Pop quiz: How did Manteca get its name? How did sugar help settle the town? When was the city incorporated? Does the Curly Top virus cause bedhead? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, it’s time for a history lesson. Come along on a trip into Manteca’s past.
We Owe it All to a Typo
The earliest settlers to the region arrived in the early and mid-1850s, as the California Gold Rush was being replaced by agriculture and industry. In 1861, Manteca’s most famous early citizen, Joshua Cowell, staked a claim that would eventually lead to his ownership of 1,000 acres and control over 1,000 more. Cowell’s most important contribution to the region was his involvement in bringing water to this desert land, nicknamed “the Sand Plains” from the small dunes that shifted across the area, pushed by the western wind.
When the railroad came, the track was laid through Cowell’s land. He parked a boxcar by the tracks and called the stop “Cowell Station.” But his brother had already taken that name for a train stop just south of Tracy, and the railroad informed Cowell that his station would need a new name. The local farming community came together and decided that their stop would be called “Monteca.” The railroad responded by misprinting tickets with the name “Manteca.” Local area residents were not pleased with this change, but over time the new name was adopted.
Water, Water Everywhere – But Here
Beginning in 1903, Cowell helped fund a private venture to divert water to Manteca, but the project languished, even after additional investors stepped in. In 1909, a bond was passed to create cost-effective, reliable irrigation in the form of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District. For this project, water was diverted from the Stanislaus River and the new district built the lateral ditches required to bring water to every 40-acre tract. This brought enough water to the area to support the growth of the town, and it was critical for farming and agriculture production to begin in earnest. The first crops in the early days of irrigation were wheat, hay and barley. Although the sand dunes were eventually cleared, they left a lasting impression on the early settlers: The Sand Dunes was the title of one of the first histories of the region, written by one of the area’s original female settlers.
Yes We ‘Can’ Go ‘Curly’
The first commercial building, opened in 1902 by J.J. Overshiner, held a general store and barbershop. At this time, the population of Manteca was only about 100 citizens. Industry soon came to the region in the form of the Manteca Canning Company, which was organized in 1914. The canning company quickly became a leading employer in the area as the onset of World War I required additional canned goods for domestic and overseas military. More canning companies opened to help meet the demand for canned food, all of which fueled the local economy.
1918 marked the incorporation of Manteca. There were many farmers who did not back the movement for incorporation, but the regional debate was finally settled by the banks, which would not loan money for a much-needed sewer system without articles of incorporation. The local population had exploded to more than 2,000 residents since irrigation and industry had come to town, and the sewer was no longer considered a luxury, but a necessity. The vote passed, and Joshua Cowell was elected the first mayor of Manteca at the ripe age of 76. To this day, he is called “The Father of Manteca” for his enduring vision and support in the creation of a sustainable community.
The largest consistent employer through the years was the Spreckels Sugar Co., which began construction of a sugar beet plant in 1916 and opened its doors in 1917. Manteca was able to close the deal with Spreckels over the nearby communities of Lathrop and Stockton by offering almost 500 acres of land at below market value as a site for the factory. The sugar mill brought many jobs to the area, employing up to 300 men during beet-crushing season to process 1,000 tons of sugar beets per day.
Many local farmers switched to growing sugar beets, and production increased steadily until 1922, when the Curly Top virus nearly wiped out California’s entire sugar beet industry. The virus stunts the growth of the sugar beet, leaving tubers that are deformed or fail to develop. The Manteca factory was closed for nine years until Spreckels and the USDA combined to develop sugar beet varieties that were resistant to the Curly Top virus.
The Manteca plant reopened in 1931 and had a record year in 1932. This was in direct contrast to other Depression-era industries in Manteca, which suffered economically until a housing boom in 1936 brought some jobs and capital to the region.
After a Century, You’d Hardly Recognize the Place
Manteca’s industrial landscape changed again when the United States entered World War II. The Spreckels factory closed temporarily, transitioning its machine shop and warehouses to war production and storage for the Navy. Sharpe Army Depot (originally the Lathrop Holding and Reconsignment Point) became a major employer. The Manteca Mayor’s Office and City Council worked hard employed hundreds of locals to help supply the war effort. During peak operations the Depot could load 6,000 rail cars per month, sometimes loading as many as 450 cars in a 24-hour period. The Depot underwent administrative and supply mission changes after the war, but the conflict in Korea created a massive operational rebound for three years, and during the Vietnam War it became the major pipeline for all supplies moving westward to Southeast Asia. The citizens of Manteca and the surrounding areas supported these wartime efforts through their labor and enlistment.
The 1970s brought big changes, as Bay Area commuters flocked to Manteca and Tracy, trading the longer drive to work for a slower pace and affordable housing. With population and home building on the rise, the “big box” stores came calling. Even as older Manteca icons like Spreckels Sugar closed their doors, new businesses like Home Depot, Bass Pro, Target, Costco and others helped to anchor the local economy. The Mayor’s Office and City Council have focused on keeping Manteca’s history alive through the transition from a bedroom community to a dynamic city with greater commercial and industrial growth, and now the Spreckels name lives on in Spreckels Park, a retail center on the east side of town that brings in business from the surrounding communities of Lathrop, Ripon, and Escalon.
“We want Manteca to remember its agricultural roots, even as we grow into a city where our residents can live, work and enjoy their recreation without having to leave the city limits,” explains Manteca City Manager Karen McLaughlin. “The agricultural character of our city will remain strong through future growth.”
As businesses changed hands, many iconic local buildings were razed to make way for new construction. A group of concerned citizens met to discuss how to slow or stop the loss of historic buildings. In 1990, this group incorporated to form the Manteca Museum. The group has taken on the stewardship of Manteca history, quickly outgrowing its first location and settling into the 7,000-square-foot facility where the museum has been for the last 20 years.
For more Manteca history, visit the museum at 600 W. Yosemite Ave. on Tuesday and Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., and Thursday and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Help keep Manteca history alive with a visit to the museum, and remember that the museum is free but donations are always appreciated.
By Paul Grant