Monday, May 16, 2011

Places I Won't Model: Sewall Brown Co.

[Title borrowed from Derek Lowe's "Things I Won't Work With" series from his "In the Pipeline" blog. Worth reading, especially to hint at why you might not want to be a chemist.]

I knew when I started building my Vasona Branch layout that I can't fit every possible scene on the San Jose-Santa Cruz branch into the available space. Sometimes that meant hard decisions about leaving out representative scenes, and sometimes it meant having no problem taking the mental pruning shears to my ideas.

The Sewall Brown Co. was one of those easy-to-prune ideas. [Horrible pun completely unintended, I swear.] Sewall Brown collected apricot kernels from the local farmers, drying yards, and canneries; they were processed and sent to Europe for sweets and baking. Others were in the same game; even Del Monte Plant #3 had a portion of the plant to handle this valuable by-product. Brown's warehouse was on the Winchester Road just north of Vasona Junction - about where Highway 85 and the Netflix offices are now located. One of the Vasona Junction photos in Railroads of Los Gatos shows the buildings in the far distance.

It's also a well-known location because of some photos of trains serving the site, and because of the attached painting which I've seen in a few places. It's an interesting industry, both because it's located in an otherwise empty stretch of track, has the huge billboard sign on the wall, and is an unusual industry that modern-day audiences may never have thought possible.

From a model railroad standpoint, it's less of a draw. The industry location was in a stretch between towns, so it either needs to take the conceptual space of a full town, or needs to be shoehorned in between Campbell and Vasona Junction, and removes some of the distance and emptiness along the route. Sewall Brown is also probably a low-traffic industry; I can imagine it having a hard time filling one car a month, let alone one car a day. For an operating model railroad, an empty spur is at best scenery, and wasting a few feet of layout on that scenery might not always be appropriate. (I find it interesting the painting shows two cars being retrieved on a rainy winter day - would that have ever really happened?)

So Sewall Brown was struck from the layout. Every now and then, I think about adding it back into the area around Vasona Junction, but that stretch from Campbell to Los Gatos really needs to be wall-to-wall orchards, so the apricot pit processor loses.

I was doing some searches on Sewall Brown tonight hoping to find some photos of the Vasona Junction area, and found Mr. Brown's biography transcribed online. One of the interesting facts in that article is the tidbit:
Sewall S. Brown attended the grammar and high schools of San Jose and afterward became a student at Stanford University. After completing his education he became connected with the San Jose Water Works and then secured a position as field representative with the California Seed Growers' Association, with which he remained until June 1, 1921, when he came to Los Gatos as superintendent of plant No. 7 of the California Prune & Apricot Growers' Association. He has a comprehensive understanding of the work in which he is engaged and is seeking in every way possible to advance the interests of his employers, who thoroughly appreciate his services.
California Prune and Apricot Growers' Association is better known to you frequent readers of the blog as Sunsweet, which also had operations in downtown Campbell, on Lincoln Avenue in San Jose, and elsewhere in the Valley. I hadn't heard of a Sunsweet packing house in Los Gatos, but the
list of Sunsweet packers in 1920 I presented back in December showed that there was a Los Gatos/Vasona packing house at that time.

I'd bet that the Sewall Brown Co. warehouse at Vasona Junction was actually the Sunsweet packing house, and Mr. Brown took over the property when Sunsweet realized that having two packing plants within a couple miles of each other was inefficient. I can't find any mention of the Vasona packing house in The Sunsweet Story, so proving that Sewall Brown had been yet-another-Sunsweet packing house will require a bit of rummaging in city directories.

Off to and the San Jose Library to poke through musty city directories!

(Additional note: The Santa Clara County Fire Department collection of historical photos says that the Sewall Brown plant burned down in September, 1955.)

[Both images from History Los Gatos. I think the painting was done by Michael Kotowski, and appears in Bruce MacGregor's "South Pacific Coast: A Centennial", and I seem to remember seeing it in an Orchard Supply catalog at least a decade ago as well.]

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Coming to Sacramento for X2011 West? Stop at the Vasona Branch!

