Ed Powers was 24 years old when he arrived in Manteca with a dream.
He wanted to raise watermelons.
Most, though, thought he was a bit crazy. After all, the sandy loam was exhausted from overfarming. Powers persisted. He was sure deeper cultivation combined with water from the Tulloch Ditch would provide ideal ground for watermelons. It wasn’t a vision shared by landowners who repeatedly turned him down as a dreamer or simply a poor risk when he asked to rent land.
The landowner who finally rented land to Powers was Joshua Cowell — the man who founded Manteca by walking from Nevada’s Carson Valley over the Sierra in 1863. Cowell made a deal with Powers. He rented him 80 acres at $5 an acre as well as a third of the crop up to $10 an acre.
Powers shipped his first crop of melons to commission houses in the northwest. His freight bill for the first crop in 1905 was $8,000. It increased in 1906 to $12,000. Other farmers started switching to melons.
Soon Manteca was dubbed the “Watermelon Capital of the World” while Powers was referred to as California’s Watermelon King.
Powers started farming barley and then sunflowers.
He wasn’t content to just farm.
Powers soon joined the Board of Trade — the predecessor to the Manteca Chamber of Commerce — and served as its president a number of times.
He joined the effort to build the community’s first grammar school in 1913 after the old East Union School burned. Powers led the charge to establish Manteca Union High School to eliminate the need for Manteca students wanting a secondary education to travel to Stockton High.
Powers launched the city’s first telephone system. Lines to rural subscribers were strung along fence posts.
The young dreamer who bicycled into Manteca is credited for inducing Spreckels Sugar to build a factory here after company representatives investigated the possibility of growing sugar beets in the Manteca district.
Other endeavors Powers is credited with:
• expanding the Manteca Canning Company that was located on Oak Street after taking the operation over in 1919.
• helping organize the First State Bank of Manteca in 1911.
• serving as the first president of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau in 1914.
• serving as the agent for Western Union, Southern Pacific and Wells Fargo Express.
• owning and farming 27 ranches at one time in the greater Manteca area as late as the 1950s.
Powers also was a true pioneer when it came to Manteca’s post World War II growth.
He developed Powers Tract in 1946 to make home sites available for returning servicemen. Many of the homes are California flat-tops that were popular in the early 1950s. Powers Avenue — that runs through the middle of Powers Tract that is sandwiched between Spreckels Park and Manteca High — is named after Power.
The Powers’ family home still stands today at 614 W. Yosemite Ave. immediately west of the Manteca Historical Museum annex building.