Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Movie Night #4: Industrial California in the 1940's

Need an idea of what "industry" looked like in California in the 1940's? Check out this stock footage from Columbia pictures in 1946, showing the industrial buildings along the SP tracks from Glendale to Van Nuys. It's got auto wrecking yards, packing houses, building supply wholesalers, and oil depots.

I'm annoyed I don't model Los Angeles today.

Great thanks to the Internet Archive for saving and digitizing films like these!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Food Machinery Corporation's Central Research Department

And just in case there's another reader out there who's (1) unnaturally interested in the canning industry, (2) stuck in bed with some nasty cold, and (3) run through every bit of bad TV in the Netflix queue, go check out Colleen Dunlavy's honors history thesis from Berkeley in 1980: Food Machinery Corporation's Central Research Department: A Study of Research and Development 1942-1954.

I didn't know, but I'm not surprised, to learn that the FMC rotary sterilizers and other expensive canning equipment was often leased, not sold. Check out the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' mechanical engineering landmark article to learn more about why rotary sterilizers are remarkably cool.

Mission Valley Canning: "Pleasant Working Conditions"

Folks get all up-in-arms with the excesses of typical Silicon Valley workplaces these days - bring your dog and cat to work, commute buses, forced yoga during meetings, and macrobiotic cafeterias. But we still saw that back in the old days, too.

Take, for instance, Mission Valley Canning, located at Autumn and Howard, just across Guadalupe River from the Food Machinery (Anderson Barngrover) factory, and a stone's throw from the SP's engine terminal at Lenzen Ave. They knew what it took to hire good workers:
"Looking for experienced tomato peelers for night shift, cafe and bus service, pleasant working conditions." Those Silicon Valley shuttle buses are looking old-fashioned, and I don't think I've seen any Silicon Valley companies advertising "pleasant working conditions" lately.

I first heard about Mission Valley when I saw this nice home video from 1963 showing the action out on the street in front of the cannery. Mission Valley primarily packed vegetables, as far as I can tell. Their wooden sign loco was only associated with vegetables, and one of their employees, Joseph Toselio, got a patent for an automatic stake setter that permitted easier harvesting of green beans. For that reason, I suspect they canned vegetables partially produced on their own farmland. They may not have always been a vegetable cannery; the July 19, 1945 issue of the San Jose News asked local canneries when they'd start canning pears, and one-year-old Mission Valley declared they weren't doing pears this year. Perhaps they started off doing fruit and realized there was less competition in vegetables?

Beyond that, I'm finding little; one obituary, some corporation records indicating Walter Hinckley at some point owned the cannery - but there's not a lot out on the Internet about them. Luckily, we've got that video.

I'm not sure of the exact location of the camera in the video; my guess is that the street shots are along Howard looking east towards Guadalupe River and FMC. That makes the buildings on the left some of the original Greco cannery buildings, best seen in this photo showing the ramshackle expansion of the cannery in a way only a model railroad structure builder could love.

But photos is all we have, now - Howard Street no longer exists; it's just an overflow parking lot for the Shark Tank, and eventually a widened Autumn Street extension will run through the former cannery site and we won't even have the ghost of Howard Street to hint where those cannery workers got nice meals and bus service home at the end of a graveyard shift.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A History of the Golden Gate Packing Co.

[Continuation of article that started with the analysis of old freight car arrival postcards for the Golden Gate Packing cannery.]

Now, the Golden Gate Packing Co. isn't on my Vasona Branch layout, but it's still a point-of-interest for me because it's on that little shelf layout of the Market Street Station area that I started several years back. That layout models San Jose's main passenger station, which occupied the site at Market St. and Bassett St. north of downtown til December 1935. That area north of downtown also was the site of many fruit-related industries - dried fruit packing houses, can recyclers, canning equipment manufacturers, vegetable packers, cold-storage warehouses, and grain importers. Most either located there when the railroad arrived in the 1860's, preferred the presence on the main line, or stayed as the rents got cheaper on the old and worn out buildings.

As much as we think of San Jose as a cannery town, the old warehouse district around the Market Street station didn't have much of a cannery presence. There were canneries on the other side of the Guadalupe River near Cinnabar and Little Montgomery, there were canneries further north by Japantown, but the only cannery close to the station was the cannery first known as the Golden Gate Packing Company.