The National Model Railroad Association's national convention is in Sacramento, California this year during the first week of July. As an added bonus for the folks travelling from around the country, the organizers have also set up a bonus "Advance Section" the weekend before so attendees can visit model railroads in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Vasona Branch will be part of the Advance Session festivities, with operating sessions on Friday and Sunday, and I'll also have the layout open for the south bay tours on Saturday morning. If you're coming out to X2011 and want to see the Vasona Branch, plan to head out to Silicon Valley for the Advance Section before the big week in Sacramento!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

More interesting 20's and 30's photos

LA's blogdowntown has an article on pneumatic plague outbreak in LA in 1924, and includes some neat photos of the back streets of LA during that time. If you need some ideas about what the wrong side of the tracks looked like in California in the 1920's and 1930's, check them out.

My favorites was a shot of SP's Central Station from a nearby street, and another of houses in Chinatown hanging off a hillside with some frightening bracing holding them up.

I've got a Classic Miniatures mining cabin kit somewhere around here; I ought to try to build it to imitate one of the houses in these photos.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Scenery in Vasona Junction

One of the key aspects of a model railroad is that it shows all the unlovely spaces in the world: warehouse canyons, weed-covered sidings, tracks through barren fields. Railroads might go through occasional photogenic locations, but most of the spots are definitely not on the average tourist's itinerary. Unless they're visiting the Society for Industrial Archaeology conference, of course.

For me as someone who's already confessed to be a model railroader partially as an outlet for the frustrated architect within, the lack of attractive buildings is a bit annoying. If I was trying to build models of attractive 1930's buildings, I'd build a model of downtown San Francisco, or of Sutro Baths, or some Greene and Greene houses in Pasadena.

There's always modeling Fourth Street in San Jose back in the early 1930's when freight trains ran past nice victorian residences, but that's still an outlier.

But that's not where the trains ran, and that's not what the hobby's about. The next area on my layout to be scenicked is one of those unlovely spaces - Vasona Junction, where the Mayfield Cutoff from Palo Alto and Los Altos hit the former South Pacific Coast mainline from San Jose to Los Gatos. Vasona Junction wasn't much in the 1930's, or even the 1950's - a barren, empty place in the middle of prune orchards where two railroad lines came together. Even now, it's not much more than a cluster of tilt-up warehouse buildings next to the 85 freeway. There was so little there, why would I even model it?

Well, there's a bunch of reasons.

  • That's what the Santa Clara Valley was like - a rural area covered with orchards and with occasional roads connecting the various farms. The scene is a nice reminder of what's in between all the other scenes I model.
  • It's a somewhat interesting location operationally with its wye and signals, and a train order book hidden in a shack next to the tracks. The wye is also handy for the model railroad as a place to turn trains that end in Los Gatos.
  • Even with its plain look, there were still interesting details, and there's the challenge of making this wide spot along Winchester Road into a scene worth displaying on the model railroad.
Searching through the old photos at the Los Gatos History Museum and in the Railroads of Los Gatos book, I've got a list of key details for Vasona Junction.
  • First of all, Winchester Road (leading from Santa Clara, past Sarah Winchester's strange Victorian house, and straight to Santa Cruz Avenue in Los Gatos) parallels the track from Campbell to Vasona Junction. At Vasona Junction, the wye crosses Winchester Road twice, pulling the railroad and scenery together.
  • There's also the ubiquitous orchards lining both sides of the road, power poles and railroad signalling poles paralleling the road with weeds and bushes covering the space between the poles.
  • At the actual junction, assorted signals, crossing signals for Winchester Road, and station signs fill the otherwise empty scene.
  • Because Vasona Junction was a real junction, the railroad needed a train register book to help train crews know whether a conflicting train had gone by. The train register booth appears in many photos as the only structure visible in the area.
The first step for building up the scene was putting in the backdrop (again using 1/16" white styrene from Tap Plastics, the local plastics retailer, then roughing in scenery with styrafoam and Sculptamold. I've also cut Winchester Road from plastic sheet. My next step will be to put in some of the terrain - a slight hill between the railroad and road on the Los Gatos side of the junction - then start with dirt and bushes before moving onto all the minor details like the signals, telephone and power pole lines, and assorted railroad details. I've already built the train order booth, so it'll be easy to drop into the scene. One surprise: I shaped my scenery with a little bit of relief - maybe 1/2" depressions - but then looked at the photos and realized the scene was absolutely flat with no details higher than a few inches. I'll need to go through and smooth out the terrain. Pro Tip: Rather than gluing large stretches of plastic sheet with either Testors liquid plastic cement or MEK (methyl ethyl ketone solvent) from the plastic shop, the plastic glue used for electrical conduit and sprinkler pipe is mostly MEK, and works much better for large surfaces! It's also dirt-cheap, and easy to buy on Sunday. The photo shows the scene as it looks today.

