Tony Thompson's first blog post showed that he's a freight car modeler first - not surprising, considering he's written the definitive books on Southern Pacific freight cars. Meanwhile, I keep showing that I'm a structure modeler first, whether it's with a week of angsting about the design of an old warehouse, a few too many of my childhood plastic freight cars on my layout, or rambling on forever about what a typical small town in California's Central Valley looks like.
Specifically, I had a note from a European model railroader who's interested in modeling the California Northern short line on the west side of the Sacramento Valley around Davis, Vacaville, and north. He was curious about what sort of buildings would be typical. The poor guy unfortunately got an earful of advice from me, and I hope he didn't mind it all. I'll repeat it here because I really like the small towns along the west side like Esparto, or Winters, or Dunnigan, or Orland, and I like reflecting on what really makes those towns memorable and unique.
So for all the other locals: how does this description match what you think is photogenic about the small towns of the Central Valley, and what would be the key details if you were going to model a short line going through some of the little towns on the west side of the Valley?
"First, you've chosen what I think is a really cool, photogenic part of California to model, and I think you can make an interesting, eye-catching layout with an accurate setting. Although it's not the desert of Pele Soeborg's articles, the west side of California's central valley has bare and empty grasslands, thriving and fading small agricultural towns, signs of new industries, and lots of wide-open vistas. It's also tremendously rich agricultural land, supplying a large percentage of the world's almonds, prunes, and other tree crops, random vegetables, occasional wine grapes, and anything else that grows including rice paddies closer to the Sacramento River.
All this can make a great setting for a model railroad - lots of industries for a railroad to switch, lots of old buildings with "character" to set the scene, and backdrop images that can provide a horizon in the distance without requiring fine detail to show foreground hills and structures.
There's a quote in one of Joan Didion's stories about growing up in Sacramento where she relates a question from school days: "Q: In what way does the Holy Land resemble the Sacramento Valley? A: In the type and diversity of its agricultural products." And she's right - to a farmer, the Central Valley is the promised land; there was huge amounts of land, lots of sun, and as long as you had water you could grow almost anything. If you read any of the stories of California at the turn of the century, or in the Great Depression, or in the 1950's, much of what you read will match life in the small towns. The ethnicities of the farmworkers has changed from Italian, Portuguese, Armenian, and Chinese to Mexican, Laotian, and Salvadorean, but the farmers probably still worry as much about prices, the weather, and what to plant. Read some of Saroyan's stories of Fresno in the teens, or Joan Didion's stories of Sacramento, or Frank Norris's "The Octopus" if you'd like some inspiration.
Most of the Central Valley is absolutely flat, with the valley rising maybe a hundred feet in a hundred miles. It's land-locked between hills/mountains - on the west by the Coast Range (peaks around 4,000 feet high), and on the east by the Sierra Nevadas where the mountain passes only go down to 6000 feet, but the peaks go as high as 10-12,000 feet. If you took that Interstate 505 north from Vacaville, you'd start out in the edge of San Francisco's suburbia - lots of new stucco buildings - strip malls and stores out by the freeway, tract houses for folks who can't afford much house, but are willing to drive huge distances from their job just to have a house of their own. (You're already well past where the shopping malls end at this point.) As you headed north on Highway 505, you'd cut through flat plains, with big modern concrete warehouses for the major grocery and store chains closest to the Interstate, but after a bit, those would disappear and you'd just be in a sea of crops and orchards, with occasional lines of tall (100' high) blue gum eucalyptus serving as windbreaks between fields and on property lines. As you get close to the foothills on each side, the farms disappear and the land turns into grazing land - very rolling hills covered with bright yellow/golden grass most of the year (just like Scenic Express's California Golden grass color.) The area is dry and mostly treeless, except for the occasional huge Valley oak tree sitting alone in the fields or hills, or small bushes and trees on the north side of the steeper hills away from cattle.
photos of Valley Oaks
Photo of Eucalyptus windbreak
Wide open spaces away from the hills
grass-covered rolling hills
Hints on California seasons: If the grass is green, it's winter; if they're starting to brown, it's spring, and if they're yellow/brown, it's summer or fall. The green on that last photo either implies it's early spring, or that someone's been playing with the color balance in Photoshop.
Once you've gotten away from the coast and the big cities of California (Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego), you're also in a place that has more in common with the central United States than with Hollywood. There's lots of small farm towns. Some got bypassed when freeways replaced the original highways, and now they're no more than a wide spot in the road, a slightly denser collection of houses, and a closed and abandoned gas station and store, all frame structures. Others have managed to keep growing even as agriculture needed fewer workers, and still have an air of prosperity. If you drive from San Francisco to Sacramento on Interstate 80, or north of Sacramento on Interstate 5, or take the bypass from Vacaville north on Interstate 505, then you won't see much of those towns, all clustered on the old highways a mile distant. Each offramp has a couple gas stations, a couple fast food restaurants and coffee shops (western name for diners, aka informal sit down restaurants), and rarely a warehouse or two for distributing products from the edge of suburbia into the big cities.
