150 years of making things: A history of San Leandro’s manufacturing industry
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150 years of making things: A history of San Leandro’s manufacturing industry

Dec 17, 2023

It's impossible to overlook the manufacturing industry's prolific influence on San Leandro. Countless businesses, builders, and problem-solvers have laid a foundation for the success of today's innovative business ecosystem.

"San Leandro's industry-friendly reputation reflects its ability to swiftly adapt to cultural and technological shifts," says Katie Bowman, San Leandro's Economic Development Manager. "This is really evident when looking back at how different industries and modernizations shaped the city throughout history, and ultimately, how the community continues to transform to meet the evolving needs of its people and businesses today."

San Leandro's modernization in the 20th century is widely attributed to Daniel Best, one of the city's most influential entrepreneurs. Among Best's many agricultural inventions, he is most commonly associated with the combined steam traction harvester and thresher, which evolved into the first gas-powered traction engine for modern tractors. In 1925, Daniel Best Agricultural Works merged with another traction engine manufacturer, forming the Caterpillar Tractor Company. Over the years, Best continued to play a role in building the community, including the erection of the San Leandro State Bank, still standing today as the iconic "Best Building."

Many other businesses have also left indelible marks on the city. Established in 1882, four generations of the Larsen family have operated the Larsen Brothers Lumber Company. Today, Larsen Lumber is the longest continuously operating business in San Leandro. Another one of San Leandro's first major industries, the King-Morse Company (which eventually merged with the Del Monte conglomerate), built a large cannery in San Leandro in 1898. Today, the site is home to the San Leandro Tech Campus, located adjacent to the Downtown San Leandro BART Station.

In the 1940s, an 18-acre Plymouth/Dodge auto manufacturing plant occupied the space at 1933 Davis Street. In 1959, the plant was sold and occupied by Caterpillar, who manufactured tractors at the location through the early 1970s. Eventually, the building transformed into the Westgate Center, and today, the second floor is home to Gate510 — the largest start-up space for makers and tech companies in the East Bay.

In 1936, Carl Friden, the inventor of the full keyboard and motor-driven calculator, built his company's first plant in San Leandro. By 1939, the Friden Calculating Machine Company became the second largest plant in the city, employing over 500 people. The company evolved to introduce a square root function and produce the model EC-130 and the fully transistorized electronic calculator before being purchased by Singer Corporation in 1963.

Grain and cereal giant, Kellogg's, opened and operated a production plant in San Leandro in 1952. The 185,000 square foot plant was located one mile from the San Francisco Bay and primarily focused on producing the popular Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies cereals. Today, part of the facility is home to Bay Area brewery, 21st Amendment, whose first brew at the location was aptly named the "Toaster Pastry India Red Ale."

Although it is commonly associated with its iconic San Francisco heritage, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company moved its headquarters to San Leandro over fifty years ago. In fact, Ghirardelli has made premium chocolate products at its San Leandro facility since 1967 and recently relocated its administrative offices to the San Leandro Tech Campus in Downtown.

Interestingly, San Leandro's Portuguese heritage attracted many sausage manufacturers throughout the 1900s. Earning the distinction of "Sausage Capital of California," San Leandro has been home to producers like Santos Sausage Factory, Saag's, Aidell's, Spar Sausage, and traditional Chinese sausage-maker, Wycen Foods. The local production of great sausage and beer even inspired the city's "Sausage and Suds Music Festival."

150 Years of Making Things in San Leandro