Sugar beets production began in the Pajaro Valley just north of the Salinas Valley but slowly slipped south and eastward to revolutionize Agriculture on the Central Coast.
Between 1874 and 1880, the California Beet Sugar Company operated a beet sugar mill in Soquel, which required hundreds of acres of beets to be grown from west of Watsonville to the Pajaro Valley.
Two lasting legacies resulted from this venture that changed the face of agriculture in the Monterey Bay area. First was the use of future’s contracts: growers were guaranteed a price for their sugar beets for the first time. Second was the use of subcontracted, inexpensive Chinese labor to farm the beets: this model of using immigrants to perform for cheap hand-labor established a model that persists to today.
Discuss early Sugar beet production. (see Chinese Gold)
The California Beet Sugar Company moved 100% of its operation from Soquel to Watsonville to be more accessible to sugar beet acreage. This operation closed. Claus Spreckels, the German “Sugar King” had made a fortune in the sugar cane business in Hawaii. He first opened a sugar refinery, the Western Beet Sugar Company, in Watsonville in 1888.
In the late 1800s, sugar beet production, as well other crop production, began to shift eastward and southward to Castroville, and then, to the Salinas Valley.
The beet supply in the Watsonville area was inadequate for the Watsonville Plant; and therefore, Spreckles decided to expand into the Salinas Valley. The Western Beet Sugar Company was closed in 1903. The City of Watsonville was fairly bitter about this move since they had provided land and many concessions to attract the sugar refinery.
According to Burton Anderson, the first sugar beets in the Salinas Valley were grown by John Kieland, who grew beets in Castroville for the Western Sugar Beet Company James Bardin, a settler in the Blanco area, pioneered sugar beets in the Salinas Valley. Spreckels bought land about four miles south of Salinas, next to the Salinas River with the plan to build the world’s largest beet refinery and the company town of Spreckels. He completed the refinery and began its first operation in August 1899.
The Spreckels Factory No. 1 had a capacity to slice 3,000 tons of beets per 24-hour day, producing about 450 tons of raw sugar. The factory was constructed from 3,600 tons of steel and 4,000,000 German Bricks. The original roof was slate. There were 24 boilers and two lime rock kilns. There were the main facilities, a sugar warehouse, pulp silo, storerooms and a railroad engine roundhouse. (Anderson) Initially, it only manufactured raw sugar that was shipped in bulk barrels to the Western Sugar Refinery in San Francisco for refining. After 1905, refining operations were added, and from then until WWII, the Spreckels factory produced only white sugar. At first, sugar was shipped in bulk or in barrels. The factory added packaging operations. It eventually added powdered sugar and brown sugar.
Spreckels had originally built a narrow gauge railroad, the Pajaro Valley Railroad, to service the Watsonville refinery. The railroad was expanded numerous times. First, it was expanded to receive shipments from ranches in the Moro Cojo area. Then, it was expanded again to take sugar to Moss Landing wharf for shipment by boat. Spreckels, expanded again to connect with his new Salinas Valley factory. The railroad included strategically located beet-loading dump stations along the rail line. Eventually, the railroad included a branch line to carry passengers to and from Spreckels. Lime, used to extract sugar, was mined in a quarry up Alisal Canyon. Spreckels built a railroad spur to the quarry to haul the lime to the factory. Water for processing came from the Salinas River.
Originally, the factory received beets from farm wagons as well as railroad cars via both the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad and the Southern Pacific Railroad. To assure a steady supply of beets, the factory needed a minimum of 30,000 acres of beets.
The original purchase of 6,888 acres around Spreckels was known as Ranch No.1 and was leased to tenants in 70-acre blocks.
Ranch 2 was on the west side of the Salinas River near Soledad purchased in 1897. It was farmed by the Spreckels company until shortly after WWII. John Steinbeck’s book, Of Mice and Men, was based on a fictionalized account of two teamsters on the ranch.
Ranch 3 was north of King City and was purchased fro Charles H. King during 1897 and 1898. The ranch was eventually 12,347 acres. This ranch was always farmed by the company.
Eventually, Spreckels eventually owned or controlled about 66,000 acres in Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey Counties. Water was initially supplied by a series of pumps and canals from factory sources and this system was really the beginning of large-scale irrigation in the Salinas Valley.
Discuss mid-century sugar beet production.
Once a reliable, clean water supply was secured with groundwater pumping, irrigated agriculture expanded quickly in this area which paved the way for the lettuce industry to expand.
In the 1970s, sugar beet acreage decreased to accommodate the expanding lettuce industry. As a result, the factory focused on packaging rather the processing and refining and by the 1980s was the sole Spreckels packaging facility. I can remember taking a tour of the packaging operations when I first moved to the Central Coast in 1986. That was during the heyday of cocaine use and many jokes were made about the white powder.
The plant closed in the 1980s as a result of a series of corporate acquisitions, the shift of sugar beets to vegetables, the high cost of land. It was structurally weakened during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake and the factory was demolished in 1992 and 1993.
Books and References
Anderson, Burton. The Salinas Valley, A History of America’s Salad Bowl. A Monterey County Historical Society Publication. 2000.
Lydon, Sandy. Chinese Gold. XXXX
Monterey County 2017 Crop Report. Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. http://www.co.monterey.ca.us/home/showdocument?id=65737