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Each generation of California historians has made its own unique contribution to American history. I am in awe of my predecessors who wrote the state's sweeping and colorful histories without the internet and the open access to the archival data I now enjoy. I hope to keep extending the scope and depth of California's lively history by a more intensive analysis and interpretation by writing about the lives of California's neglected pioneers who shaped this state. I hope to continue to be a written and oral storyteller on the importance of using a multitude of primary sources to gain unique and fresh perspectives on historical events particulary as it relates to both California and Hawaii.

The Sugar King of California:

The Life of Claus Spreckels

by Sandra E. Bonura, 2024


The Sugar King is our quintessential "rags-to riches" tale. Who doesn't love the story of someone facing impossible odds to rise from grinding poverty to enormous wealth? America's mythos is based on the belief that anyone, regardless of circumstance, can get rich if they have enough gumption, grit, or ruthlessness. While there are a variety of published stories about the triumphs of immigrants, which seem to suggest that anyone can do great things with hard work, talent, and a little luck, I was surprised that these stories are actually rare. If America is a land of equal opportunity and upward mobility for all, why are there only a few people like him? Most underestimate how hard it is to be great at something, and then top themselves to achieve more. It was only with fierce determination and ruthless consistency that Claus Spreckels could dive into his passions to beat all his rivals on a global scale.


But there's always a cost for single-minded determination, so even though it intersects with the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches legend, this is not just a story of a poor immigrant boy who chased the American Dream as far as he could take, it's a tragic portrait of a wealthy family torn apart by money, jealousy, and ego.


Meet Claus Spreckels! His story begins like many immigration stories: in a contested country pressing unwilling men into service. At the restless age of seventeen, he escaped from the family farm and the draft in the German kingdom of Hanover with only seventy-five cents in his pocket to go from absolute obscurity to dizzying heights of fame, fortune, and celebrity—all without a formal education.
Spreckels was a formidable visionary, and his industrial and agricultural enterprises ultimately transformed California industry and labor. Challenging convention with a hands-on approach, he sought industrial answers to the problems of everyday life. He operated through practical but imaginative thinking with ingenious solutions. He anticipated change—even expected change—and this was characterized in every venture.


Hawai'i was a sovereign nation under the reign of King David Kalākaua when, in 1876, Spreckels arrived from California to seize the opportunity for his San Francisco sugar refinery that was afforded by the Reciprocity Treaty between the kingdom of Hawai'i and the United States. But once he set foot in the tropical paradise, he was inspired to establish the largest and most modern sugar plantation in the world. The White businessmen who dominated Hawai'i'seconomy through their own sugar ventures and government positions treated the "crusty" Claus Spreckels with contempt. They ironically assumed an air of entitlement not warranted by what they had inherited from their humble American missionary ancestors, and their egos were boosted by their wealth and Ivy League degrees. They attempted to block his plans. But he found friends in other high places. He wasn't bragging when he said he could "rise above obstacles which would entirely crush another." After occupying a position of unrivaled power and political influence in the kingdom that still has historians scratching their heads in wonder at how he did it, Spreckels wielded a clenched fist over Hawai'i's economy for nearly two decades. Cabinets were overthrown, laws were passed, grants of royal land and water rights were given. He made major technological advances throughout the Hawaiian Islands the likes of which have never been seen before or since. He brought electricity to Hawai'i, irrigation to arid plains, and modernization to the sugar and transport industry. He was the kingpin in the development of the Hawai'i–California sugarcane industry. He opened a highway to sugar's profitable exploitation that benefited both sides of the Pacific. The reign of his friend, King Kalākaua, who knighted him in appreciation for advancing and uplifting the economy, were the golden years of Hawaiian progress and prosperity, though in the end, the monarch paid for them at a very high price.


Spreckels was harshly criticized for what others perceived to be his ruthless business tactics and monopolies, yet he broke up monopolies himself to the benefit of his fellow citizens, and persevered in the face of challenges and setbacks that helped him triumph in an environment rife with cronyism and corruption. In his time, he was portrayed as a ruthless predator, only concerned with the enlargement of his own fortune. He was matter-of-fact about his wealth: "Spreckels success is California's success."[ii] And "I'm motivated by very different rewards than other millionaires," explaining that "it is not money that is an object to me, but I want the people of California to be able to show that Claus Spreckels has done something for this state when his bones are at rest." Spreckels created a new and profitable industry with the lowly sugar beet so that California could compete in America and, in turn, so that America could compete with Europe; in fact, a commercially viable sugar beet was his ultimate gift to his adopted country. He supplied the beet seeds for California's disadvantaged Salinas and Pajaro Valley farmers, personally trained them in the methods of beet cultivation and harvest, irrigated the dry valleys, and assured the farmers payment for their efforts. He built the largest beet sugar refinery in the world in the Salinas Valley, providing much needed employment for thousands in a new concept, the "factory in the fields." A self-taught agronomist, Spreckels changed the focus of a wide swath of California's agriculture from dry to irrigated crops, resulting in the vast modern agricultural-industrial economy in today's "Salad Bowl of the World," where his white gold from sugar beets would eventually become green gold: lettuce, along with some of the best produce in the world.