The Vasona Junction shot is from the 1950's, and was taken from History Los Gatos's web site.

Open Source!

[Yeah, it's another article about my SwitchList software, rather than about San Jose in the 1930's. History buffs will have some interesting reading in a bit.]

Woohoo! SwitchList is now an open-source project, with source code and bug database available at

For those gentle readers who aren't computer geeks, what does this mean?

Open-sourcing means making the source code of a program - the actual commands the programmer types - available to others so they can use and modify the program themselves. More concretely:

  • If you're curious what it takes to make a modern Macintosh application for moving freight cars around, you can look at the computer instructions that do all that work.
  • If you don't like SwitchList as-is, you can download the source files, modify it, and make your own version to your liking. Want better ways to import your freight cars out of a spreadsheet? Download the code and change it as you want!
  • If you've got ideas about improvements that others might like, you can try changing SwitchList yourself.
  • Check out the upcoming features. Work's started on keeping track of siding and train capacity!

James McNab's 1980's-era PICL report feature is the first contribution to the project. Look at the sources and see what you might do with SwitchList!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Earl Fruit Company

Even though I've been building an Earl Fruit Company packing house for my shelf layout, I still don't know that much about the company.

Earl Fruit Company seemed to be everywhere in California; all the Sanborn maps I looked at seemed to have one Earl Fruit Company plant present. Whether in a hamlet like Wrights, Walnut Grove, or Whittier, they had packing houses. I'd first thought they were a spinoff of the Southern Pacific, but then heard connections with the Armour and Di Giorgio companies. Luckily, I just saw this Bancroft Library interview with two of the Di Giorgio family about the company's origins. It's a great read both for details about how the packing house and fruit auction business worked.

Earl Fruit Company was actually started by Edwin Tobias Earl, who invented one ventilated refrigerator car. (I imagine it wasn't the first considering that the South Pacific Coast had some of his cars well before the company appeared.) Earl was involved with exporting fresh fruit east, but needed an inexpensive way to carry the fruit. At the same time, the large meat packers were shipping lots of meat in refrigerator cars to California, but were sending the cars back empty. Earl got the Armour family to buy his company, and the meat reefers started travelling back east with fruit. Armour owned the transportation, owned the packing houses, and owned the packing box makers, so they had lots of control over the prices paid to the farmers.

In 1910, the Supreme Court forced the meat packers to divest their refrigerator cars because of their monopoly power, and the railroads took over the refrigerator car business. Joseph Di Giorgio, a kid from Sicily who founded the Di Giorgio fruit brokerage business in Baltimore, realized that controlling Earl Fruit would give him access to the California fruit market. He bought the company and soon controlled the packing house and auction house ends of the fresh fruit business. Di Giorgio at first went for volume, following other fruit packers in extending credit to farmers to be repaid after the crops sold, but quickly found it less risky to primarily serve their own orchards and farms and leave the riskier deals for other packers.

Di Giorgio was huge, owning lumber mills, huge farms, the packing houses, and eventually even the S&W canned goods brand. They intended to be everywhere, and they were.

Check out the full Bancroft Library interview for lots of details about the railroad and packing industry in California; I'd learned lots about the business side, how fruit auctions worked, and how fruit labels were both expensive and important for the fruit sales.

[Fruit label cribbed from the California Digital Library and U.C. Libraries.]