Spreckels Sugar History

Claus Spreckels’ first introduction to the San Joaquin Valley was as a railroad builder. He built the San Francisco & San Joaquin Railroad, which ran from Fresno to Stockton on what is now the Santa Fe track. Spreckels built this railroad in order to give Southern Pacific a run for their money.

In 1896, Spreckels began contracting with growers for beets for the Salinas Factory. Local area growers signed up for only 5,000 out of a needed 30,000 acres to support construction of a factory. During this same time Woodland growers pledged 40,000 acres to Spreckels in an effort to locate a factory in Yolo County. Spreckels used that information to leverage the Salinas growers by giving them a two-week ultimatum of 30,000 acres or he was building in Woodland. Salinas growers pledged the full acreage and the factory was begun.

On August 6, 1896, the Articles of Incorporation for Spreckels Sugar Co. were born. It was capitalized at $5 million. Construction began soon after and the first campaign started Aug. 26, 1899. By 1901, the beet sugar business had expanded to 8 plants in California with a total combined slice of only 10,000 tons per day. The factory continued to produce sugar every year until 1981 (83 years). The facility was used for storage and packaging for another 14 years until 1995. 

Because the Salinas Valley was still basically undeveloped for farming, Spreckels needed farmers to supply sugarbeets to the factory. As a result, Claus Spreckels purchased land in King City, Soledad and Hollister to be developed and farmed by tenants. Spreckels leased land for $10 per acre to anyone who would agree to grow sugarbeets. He solicited the San Francisco area Salvation Army offering all those on welfare 10 acres, a house and tools at no cost. That effort failed. Spreckels imported Germans from the East Coast, but they were tradesmen, not farmers so labor problems continued in the factory and on the farm. There were many Asians (Chinese and Japanese) imported to work the railroad and the fields. The State Labor Commissioner, acting on complaints from Unions, intervened in Spreckels’ business practices of hiring Asian labor in the factory and on the farm. Eventually those industrious labors owned the farms they were working and Spreckels settled the political grievances and the business continued.

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 damaged the Spreckels plant and it cost $300,000 to repair. It was ready to run October 1 of that year but could not complete the harvest before winter, creating the first over wintered beets. The harvest was completed in April and May of 1907. Between 1906 and 1963 a total of 14 factories were built in California by various sugar companies. Spreckels and Holly each owned four of those facilities. Five of the other factories were closed or dismantled between 1919-1925 except for Clarksburg, owned by American Crystal, which closed in 1993.

At the turn of the century, the so-called “blight” (Curly Top Virus) was beginning to show its presence in Western United States sugar beet growing areas, and California was no exception. That one disease was responsible for the closure of many plants across the United States and in California. The disease was also responsible in part for the wild swings in sugar prices due to supply/demand relationships that excited people to keep on building another factory and trying to grow somewhere else. This is also what brought about the creation of Agriculture Research Departments and seed development among the various sugar companies. Until this time, all seed was purchased from European sources, where Curly Top did not exist. The Europeans varieties were, therefore, highly susceptible.

By this time, John D. Spreckels (25%), Adolf B. Spreckels (25%), and American Sugar Refining Company of New York City (50%) owned Spreckels Sugar Company. John D. Spreckels was building San Diego at this time and did not invest in the company, while Adolf B. Spreckels was the overseer. Dividends, which were 90% of earnings, were all paid out rather than invested in the company.

Land for the Manteca factory was bought in 1916 and the plant started operation in 1917 at a rate of 1,000 tons/day. This factory ran until 1922 when it was closed for almost 9 years as a direct result of the Curly Top virus.

Mr. Sullivan, Gen. Mgr. of Spreckels Sugar Co. went to visit Luther Burbank, a noted plant geneticist, in 1922 to learn about natural selection and plant genetics.

The worst year in the Company’s history was 1926, nearly closing the company completely as a direct result of the Curly Top Virus. There were only 7500 acres to process.

The first Sales Department was organized in 1931. This was also the beginning of consumer size packaging. Spreckels first label was Honey Dew and marketed only in California. 1932 proved to be a record year for the company. Growers in the Salinas Valley needed cash and beets generated cash more than barley or produce. Land was available on share crop, no cash up front and there was plenty of “dust bowl” labor. Spreckels Salinas had 150-day campaign, processed over 5,000 tons/day for the first time and over a $1 million payroll to growers for the first time. There were 1,250 factory workers working 8-hour shifts.

The first commercial plantings of Curly Top tolerant varieties, developed through a joint effort of Spreckels Sugar Co. and the USDA, were successful. These varieties, along with others, were used throughout the Western United States. This was the beginning of the domestic seed industry. As a result of these variety developments, the failing sugar industry was revived.

As a result of the Curly Top “Cure” there was improved factory production, generating a sugar glut. This ultimately resulted in falling sugar prices. An example of the volatility of the sugar market, which still exists today.

In the midst of the Great Depression (1936), the sugar industry continued to grow. The Spreckels Woodland factory was built and Manteca was re-opened. Also, Holly plants were remodeled. During the 1930’s, the Spreckels family continued to drain company resources, which ultimately resulted in the buy out of the family share by AMSTAR in the early 1960’s. Spreckels remained a division of AMSTAR Corp. until 1987 when the company went private and separated itself from AMSTAR. Spreckels was operated as part of Spreckels Industries until 1996, when it was merged with Holly Sugar Corporation, a Division of Imperial Holly Corp. In 2005, when Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative purchased Holly Sugar from Imperial Sugar Company (owners since 1988), the Holly Sugar name was relinquished and the name, Spreckels Sugar Company, Inc. was chosen to take its place.

Spreckels Sugar

Box 581
395 West Keystone Road
Brawley, CA 92227

Phone: 760-344-3110
Fax: 760-344-0142

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