Golden Gate Packing was one of the early fruit processing companies, incorporated in 1877 by W. S. Stevens, the brother-in-law of James M. Dawson who'd started the canning business in San Jose. Dawson had started canning in his basement on the Alameda, then started the San Jose Fruit Packing Company out by 21st and Julian. (Basements and the corners of orchards were the garages for the fruit start-ups of the time.) San Jose Fruit Packing Company company prospered and grew, went through various mergers, and constructed a cannery off Auzerais St. which eventually became Del Monte Plant #3, the largest cannery in the world.

For whatever reason, Stevens didn't stay with his brother-in-law's company, but set out on his own, got funding, and built his own cannery. Golden Gate, located their plant right on the railroad, right where the line from San Francisco split east of the depot. One track headed south towards Gilroy on 4th Street through San Jose; the other curved northward through today's Japantown heading for Oakland, Omaha, and points east. Golden Gate's location at 361 North Fourth Street (between Julian and Hensley) had some impressive brick buildings and a line of palms lining the Fourth Street frontage. George Bowman, the superintendent, was enough of a mover and shaker that he was also a vice-president for Garden City National Bank.

Bowman's bio highlights that the company sold canned vegetables and fruits, and their Golden Gate brand apricots were well-respected in England. In 1888, they were canning 1.975 million cans, and had 450 employees. The December 7, 1906 Montreal Gazette's ad from Fraser, Viger & Co., Italian Warehouse, called out their source of fruit. "Just in time for our Christmas trade, a shipment of selected extra quality canned fruits from the Golden Gate Packing Company, San Jose, California." Apricots, white cherries, greengage plums, golden drop plums, egg plums, damson plums, lemon cling peaches, yellow crawford peaches, white heath peaches, and bartlett pears were all listed by name - quite a variety for those of use used to exactly one kind of canned peach or plum. By 1922, it was one of the largest fruit packing plants on the West Coast, selling to the East Coast and to Europe.

On the back side, the spur tracks pointed straight towards the passenger station three blocks away, and the congested tracks kept crews working the cannery from being able to throw the switches into the cannery at will. Instead, each employee timetable into the 1930's indicated the whistle signal the engineer would need to blow to get the Fourth Street tower operator to change the switches.

SAN JOSE-Fourth Street
Limits extend from signals just west of First Street to signal at Fourth Street.
Whistle signals governing routes as follows:
For trains to Freight Yards, one long, one short, one long.
For Passenger Station, one short, two long, one short.
For Security warehouse spur, one long, one short, one long, one short.
For Hunt Bros. Plant No. 2; two short, one long, one short.
For Niles Line; two short, two long, two short.
For Borchers Spur; three short, one long, one short.
For Hunt Bros. Plant No. 1; one short, one long, two short.

For the cannery managers living within a couple blocks of the train tracks, those whistle blasts day and night must have been as much an annoyance as a sign of their prosperity. Requiring a tower operator to listen for whistle signals might be a cute trick for a model railroad, too.

Golden Gate also had attracted the attention of the Hunt Brothers, another pioneering canning company, who bought Golden Gate in 1917. Golden Gate's superintendent at the time, Elmer Chase, took the opportunity to leave the company after the purchase and start his own packing company, Richmond-Chase, which turns up in other canning stories.

Hunts owned the Golden Gate Packing property from 1917 to at least the early 1940's. In the early forties, Hunts was taken over by Val Vita Foods (started by Norton Simon, now known for his Pasadena museum). Richmond Chase used the property in 1945 and was listed as the occupant on the 1950 Sanborn map, but I suspect the end was becoming near for this turn-of-the-century cannery.

The buildings were still there in 1958, but by 1968, the buildings had been torn down, and if you go out to North Fourth Street, you'll find a Goodwill facility on the site. You can still see the palm trees lining the Fourth Street in front of the cannery site, and if you look carefully on the south side of the property, you can see where the line to Los Angeles curved its way onto Fourth Street.

And if you head up to First Street and Bassett and look east, you'll see a different panorama than that 1906 one. The railroad tracks up to Oakland are still there, as they were when the line was first built in the late 1860's. The new construction on the right replaced the Borcher Brothers building supply yard, and the Fourth Street tower would have been two blocks east of this photo. The palms in front of Golden Gate are still there.

[Excerpt from George Lawrence San Jose aerial panorama taken from the Library of Congress scan. SP valuation map from California State Railroad Museum, Sanborn excerpt from the 1950 Sanborn fire insurance map of San Jose. Modern photos are mine, and date from June 2003.]

