The homely sugar beet is big and blobby. It's an industrial foodstuff from which refined sugar can be processed.
But Los Alamitos civic boosters love sugar beets anyway, because it's from the beet's pulpy heart that Los Alamitos rose in the early years of the 20th century, thanks to the cash-strapped Bixby family of Long Beach, the entrepreneurship of robber baron William A. Clark, and the machinations of the tariff-loving Sugar Trust.
Members of the Bixby family were in a bind as a result of the financial panic of 1893, caused in large part by the efforts of Henry O. Havemeyer, who spent lavishly to ensure that a high tariff on imported sugar protected the profits of the trust's domestic refineries.
The tariff on sugar also generated nearly 25 percent of the federal government's revenue in those pre-income-tax days.
But as much as Havemeyer wanted tariff protection, he wanted to ruin his chief rival for America's sweet tooth -- Claus Spreckels. Spreckels had engineered a deal with the kingdom of Hawai'i to ship raw cane sugar that wasn't weighed down by the U.S. import duties.
Havemeyer persuaded Congress in 1890 to eliminate the sugar import tariff entirely and replace it with a government subsidy for domestic producers. Raw cane sugar imported from Cuba was now cheaper than raw Hawaiian sugar, while the Sugar Trust was being paid a bounty that softened any losses to imports.
The subsidies and the loss of tariff revenue drove the federal government into fiscal chaos and the nation into the panic of 1893 (setting the stage for the American overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy that same year and the American "liberation" of Cuba from the Spanish in 1898).
Power in Congress shifted as a result of the panic, and the Sugar Trust made sure the tariff on sugar imports was restored. So well did the trust spend that the tariff adopted in 1894 was 40 percent higher than the old one. Higher prices in 1895 began a boom time for domestic sugar production.
The Bixbys' had prime land to cash in on sugar beet production, but their problem was credit. They didn't have enough to finance the processing plant needed to turn beets into refined sugar or hire the hundreds of workers and managers who understood the refining process. The Bixbys' turned to some of the deepest pockets in America -- mining and railroad tycoon William A. Clark and his brother Joaquin Ross Clark -- to provide the capitol.
The first sugar beet processing plant in Orange County was built with the Clarks' money in Los Alamitos in 1897 on rancho land donated by the Bixby Land Company. The company laid out house and business lots in a small township and sold sections of the remaining rancho at $130 an acre to farmers. With the land, farmers got a crop contract with the Carks' processing plant.
Sugar beet farmers in Los Alamitos could clear as much as $25 dollars an acre, a lot of money in the 1890s.
The Clarks went into industrial farming on their own, buying another 8,000 acres from the Bixbys. As the Montana Land Company, members of the Clark family continued to grow and process sugar beets until plant diseases, falling sugar prices, and the spread of suburban development put the Los Alamitos processing plant out of business in the mid-1920s.
The lowly sugar beet from Los Alamitos is a bit player in the history of sugar in America. The bigger story includes cane sugar grown on Caribbean and Louisianan slave plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries, impoverished farm laborers in Hawai'i and the Central Valley in the 20th century, and the forced relocation of Japanese American growers from Bixby and Clark tenant farms at the start of Word War II.
The story of American sugar isn't sweet. But something good did come from backroom politics and the labor of field hands. From their square miles of beet fields, the Clarks and Bixbys subdivided land that became parts of Orange County, east Long Beach, and Lakewood after World War II.
Los Alamitos held a Sugar Beet Festival on July 13 to celebrate their small town's history. A ton of sugar beets had to be imported from the Imperial Valley town of Brawley. There was a "5k-ish" race, inflatables for kids, vendors, food, and music. Parishioners from tiny St. Isidore church won the cooking contest. The winning recipe was a spicy salsa that included diced sugar beets.