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Wheat yields to grapes, almonds & watermelons
A scene from the 2011 almond harvest. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

Wheat – and not almonds, pumpkins or even grapes – is what attracted farmers to the Manteca region after the Gold Rush in a bid to make a living.

The crop started appearing in the area in 1850. It was about the only viable crop for several reasons. First there was no irrigation. Developed markets were thousands of miles away. There were also two basic soil choices – adobe which retains moisture but is impassable during winter and sandy loam that can be farmed year-round.

The geological boundary for the two types of soils is along French Camp Road. Passable roads dictated that travel take place away from adobe soil. It is why the route to the southern mines near Sonora went along the route that French Camp Road today follows until it reaches East Highway 120.

 Satellite images show a stark difference between soils on either side of French Camp Road.

Sandy loam was so plentiful around Manteca that the region was originally known by early farmers as “The Sandy Plains.” It was also a natural for wheat.

In 1852, some 4,001 acres countywide were planted in wheat. It was a minuscule amount compared to cattle that was clearly king in San Joaquin County through at least 1862-64. That’s when drought ravaged the area dubbed by Hollywood TV producers as “The Big Valley” forcing ranchers to switch to the only other viable way at the time of making a living off the land - wheat.

From 1865 to 1885 San Joaquin County - including the Manteca region - developed a reputation “second to none” as according to agriculturists of the time for producing wheat and barley of good quality and quantity.

A growing world market for wheat continued to make wheat the No. 1 crop.

Grain was shipped to Stockton for movement by boat either on barges or wagon. They also went to San Joaquin City, a settlement some seven miles southwest of Manteca on the western side of the San Joaquin River near the confluence with the Stanislaus River. That was the farthest point south on the San Joaquin River that ships could navigate at the time.

Although ultimately sediment build-up made the river that far south impassable for ships of the time, it was the network of railroads that developed in the 1870s that eventually caused the demise of San Joaquin City.  Trains could move the crops to Stockton within two days as opposed to weeks when wagons and barges were used.

SJ County topped world in wheat production in 1880

In 1880 San Joaquin County raised the fifth largest wheat crop in the world. It was in excess of 3 million bushels or enough to fill 1,024 freight cars.

Early crop yields were placed at as much as 80 bushels an acre. Not rotating crops started depleting the soil to the point the yield eventually dropped to 15 bushels per acre.

By 1900, grain no longer was the top crop. Alfalfa and melons along with grapes surpassed grain production. Almonds were also being introduced at the dawn of the 20th century.

The switch to watermelons made Manteca the self-proclaimed “Watermelon Capital of the World.”

Historical accounts note that Ed Powers introduced watermelons to 200 acres. That produced enough to fill 200 railroad cars and netted him $18,000.

The next year in 1906 he doubled his acreage. Other farmers also planted watermelons. In the first decade of the 20th century, it was normal for more than 20 freight car loads of fruit and farm products to ship from Manteca to points all over the United States.

SSJID changes everything

The formation of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District did more than just bring needed water to convert 70,000 acres into productive farmland.

It literally gave life to Manteca as well as the cities of Escalon and Ripon. At the dawn of the 20th century Manteca had several lots divided but only three or four homes. That all changed after May 11, 1909 when voters by a 396 to 67 margin embraced the formation of the SSJID as well as a $1,875,000 bond issue.

The formation of the district wasn’t the first attempt to irrigate the dry, barren blow sand plains that originally encompassed much of today’s SSJID boundaries.

The Oakdale Irrigation District was formed at the same time under the same state law. Each district owned half of the Tulloch Ditch. The two fledgling irrigation districts met and decided to construct a dam and ditches down to a point near Escalon as a joint venture.

The first bonds were sold on June 10, 1910. The $342,500 issuance sold for $10 a share.

The site selected for the first dam was 2.5 miles above Knights Ferry on the Stanislaus. It was named for the president of the SSJID board at the time – Benjamin A. Goodwin.

The 400-foot high Goodwin Dam was completed in December 1912.

Virtually overnight, Manteca turned into a boomtown. Lots were selling for between $300 and $1,000 apiece – more than quadruple the value of prior years. By the time SSJID released its first water, the South County had grown from 3,000 to 15,000 residents as people from throughout the state and the West came to buy irrigated land to farm.

The dedication of Goodwin Dam on April 6, 1913 included Gov. Hiram Johnson opening the head gate before a crowd of 4,000.

The dam completion was followed by the construction of 300 miles of ditches, flumes, and tunnels to bring the water to Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon.

The first water released on Aug. 13, 1913 by the SSJID was on the E.N. Pierce Ranch on the southeast corner of Austin Road and East Highway 120 less than a quarter of a mile from the present-day SSJID headquarters.

The first full year of irrigation in 1914 had water delivered at a rate of 35 minutes per acre about 30 days apart.

The initial year there were 14,195 acres irrigated with the top three crops alfalfa (7,889 acres), vines (3,189 acres), and corn (1,154 acres).

By the second year 24,210 acres were under irrigation with the top three crops alfalfa (11,549 acres), orchards, (3,100 acres) and vines (2,495 acres).

The impact of the SSJID on farming and the South County’s prosperity can’t be overstated. In 1909 with dry land farming there were 15,539 acres in farm production. Delivering water to every 40 acres increased farm production to 51,095 acres.

Today almonds are the biggest irrigated crop in the SSJID service territory with 33,000 acres followed by alfalfa at 6,000, grapes at 6,000, and pasture at 5,200, walnuts at 2,400 and peaches at 1,800. The rest is split between a diversity of crops ranging from corn to melons.