Finding Rare Paper: Arrival Postcards from 1908

If you've been reading the blog for the last couple years, you know that I've been doing more historical research recently. That's included improving my Google search skills, buying odd books on the canning and fruit packing business, and searching library web sites for old photos.

But, of course, there's other sources out there that aren't on the Web, and that got me driving out to Stockton yesterday. The Winterrail railroad photo exposition is well known among west coast railfans for its elaborate railfan-made slide shows and movies. I'd never been and wasn't up for a day of railroad photos, but I did stop by the co-located swap meet in hopes of finding some interesting historical documents and photos that'll help me model San Jose in the 1930's. I got a couple nice finds, too.

These two postcards were mailed out by the Southern Pacific when a shipment billed to the destination arrived in town. Once the consignee paid the shipping bill, their car (or less-than-carload-freight) would get released or the car would be spotted at the plant. While business at the turn of the century might have been conducted with a handshake, the Southern Pacific preferred their cash up front, thank you.

Both cards were sent to the Golden Gate Packing Company in San Jose. One, dated June 28,1908, lists two cars, one containing "Shoox" (box shook, another name for the unassembled box lumber) from Anderson California, up near Red Bluff. Another arrival the same day contained sugar from the C&H sugar refinery in Crockett. The second postcard, dated September 25, 1909, contained "Gr" or "Dr Peaches", and arrived in UP 45249. All the boxcars are from the Union Pacific - which might seem odd until we remember that the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific were both part of the Harriman era at the time. At any other time, it would seem odd that Union Pacific cars were being used to carry loads that started and ended on the SP, and weren't on a path that would speed their return to UP tracks. If there's any UP modelers out there who know more about these particular cars, I'd be interested in hearing.

The Official Railway Equipment Register from 1908 tells us more about these cars. The box shook arrived in UP 72201, a modern-for-the-time, 40 foot (inside dimensions), 50 ton capacity boxcar - the most modern of the arrivals. The sugar arrived in the less modern UP 55898, a 33 foot, 25 ton capacity boxcar. The peaches arrived in UP 45249, a short 33 foot 20 ton boxcar which had been eclipsed so swiftly by more modern boxcar designs that even though it probably wasn't more than 20 years old, it was not long for this world.

These loads show a bit of what needs to come into a cannery during the season. We can guess at outgoing cargo rates; for example, that Golden Gate cannery packed 65,000 cases of fruit and vegetables in 1901. We know the canneries were shipping canned goods out, and we also know the canned fruit business, like the dried fruit business, requires keeping large warehouses so you can slowly sell your stock over the year. So we'd expect a cannery to have a steady flow of boxcars out. Most of it probably left by train because there was no other way to get the products out to Eastern markets or onto ships to Europe - Bay Area roads, though uncongested, probably weren't up for a long stream of trucks carrying canned goods to the piers at San Francisco.

It's harder historically to make guesses about what came in on the railroad. These cards show how box material could come directly from the sawmills, how cane sugar was used for the heavy syrups used in canning, and how additional fruit could be brought in by train. Photos of peaches arriving in stock cars at the Richmond Chase cannery in the 1920's remind us that the cannery could import fruit so it could keep the production lines running even as the local area's crop finished. The lack of available cars during the rush probably meant the less-capable and popular cars got the job of hauling the fruit. Cards like these give us more clues about what the ebb and flow of supplies might have been like to the cannery, and what should be in those boxcars arriving at our model canneries.

Next time: History of the Golden Gate Packing Co.

[Postcards: my collection.]

Monday, March 5, 2012

"What this place needs is a good, producing oil well."

I've shown my fascination for oil wells in the Santa Cruz Mountains before, but oil in the Bay Area isn't just under Cupertino and Los Gatos.

This USGS map shows all the oil wells dug in the Santa Clara and San Mateo areas from the 1870's on. Most of the interest has been around the known finds - Moody Gulch in Los Gatos Canyon, the La Honda and Half Moon Bay fields, and the Sargent field. None have been huge producers, but there's still the potential for a big find. If you're looking at a vacation home out in the redwoods, or a 3/2 rancher on 5000 square feet in Cupertino, make sure to get mineral rights!

If I don't give Alma any signs of the Moody Gulch oil production, I'll be very disappointed with myself.