Friday, January 24, 2014

A Fortune, An Heiress, and Sugar Beets

Do you remember the story of Huguette Clark, heiress to a massive fortune, who chose to spend her remaining years in a hospital rather than in her $100 million home in Santa Barbara, or her New York mansion?  She was the daughter of William A. Clark, known as the “Montana Copper King,” and she passed away in 2011 at the age of 104.  You may be surprised to learn that though she never lived in or spent much time in Los Angeles or Orange Counties, much of her wealth came from here.  

Huguette in the 1920s

William Andrews Clark, born in a log cabin on a farm in Pennsylvania in 1839, embodied the American dream rising from humble roots to great wealth, eventually becoming a U.S. senator from Montana.  While serving in the Senate in 1904, the widower with grown children, shocked the political world by revealing a secret marriage to a woman 39 years his junior, though no record of that marriage was ever found.  When the announcement was made the 62-year-old senator and 23-year-old Anna LaChapelle Clark already had a two-year-old daughter, Andree.  Their second child, Huguette, was born in Paris in 1906.  When Clark died in 1925, he left an estate estimated at $100 million to $250 million, worth up to $3.4 billion today.  One-fifth of the estate went to 18-year-old Huguette who chose to 

Andree, Wm. Clark, Huguette
spend the last twenty years of her life in self-imposed E
xile in hospital rooms in Manhattan, even though it was said she was in good health.  According to author Bill Dedman, she was so reclusive that one of her attorneys, who had dealt with her business affairs for many years, never spoke face-to-face with her, talking to her only on the phone and through closed doors.  Much of Huguette’s interesting life, which Dedman and others see as similar to Howard Hughes in his later years, can be found in Dedman’s book Empty Mansions.

I was disappointed in reading Dedman's book that little information was given about the fortune the Clark brothers made in Southern California.  Let me correct that oversight.
William Clark and his brother Ross had a dramatic effect on growth in Southern California, but little has been written about them.   Montana Senator William A. Clark, was said to be the largest individual owner of copper mines and smelters in the world, he was also considered one of the richest.  Beginning with $1500, earned by working the gold mines of Colorado and Montana, he became a Montana businessman and parlayed his money into a fortune.

Hauling sugar beets
            His younger brother, James Ross Clark, known as Ross, was also involved in various Clark enterprises.  In 1892, Ross moved from Montana to Los Angeles with his wife Miriam, daughter Ella and son Walter, and saw a future in sugar beets.  Sugar beets had been around since the days of ancient Egypt, but it wasn't until the middle of the 18th century that the beet was thought to have a commercial potential. About that time, the German chemist Andreas Margraff came to believe that sugar cane was not the only sugar producer. He began a series of experiments with different varieties of vegetables, including the beet.  In 1759, he published a report on the commercial potential of the beet in making sugar, but no one picked up on his ideas for about fifty years. It was Llewellyn Bixby and his Flint cousins who saw the potential of sugar beet production in California.  In 1872, they built the first successful sugar beet factory in America in Alvarado (now Union City) California  which eventually proved profitable after much trial and error.
           In July 1895, the Bixby Investment Company (which included Jotham Bixby, Thomas Flint, and Llewellyn Bixby), turned their eyes south to Southern California to open another factory.  But money was tight; though the Bixby Investment Company owned much land they didn’t have the necessary capital to build a factory.  Through wheeling and dealing they convinced the Clark brothers to construct a sugar beet factory in the Long Beach-Orange County area, on land owned by the Bixbys and Flints.  This was a great coup for the State of California, because California would now have 5 of the 8 sugar beet factories in the United States.

Los Alamitos Sugar beet factory
The factory opened at 6 a.m. Monday morning, July 21, 1897, in the area that would become the town of Los Alamitos.  For 100 days a continuous stream of beets, twelve tons per hour, entered the factory to have sugar extracted. On July 23rd the factory produced its first batch of white granulated sugar.  Earlier, a large tract of land, which many in the Long Beach-Orange County area live on today,  was subdivided into ten and twenty acre ranches and rented to farmers with the stipulation that they plant certain crops.  By December 1896, all 8600 acres of land on the Alamitos Rancho was rented.  Beets which had been planted on 3600 of those acres were ready to be harvested that next July.
Within two years of building the Los Alamitos sugar factory, the Clarks had purchased an additional 8000 acres of the neighboring Cerritos ranch for $405,000, which they leased to farmers. The land extended from Signal Hill to the City of Bellflower, and east of Cherry to the San Gabriel River.  This acquisition brought their investments in Southern California to about $1,500,000.

Santa Ana-Newport railroad
In February 1899, the brothers bought the twenty-two mile Santa Ana and Newport Railway which had two lines: one running from Newport to Santa Ana, and the other from Newport to Westminster.  Eventually it was expanded to pass through Los Alamitos, the Cerritos ranch, and connect to San Pedro and Los Angeles.  This rail line enabled the Clarks to receive cane sugar from Hawaii at either Newport or San Pedro, refine it and send it out through Los Angeles to anyplace in the United States. 
            Through this rail line the Clarks would be instrumental in forming the third transcontinental railroad link across the United States, the Los Angeles & Salt Lake railroad.  Jointly, with the Union Pacific railroad they constructed a line 1,000 miles long, from San Pedro harbor and Los Angeles to Salt Lake City.  An area in southern Nevada appeared to be a good midpoint for the railroad, supplying water and crews, so in 1905 the town of Las Vegas was born. 
In 1904, the brothers formed the Montana Land Company, the area around the current Long Beach airport.  This ranch continued its operations until 1934, when they bowed to the inevitable and started subdividing, creating the city of Lakewood. 
What of sugar beets? The Los Alamitos sugar beet factory was followed by four others in Orange County -- in 1908 one was built on Main Street, just outside of Santa Ana; in 1911 another in Huntington Beach; and in 1912 two were built, one in Anaheim and the other on Dyer Road, south of Santa Ana.
            The growth of the sugar beet industry had a profound effect on American life in the 20th century. The beet sugar provided an inexpensive alternative to cane sugar.  New industries developed around this economical sugar product: cake mixes, jellies, preserves and other processed foods owe their existence to the development of beet sugar in America.  By 1925, however, the soil of Los Alamitos and Cerritos ranchos was depleted and beet production fell.  Failure of many farmers to follow sound crop-rotation programs started the decline.  Added to this was the trouble with pests and diseases which raged unchecked in the period immediately following World War I.  And in the course of years, not just sugar beets, but all crops gradually had to make way for people.  The Los Alamitos factory closed down and was eventually sold to Dr. Ross, a dog food maker, now is now the site of the Los Alamitos race track.  However, sugar beet growing remained in the area well into the 1950’s; the last factory was the Holly plant on Dyer road in Irvine before it too gave way to housing.

Now hotly contested,  Huguette’s will may very well be in the news for some time to come.  Nineteen of her Clark relatives went to court in 2012 to throw out her last will and testament accusing her attorney, accountant and nurse of fraud, and describing Beth Israel Medical Center, where she spent her final years, as a jailer.  If they succeed they would inherit her entire fortune, more than $300 million, much of that money made as a result of that first Southern California sugar beet factory in Los Alamitos.