Who was Spreckels?

A family of 19th Century “movers and shakers…”

The Spreckels-financed Call newspaper building, designed by the architects of San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado, was a San Francisco landmark — built just a few feet taller than the building that housed the San Francisco Chronicle, the Call’s competitor.

Touted as the tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi, the steel-framed Call Building was the centerpoint of an empire that encompassed sugar beets and refining in California’s central valley… massive sugarcane holdings bought from Hawaii’s royal family… the InterOceanic Steamship Company that hauled passengers, sugar cargoes and the U.S. mail. Like Claus and his family, the Call Building would survive the 1906 earthquake and fire, but they would never be the same.

The father, Claus Spreckels, and his two eldest sons…

Sometimes charming, other times ruthless, Claus Spreckels was a restless soul looking for success — defined in his chosen country as gfreat wealth. And did he find it! — by dint of wide-ranging curiosity, plenty of risk-taking, and a spirited pursuit of battles in the fields of commerce, the courts, politics, publicity, and the coddling of kings.

First sons John and Adolph joined in their father’s causes and commitments, but their younger siblings weren’t so eager. When family disagreements spilled over into lawsuits, it always made for sweet news copy and plenty of readers with a sweet tooth for San Francisco scandal.

Look, Ma — It’s Granulated!

Traditional “Sugar Loaf” was the reigning standard.

Improved refining techniques and innovative packaging meant that homemakers no longer needed to hack away at pesky sugar loaves.

The story of the Spreckels family in America begins with the emigration of Claus Spreckels (1828-1908) from his native Hanover, Germany to America in 1848. He spoke no English and was following a wave of fellow Germans who shared his poor prospects and hungry days at home. From South Carolina, where he started in the grocery business, to New York, where his bride-to-be awaited, Claus focused intensely on the money-making elements of business management.

Among the many German-American entrepreneurs of the late 19th century, Claus Spreckels is today considered to be the most successful.

From New York, Claus brought his wife Anna and three-year-old John Diedrich to San Francisco in 1856. Claus joined a partnership that built the new state’s largest brewery, and then turned his attention to sugar.

Studying refining technology, agricultural and processing requirements, and the geography of his adopted home state, Claus worked to apply his newfound knowledge as quickly as he acquired it.

By 1863 he was heavily invested in sugar ventures, and safeguarding his enterprise by means of vertical integration. The “Gilded Age” of the next 30 years would lead him to ventures in transport, gas and electricity, real estate, newspapers and banks.

With fury and delight, he fought off competitors such as the East Coast Sugar Trust through publicity, strategy, stubbornness, and guile. Genius and a controlling ego drove him to take charge of an astounding diversity of enterprising endeavor. Brilliantly successful, intelligent at organization, and a wily strategist in competitive situations, Claus Spreckels styled himself the “Sugar King” of the American West.

Always defining himself as a liberty-seeking independent American, he was a jolly but judgemental father, who created family conflict even as he was dismayed by it. After seeking wealth for decades as the only yardstick of success, in later years he was working hard at giving it away as a means to obtain the love of restless and resentful children and communities.

When he died in San Francisco on December 26, 1908, Claus Spreckels was one of the richest men in California. His sons were dubbed the “Sugar Princes.”

Claus raised John and Adolph with the full and undoubted expectation that they would share with him the responsibility of manage the family’s constellation of businesses, and to a great extent they did so. It was in San Diego, however, where John could undertake, independently of his father, a similar kind of multi-faceted enterprise development.

John D. Spreckels was 34 years old when he first sailed into San Diego harbor in 1887. He had been in charge of the Oceanic Steamship Company for several years. Some of the savviest leading investors in San Diego were lined up at dockside to propose deals and ideas to the Sugar Prince. He decided to invest in a re-coaling operation in aid of ship and railroad traffic. Soon he was a key source of needed liquidity for the Coronado Beach Company and its ambitious construction project, the Hotel del Coronado.

Before long, John D. realized that San Diego — a place of such potential that the famous Henry James had dubbed it “an Italy without a history” — could be just the place where Spreckels himself might make history by working out his own ideas about vertical integration, real estate investment, and business adventuring.

John D. was both sensitive and intelligent. He had learned about business success from a father who was “ruthless and jovial, progressive and exploitative,” who had made his life’s work the accumulation of wealth.

John D. had followed his father’s lessons in business but also had found internal passion for the sea and for music. In getting away to San Diego, he could honor his father’s wishes but not be bound entirely by them.

Brother Adolph, meanwhile, was comfortable in the San Francisco of his father’s creation. He defended his father’s prerogatives as needed — most notably in 1884 at gunpoint, when he sought out and shot M. H. DeYoung, the publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, for reporting too candidly the family’s efforts and success at influencing the King of Hawaii.

The tongues of San Francisco were set a-wagging again by Adolph Spreckels when he chose to marry the flamboyant and artistic beauty Alma DeBretteville. She was a San Francisco native, but not “of society.” Her inventiveness, willpower, and personality surely pleased Adolph, even as she sometimes scandalized other members of the Spreckels family by her frankness and lack of pretense. In time, she would join the immortals of San Francisco legend.

Alma DeBretteville Spreckels (1881-1968)

Adolph would find and marry the unique, independent-minded, and unforgettable Alma DeBreteville, who would put his money to imaginative use in San Francisco and northern California.

