Immigrant Entrepreneurship Project at the Western History Conference in Denver

“Frontiers of Profit: Immigrant Entrepreneurs and the Economic Development of Northern California”

“Frontiers of Profit: Immigrant Entrepreneurs and the Economic Development of Northern California” was the title of a panel sponsored by the GHI and the Immigrant Entrepreneurship project at the 52nd Annual Conference of the Western History Association in Denver on October 7, 2012. Organized and chaired by GHI research associate Benjamin Schwantes, it focused on the role of “New Westerners” from Germany who sought business opportunities and took commercial risks in the “Golden State” beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century. Doing so, these pioneers played an important role in the early development of modern California.

Three case studies supported the general theme: Stanley Stevens, librarian emeritus at UC Santa Cruz and coordinator of the Hihn-Younger Archive, presented “Frederick A. Hihn and the Personal Politics of Regional Development.” Hihn came to California in 1849 and settled in Santa Cruz County, where he started as a retailer and invested in real estate, land, timber, and railways. Stevens presented Hihn both as a businessman and a political bridge-builder, who tried to combine economic and political forces for his goal of developing the town of Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County. Hihn was only one of many immigrant entrepreneurs engaged in these fertile lands. Another example was given by Uwe Spiekermann, GHI deputy director and a general editor of the Immigrant Entrepreneurship project, in his talk “‘The salvation of the country’ – Claus Spreckels and the Development of the Californian Beet Sugar Industry.” Santa Cruz County hosted Spreckels’ first large-scale beet sugar factory at Watsonville, incorporated in 1888. While early efforts to establish beet sugar refineries in the 1850s produced no results and – with the exception of the Alvarado Beet Sugar Factory – all the factories established during the 1870s failed, the Watsonville factory was a success from the beginning. Carefully planned by the German immigrant, it was a striking example of technology and knowledge transfer from Europe to the U.S. However, even the “Sugar King” failed to clone his factory later in the early 1890s in order to establish a network of large beet sugar factories across California. To overcome the sometimes reluctant attitude of California farmers towards beet cultivation, Spreckels made new plans and spurred the industry to national significance. He constructed the largest factory in the U.S. in the Salinas Valley in 1898, which remained a landmark of immigrant entrepreneurship for nearly a century. While beet sugar production was protected by high tariffs and supported by the federal government, alcohol production was seriously hampered by federal prohibition. Most breweries and vineyards – often run by immigrants – were closed. One exception were the Beringer brothers, whose wine brand is still well known in California and in international markets and who pioneered the development of the boutique wine industry in the region. Jacob and Frederick Beringer founded their winery in St. Helena in 1875. As Kevin Goldberg, postdoctoral fellow at Brown University, pointed out in his presentation “Blood of the Grape: The Beringer Brothers and the Making of Napa Valley,” the brothers had developed different skills in their homeland which they combined in the new enterprise: Jacob handled grape cultivation and wine production in California, while back east in New York Frederick focused on wine distribution and sales. The Beringers played an important role in the dramatic shift of wine production from southern to northern California and created their own Americanized version of the German Rhine-Main wine production region in Napa Valley.

In his instructive comment, William Issel, professor emeritus from San Francisco State University, put these three case studies into a broader perspective. Immigrant entrepreneurs were not exceptional in the history of the American West, where many people believed that anything was possible. However, the papers made clear that authors writing the business history of the West must focus on the close relation between business and culture and how this shaped the activities of entrepreneurs. Second, the papers represented part of a larger effort to re-conceptionalize American history. The accomplishments of immigrants and immigrant entrepreneurs have been recognized by historians for generations, but the papers’ focus on the West added new evidence about important regional characteristics of this subject. For Issel, the combination of natural abundance, social (and ethnic) relations, and buoyant capitalism provided a unique basis for development in the American West and created new opportunities for immigrants such as Hihn, Spreckels, the Beringer brothers, and many others. The three casestudies also encouraged historians to rethink entrepreneurship as a social activity and reevaluate the relationship of individual and the social collective.

Although the audience of the panel was small, Issel’s comment and the papers elicted a lively discussion. Benjamin Schwantes finished the panel by thanking all the participants and the interested audience.