Thursday, June 13, 2024

“The Sugar King of California” Gives Deeper Insight Into the Spreckels Family

Sugar looms large in “The Sugar King of California.” Dr. Bonura said that C&H was Claus Spreckels’ arch enemy.

Our addiction to sweets can be partly attributed to Claus Spreckels, who is the subject of “The Sugar King of California: The Life of Claus Spreckels,” a new book by Dr. Sandra Bonura. Bonura also penned the popular “Empire Builder” which chronicled the life of Claus’ son John D. Spreckels, who had strong ties to both Coronado and San Diego.

Bonura shares, “I discovered I did the books backwards, but this story will help the reader understand John better.” Even though Claus involved John in the sugar business from a young age, he developed Coronado in defiance of his father. John emphasized, “I was born into sugar, but I don’t have a passion for it.”

A demanding, successful, and industry-changing man, Claus spent some time in Coronado when he cut deals at the Hotel del Coronado and while recovering after a stroke. He lived to the age of 80, even after a lifetime of excessive sugar consumption, diabetes, and two strokes. He is credited with introducing granulated and cube sugar, which was popular in Europe, in the U.S.

Although sugar loomed large in the creation of the fortune of Claus Spreckels, it wasn’t where his story began. The son of German tenement farmers, his first foray into business, after arriving in America at the age of 17, was in South Carolina as a grocer, which then led him to New York, and ultimately San Francisco, where he also became a successful brewmaster.

His entrepreneurial spirit led him to discover the world of refining sugar. Not a man to take shortcuts, he learned from working in other factories and then created greater efficiencies in his own refineries. Due to his perseverance and innovation, he received his first patent for the “Manufacture of Crushed Sugar” in 1868.

Even as one of richest men in California, Claus arrived at work in overalls and often went unrecognized. But he could also hobnob with presidents and dignitaries. With close relations to Hawaiian King David Kalakaua, he was granted title to crown lands in Hawaii. He became the kingpin in developing the Hawaii and California sugarcane industry.

Author Dr. Sandra Bonura has always had an affinity for Hawaii, which is a prominent player in her latest book “The Sugar King of California.”

Bonura, whose mother always had an affinity for Hawaii, connected with the islands when she first visited there with her mother in the late 1970s. That’s why in 2008, when given access to a trunk filled with Hawaii-related historic letters, still in their original envelopes and complete with mementos, she was deeply intrigued. She fell in love with the Hawaiian history, which is rich with sugar culture, and published her first book “An American Girl in the Hawaiian Islands.”

While he was successful in business, Claus’ family life with wife Anna suffered many tragedies. He stated that his mission in life wasn’t as much about accumulating wealth, but rather to leave a legacy. But his family didn’t have congenial relationships and the family spent countless years and money mired in lawsuits, with implications that still reverberate through the family to this day.

The book is chock full of interesting historical facts like after the invention of the mason jar in 1858, fruit canning, which requires sugar, greatly expanded the demand for sugar in California and across the country. Readers will discover the significance of the town of Spreckels, CA, an island in the middle of agricultural fields, which were former Spreckels beet fields and are now where Bonura notes “every salad that you eat comes from.” This historically designated town is like stepping back in time, resplendent with 1898 original homes. Fun fact: the film “East of Eden” was filmed in Spreckels. In fact, John Steinbeck worked as a field hand on the Spreckels sugar plant.

Bonura said she was surprised to learn that in the U.S. more people consume beet sugar than cane sugar. That statistic doesn’t ring true here in California, where cane sugar is more prevalent. The last remaining Spreckels Sugar Factory is located in Brawley, but it is owned by the Minnesota Beet Cooperative, who kept the historic name.

Due to the popularity of Claus Spreckels in Europe, Bonura’s publisher approached her about tackling this book. It made sense, with her background knowledge and strong connections with the Spreckels family. After organizing a family reunion at The Del in 2018, she continues to build bridges and reconnect the family, and is invited to family events.

When asked who her target audience was for this book, she replied that at first she really didn’t know, but quickly discovered the importance of the Spreckels name in the Monterey Peninsula, especially in Aptos. Also, train aficionados love the book, because Claus built five railroads. She knew “Empire Builder,” published in 2020, would resonate with San Diegans, and parts of this book will as well.

“The Sugar King of California” took her three years to write, with a morning writing ritual and evenings spent researching. Claus once said, “My life is full of incidents and would fill a book which, if not interesting, would be comprehensive.” Bonura has captured the essence of this complicated saga and the far reaching implications created by the Spreckels family.  I’m just a few chapters in and can’t wait to delve further into the fascinating story.

With a busy speaking schedule, Bonura will be doing a Lunch and Learn on John D. Spreckels “Empire Builder” on June 11, and on Claus Spreckels “The Sugar King of California” on June 18, for the San Diego History Center. She will also be presenting at The Point Loma Assembly on June 22 for the La Playa Trail Association and La Playa Books. She is working with the Aptos Historical Society on events, and “The Sugar King of California” will be their Fall Community Read. In Coronado, she will be speaking at the Coronado Historical Association (CHA) as part of its Wine and Lecture Series on October 17.

Find more details on her website  Books can be purchased from Bay Books, CHA, or on Amazon.

Jennifer Velez
Jennifer Velez
Jennifer fell in love with Coronado as a teenager while visiting a college friend. She vowed that someday she would make it her home, and that dream has recently become a reality. Fast forward through completing college with a BA in Journalism, Public Relations and Communications, she then went on to work with a variety of clients. She also taught Journalism and coordinated fundraising for her children’s school, and was a staff writer for San Diego Family Magazine and contributed to other parenting publications. Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to: [email protected]

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