While her brother-in-law was busy helping San Diego to prepare for its grand Exposition in 1915, Alma lent a hand to making San Francisco’s simultaneous Exposition a landmark occasion by seeing to it that Auguste Rodin would have his most significant Amerost ican showing there, displaying his sculptures that Alma acquired, beginning her vast collection of Rodin’s work that’s now lodged in the city’s Palace of the Legion of Honor.

Having grown to love western Europe during the travels that introduced her to Rodin, Alma forged a path of leadership to help the Belgian victims of World War I. Beginning in 1916, she solicited contributions of high-quality cast-offs and sold them out of a boutique at her home to raise relief funds. The disapproval of society notwithstanding, her creation of the charity Rummage Sale spawned many imitators!

Together, Adolph and Alma had conceived a gift to San Francisco of a replica of the Legion of Honor in Paris. Their Palace of the Legion of Honor was completed after World War I and dedicated to the 3,500 California men who were killed in the war.

When Adolph died in 1922, he had seen to it that Alma would be well provided for, thus assuring her a place in San Francisco society and the funds to sustain charitable projects for many years to come.

After Adolph’s passing, John D. commissioned an organ for the Legion of Honor, built by the famed Boston firm of Ernest W. Skinner. In 1924, John dedicated it to his brother Adolph, his 50-50 partner in all the San Diego ventures.

Only two years later, in 1926, John D. would die. As a consequence, the Spreckels holdings in San Diego — with the exception of the Hotel del Coronado — would be broken up and sold.

It hadn’t been planned that way; John D. Spreckels, Junior was raised as the heir apparent, studying his father’s practices and working in the family’s businesses.

But a rollover car accident near Bakersfield in August 1921 had ended John D. junior’s life at the age of 37, and no suitable combination of brains and heart was found before death came calling again for John Deidrich, age 73.

Thus, even before the stock market crashed in October 1929, the Spreckels web of business holdings would be dismantled and “sold for parts.”

In its turn, the Great Depression — like San Francisco’s earthquake and fire of 1906 — would inexorably alter the potential for self-financed vertically-integrated business networks — modes of enterprise that the Spreckels brothers and their father had found so fertile for growing wealth.

In a few short years, then, the fantastic tales of Spreckels family enterprise would be set into an historic frame of How Things Used to Be with the label of laissez-faire capitalism – remote as the days of the Hawaiian Kings and Queens.

Readers of today shake their heads in wonder at a mere recitation of the Spreckels’ ideas and investments — particularly those of John D. The rules and mores of the time offered such power that could be wielded by a single, highly-advantaged individual. In San Diego, John D. Spreckels could — and did — make jobs, change the landscape, and focus civic conversation.

Before the advent of the Panama-California Exposition and the Spreckels Organ at its heart, John D. arranged for the creation of a garden park at the northern terminus of the trolley that ran from downtown to San Diego’s “Normal School.” Overlooking Mission Valley, Mission Cliff Gardens offered a central fountain, enclosures for deer and ostrich, bounteous and unusual flower displays, and superb landscape views of sea and mountain. It became a favorite destination, attracting riders “to the end of the line” for picnics and outings, as this video describes. (CLICK HERE)

In many ways, Mission Cliff Gardens offered a “proof of concept” to citizens that a project as grand as the Exposition in Balboa Park could be successful.

The 2020 biography of John D. Spreckels by San Diego author and historian Sandra Bonura offers modern readers a window to this era when great wealth could command much.

Since he was a sensitive person, shy about his relationships (unlike a gregarious father who dominated others habitually, without a second thought) John Spreckels wanted the combination of his wealth and ideas to be sufficient to persuade others to follow — without the endless disputation that a lively community demands. In San Diego, he hoped to find a more pliant populace in addition to a wondrous locale — a place where the leadership would not require too much persuasion and where his ideas might be given the chance he believed they should be given.

In this, of course, the shy John Spreckels would be disappointed.

Despite the great power of wealth, its influence could be undermined, even in those days, by “the little guy” who felt sufficiently empowered to question his authority. Spreckels didn’t doubt his wisdom and knowledge — and he wished others wouldn’t, either! In the one public speech he ever gave, John Spreckels expressed the wish to be generally embraced and respected.

Yet Spreckels persisted in his efforts to build the San Diego of his dreams, investing to build longer trolley lines, greater water supplies, created a separate rail connection to the east that would ensure San Diego’s economic independence. And if the progress was not what he wanted, he would not take revenge on his fellow man, but ply him with great music —

and awe him with exploits of sail, ensure that spirits would be occasionally uplifted and await the dawn of understanding.


We, in later generations, may choose to scrutinize our predecessors and their life choices by applying only today’s rules of right, wrong, and righteous. As the following warning indicates, this may not yield optimal results in terms of empathy, accuracy, or wisdom.

WARNING: Using the approach above may result in side effects such as hubris, excessive moral clarity, or undue self-righteousness. Consult a historian before use.

Yet, if it must be that no one is exempt from the truth of the moral rules that we strive to uphold today, then — please, if you’re able to — temper all modern criticism with a generous measure of recognition for the Spreckels Family’s gifts, that reach us all, even now. Feel gratitude for the fine music of the Spreckels Organ, certainly — and, it is hoped, take renewed appreciation for Spreckels’ examples of a passion for community improvement and involvement. These gifts have brought much material benefit. Still more important, our witness of such focused energy evoke a quantity of inspiration and wonder — gifts of immeasurable value in every age and era.

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