27 photographs, 10 illustrations, index
Claus Spreckels (1828–1908) immigrated from his homeland of Germany to the United States with only seventy-five cents in his pocket, built a sugar empire, and became one of the richest Americans in history alongside John D. Rockefeller, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates. Migrating to San Francisco after the gold rush, Spreckels built the largest sugar beet factory of its kind in the United States. His sugar beet production in the Salinas Valley changed the focus of valley agriculture from dry to irrigated crops, resulting in the vast modern agricultural-industrial economy in today’s “Salad Bowl of the World.” When Spreckels gave America its first sugar cube, he became “the sugar king.”
The indomitable Spreckels was a colorful and complicated character on both sides of the Pacific. A kingpin in the development of the Hawai‘i-California sugarcane industry, he wielded a clenched fist over Hawai‘i’s economy for nearly two decades after occupying a position of unrivaled power and political influence with the Hawaiian monarchy, while also advancing major technology developments on the islands. The Sugar King’s legacy continued as the Spreckels family developed large portions of California, building and breaking monopolies in agriculture, shipping, railroading, finance, real estate, horse breeding, utilities, streetcars, and water infrastructure, and building entire towns and cities from infrastructure to superstructure.
In The Sugar King of California Sandra E. Bonura tells the rags-to-riches story of Spreckels’s role in the developments of the sugarcane industry in the American West and across the Pacific, triumphing in a milieu rife with cronyism and corruption and ultimately transforming California’s industry and labor. Harshly criticized by his enemies for ruthless business tactics but loved by his employees, he was unapologetic in his quest for wealth, asserting “Spreckels’s success is California’s success.” But there’s always a cost for single-minded determination; the legendary family quarrels even included a murder charge. Spreckels’s biography is one of business triumph and tragedy, a portrait of a family torn apart by money, jealousy, and ego.