water shipping.
Meetings went on for several days with representatives from various nearby communities that met with the company in Manteca’s Board of Trade building. Manteca was able to get the upper hand when it offered 449 acres at below market price just southeast of town for a plant.
The $2 million plant opened in 1918. There were 400 men by July of that year on the payroll that paid out $600 daily. By the end of the first season of production and processing, Spreckels Sugar by 1918 standards had paid out a staggering $40,000 in wages.
helps war effort
Reduced acreage due to World War II triggered a temporary closure of Spreckels Sugar. The machine shop was converted to war production for the Navy while warehouses were used for naval supplies.
Spreckels Sugar opened again in 1946 and was up to full production by 1948.
Manteca joined in the 50th anniversary celebration in 1948 of the founding of the Salinas factory.
Employees once received their salaries in $2 bills to demonstrate how much revenue Spreckels contributed to the Manteca economy. Cash registers around Manteca were overflowing with the $2 bills just days after that payday.
In the 1980s, Spreckels became a main supplier of liquid sugar for Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Shasta. Spreckels eventually was forced to try to find other markets when bottlers started using cheaper high fructose corn syrup. They found a niche with specialty powdered sugar for large-scale confectioners.
Spreckels spent extensive money putting in place air scrubbers to cleanse 99 percent of the pollution from its stacks to meet toughening San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control standards.
Off-shore subsidized sugar, even tougher air quality control rulings, a prolonged drought, combined with cheaper production costs in Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama led to the demise of the Manteca plant.
Manteca plant closure
announced Jan. 9, 1996
The company announced it was going to pull the plug on the plant costing 110 full-time employees and 120 seasonal employees their jobs by issuing required 60-day notices on Jan. 9, 1996.
By then Spreckels had slipped from the dominant employer to rank as the fifth largest employer in Manteca once the 120 seasonal workers were tossed into the count.
The impact on Manteca’s psyche was immense.
Spreckels Sugar and Manteca had literally grown up together.
Claus Spreckels started construction on the sugar beet processing plant the same year Manteca incorporated as a city.
The four sugar silos — 15 stories apiece — were the landmark for Manteca for travelers passing by on Highway 99 and Highway 120.
It was not Christmas in Manteca without the lighted tree atop the sugar silos.
Spreckels Sugar was the victim of changing times. It was the most visible closure in the downward slide of the California sugar beet industry. Spreckels had made a run at trying to stay competitive having invested millions in pollution control devices a few years earlier. But the economic reality was written on the wall.
Two years later, AKF Development imploded the concrete silos as 10,000 people looked on. It took just 10 seconds for what was once the towering symbol of Manteca’s economic strength to come tumbling down in a cloud of dust.
Today, those 220 lost jobs have been replaced eight times over at companies such as Ford Motor Co., Target, American Modular, Dreyers and numerous other retail and industrial employers.
Developer Mike Atherton likes to point out that it was the sugar company that helped Manteca prosper in its infancy and it is helping it prosper now in the wake of its demise.