John Steinbeck's imagination was captured in his seasonal work for the Spreckels sugar refinery, and immigrants later found their travails and struggles famously chronicled in his fiction. The tiny town of Spreckels, which achieved a historical designation from the Monterey County Board of Supervisors in 1991, was the location for the 1955 film East of Eden, based on Steinbeck's book. Claus Spreckels built this namesake industrial town in the Salinas Valley for his workers and their families to embody his ideas of beauty, cleanliness, efficiency—and Americanism.
At the same time Spreckels was uplifting California's vital economic and cultural development through sugar, both cane and beet, he was improving the utility, construction, and irrigation industry. He also helped resolve the state's critical transportation problems by building railroads, and his funding was essential in connecting America's shores for the first time to the Hawaiian Islands, New Zealand, and Australia with a modern steamship company flying the Spreckels flag.


Still, his accomplishments incurred a heavy personal toll. His dogged determination, so effective in business, caused prolonged periods of personal pain and contention. His dominating personality was not infinitely adaptive, and it frustrated his four sons, who were each trying to make his own mark in life. Due to their father's philosophy, "I never yet have gone into anything unless I could have it all my own way,"[iv] each son—and his daughter as well—rebelled at one time or another as they grew into adulthood, and the Spreckels family kept the courts of law busy ironing out their differences and intriguing the public. Never was the country more stunned (and amused) as when Spreckels's son Adolph, purportedly defending his father's honor, shot to kill but, fortunately for the editor of the Chronicle, missed and was acquitted due to a "neuralgic headache."[v] The legendary Spreckels family quarrels were even discussed on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. Claus Spreckels hated losing anything but was pragmatic when he lost a lawsuit to one son by stating, "I was never beaten but once in my life, and it was by my own boy."


Spreckels, rarely seen without a cigar and a smile, interacted easily with presidents, politicians, monarchs—the rich and famous—yet he remained as common, unpretentious, and comfortable as an old shoe. And whenever given the chance, he remained humble, always thankful to America for the opportunities he had been given as a poor immigrant. To that end, his philanthropy was widespread with such words as "loving California as I do and being grateful for the many benefits that have accrued to me."[vii] Physically ailing and suffering deep losses after the disastrous 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he was asked whether he'd return to spend his last days in his beloved mother country. He quickly retorted that while he could return to Germany and "live as liberally as the Emperor William," instead "devote my fortune and what is left of my energy to the upbuilding of [San Francisco], where my fortunes were made. There is no other place for me than California."
I enjoy reading both the published and the unpublished histories of the founding of my Golden State, but I have not found a single pioneer who loved this state more than Claus Spreckels, who near the end of his life said, "I have never wished for any other home nor longed for anything on earth that California could not give."


Claus Spreckels didn't see himself as a part of history, because he was too busy making history, but he did hope for someone like me to come along someday and write his biography, saying, "My life has been full of incident and would fill a book which, if not interesting, would be comprehensive."   

He was wrong when he said his life wasn't "interesting," because it was not only interesting but downright captivating! I've struggled mightily to give you as much of the man as I could squeeze into a reasonably sized book. I've respected his legacy without, dare I say, sugarcoating it. Claus Spreckels is complex, a genius, and at times offensive, but I hope you'll come to appreciate the man as I eventually did.

JOHN D. SPRECKELS 1853 - 1924


From Empire Builder 2020

A little girl was with her father at breakfast one morning at the Hotel del Coronado. The "Spreckels" sugar packet he used to sweeten his coffee aroused her curiosity. She was then told that the profits from that sugar had purchased both the hotel and the island they were presently enjoying.Watching her father reading the San Diego Union, she asked, "Papa, whose newspaper is that?"

"This newspaper is published by Mr. Spreckels, my dear."

"Papa, I am thirsty. May I have a glass of water?"


"Of course. By the way, Mr. Spreckels owns the drinking water."

After breakfast, touring the city on the streetcar, the little girl asked, "Papa, whose   streetcar is this?"

"Mr. Spreckels's."

"Who owns this ferryboat, Papa?"

"Mr. Spreckels."

"Papa! Whose gigantic ship is that?"

"That's from the Spreckels steamship line."

"Papa, what theater is that?"

"That's the Spreckels Theatre."

"Papa, whose skyscraper is that?"

"It's the John D. Spreckels Building."


"Papa, where is that loud whistle coming from?" 

"That's Mr. Spreckels's train, my dear."

"Papa, whose huge outdoor organ is that in Balboa Park?"

"Mr. Spreckels had it built."


Upon returning to Coronado, the little girl looked at the ocean and said, "Papa, who owns the ocean?"

My dear, God owns the ocean."


"Papa, tell me: How did God ever get it away from Mr. Spreckels?"
I smiled when I discovered this witty tale, an earlier, shorter version of which had begun circulating around the country in 1916. This version was lengthier due to the expanding enterprises of Mr. Spreckels. I amused myself by bringing it into the twenty-first century with my own amendments. When I stepped back from the little tale, however, it dawned on me that the enlarged story didn't even begin to describe the empires this man built.



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