If you stopped at any of the small towns off the freeway - and on the railroad lines - Winters, or Esparto, or Arbuckle, or Williams - you'd feel a million miles away from the rest of California. These are small towns with little connection to the big city, and with buildings that dated back to the 1920's or 1930's. You'd typically see wood frame houses and stores, streets without sidewalks, repurposed buildings (old garage converted to video store and grocery). You wouldn't see many of chain supermarkets except in the larger towns and County seats because there isn't the population for them. You'd see stores selling feed for animals, non-chain hardware stores, video store in half a storefront, and maybe a coffee shop for the locals. On the old highway, you'd see an old hamburger stand; it's as likely to be a small-town brand like Dairy Queen as "Joe's Burgers", and is guaranteed not to be a McDonalds because the town isn't big enough to support the demand needed for the higher franchise fees. You'd see stores selling outdoor equipment, guns fishing gear, and bait. If the city has a lot of Central American and Mexican farm laborers, you're likely to see signs in Spanish. You won't see pawn shops; they're rare in California, but much more common for cultural/historical reasons in New Mexico and Texas. As you got out of town, you'd see produce stands and the remains of ones that closed when the freeway bypassed the old road.
Photo of typical small-town Dairy Queen
Most of the buildings in these sorts of town are old, and inexpensive wood used for construction. You'll see turn of the century buildings in board and batten, 1920's clapboard storefronts, and sheds and warehouse in corrugated steel. California had/has huge forests, and so wood was cheap and plentiful for construction. Modern buildings from the 1950's and later are usually modest; stucco, or prefab. Roofs tend to have shallow peaks or flat roofs; this area doesn't get any snow, or much rain, so there's no need for the steep peaks seen in areas that suffer severe winters. Most buildings will be one story or at most two; land is cheap, and the limiting factor for building size is demand, not land prices. The occasional grain elevators and other such structures might be the tallest thing for forty miles. Single wide or double-wide trailers are likely for housing, both alone or clustered in an ad-hoc trailer park.
Here's a photo of Monticello, California in the 1950's. (It's now underneath Lake Berryessa). Many small towns in the Central Valley still look like this:
Or check out this photo of Philomath, Oregon's main street.
Or check out this photo of what's left of downtown Esparto, California, with the ex-SP depot behind.
Or this photo of the Odd Fellow's Lodge in Esparto:
As you mentioned, American HO and N scale model buildings really capture midwestern or east coast styles, but don't look right for California. Brick is rare, primarily because lumber has been cheap and available. Buildings tend to be lower and more spread out. There's fewer modern buildings out here, so any of the older building styles can be appropriate if you let them look a bit worn down.
Any laser-cut kits of low buildings can be appropriate - BTS, Blair Line, etc. Many of the Campbell craftsman kits would be fine, though most are a bit too busy compared to what you'd see in the real towns. One of the small outdoor hamburger stands, preferably with a non-chain name, would be very appropriate along the main highway - Micro Structure's City Scoop, for example, or GC Laser's "Lou's Drive In".
For a downtown, a cluster of small one-story stores works; the downtown is usually a block or two of stores, with density falling off quickly.
You've also got the advantage that most small-town buildings are pretty straightforward. If you're willing to work with styrene sheet (plain/stucco or clapboard), you can probably build most of the buildings you need. If you decide to scratchbuild, buying the Grandt Line window and door assortments will give you lots of American-style wooden windows and doors for your older structures. Some of the older two-story buildings on main street could also be made more California-like by adding plaster or gesso over a DPM building to simulate stucco.
BTW, the typical California barn looks like this one from Showcase Miniatures.
For the industrial side, most modern warehouses have been built in the last twenty years, so any of the reinforced concrete warehouse kits would work fine. The dominant style of construction has been "tilt-up" where the building's concrete foundation is poured, then forms for walls are placed flat on the slab, poured from concrete, and "tilted up" into place. Campbell made a cardboard tilt-up model, and several other companies do large concrete warehouses. You should be able to scratchbuild one easily because of the stark, plain walls.
By the way, one of the major supermarket chains (Lucky Supermarkets) had a huge warehouse in Vacaville that received freight cars from the big food manufacturers, and sent out the individual tractor-trailers that would serve the individual supermarkets. It was a huge industry, and would probably be a perfect industry for serious switching and could deserve multiple sidings. A large food processing plant (handling nuts, dried and processed prunes, or rice) would also be a good candidate for a modern and huge concrete warehouse.
The prefab metal buildings such as Pikestuff's are more common for local businesses, and less likely for rail-served industries. It's a decent home for the local agricultural supply house. Make sure to include lots of long (60') pipes for the industrial-sized sprinklers used to water the crops, and assorted machinery for pumps and wells.
For packing sheds (packing fruit and vegetable from the fields into boxes for shipping) ,check out the "Packing Houses of Northern California" web site. Note that many of these are run-down and a bit decrepit. Some of that is because most produce gets shipped by truck these dates, and some is because these buildings only get used for a small part of the year.
Northern California Packing houses has many photos of trackside buildings in the Central Valley. The Blue Goose packing house in Loomis is particularly representative to me. The brick Sunmaid plant in Fresno, isn't. It's very unusual for the Central Valley; Sunmaid was a large company that prospered early in the century; their choice of brick dates when the company first was successful. Most packing houses and processing plants are much more modest as seen from the photos.