It's still true: all we often know about the San Jose dried fruit packing houses is how their baseball team scored, and why they got sued.
But, luckily, they got sued, and that suit hints a little at life at the San Tomas Drying Company, as well as the life of the plaintiff - an orchardist up in the Santa Cruz Mountains at the turn of the century. When you see that photo of the boxcars loaded at Wrights with the names of the buyers emblazoned across them, the suit explains how those prunes got to those boxcars.
The specific case is Morrell vs San Tomas Drying Company. J.B. Morrell ran a large ranch up along Summit Road at the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains - an awfully long way out in the hills, but luckily convenient to the former South Pacific Coast railway line at Wrights Station. Early in the 1907 season, Morrell succumbed to the sweet pleading of the San Tomas fruit buyer, who offered to buy his whole crop for $70 a ton (around 3 cents/pound). That price assumed that the prunes would come in at 75 per pound; if they were larger or smaller, the price would be adjusted up or down.
For San Tomas Packing Company, Henry Booksin Jr., son of a famous San Jose orchardist, signed the contract. Booksin also noted that the crop was going to be sold to Balfour Guthrie, a large British food importer (who, twenty years later, was trying to buy the Virden Packing canneries when Charles Virden's empire collapsed, so Morrell's prunes were probably going for export to feed the children of Europe.
The contract's a little scattered about exactly where the prunes needed to be delivered. First, it says Wrights, then it says San Jose:
"[buying] the entire crop of dried Fr. [french] prunes, season 1907, and estimated at 100 tons, and grown and dried in the orchard known as Morrell Ranch - Wrights, f.o.b. [freight on board - Morrell was responsible for loading] cars Wrights, tested at Wrights… All fruit to be sound and merchantable and well dried, free from slab, of choice quality, and delivered f.o.b. packing house, situated on the Infirmatory Road, Santa Clara Co., California, packed in sacks furnished by the buyer, original condition as taken from the drying yard…
"San Tomas Drying and Packing Company agrees to pay balance of purchase money as soon as delivery is completed and sizes determined. Delivery to be made as directed, final delivery before November 30, 1907."
One obvious question is the location of Booksin's packing plant, for the city directories only say it was on "Infirmatory Road", now Bascom Ave. Booksin addressed the contract as "Moulton's Switch, Santa Clara County", and indicated that the fruit would need to be delivered there. Now, Moulton's Switch helps us place San Tomas Packing, for Stillman Moulton ran a dried fruit packing house on Infirmatory Road in the late 1890's on some land he had next to the South Pacific Coast narrow gauge tracks. (A September 1, 1890 San Jose Evening News gives us details of the operation.) Period USGS maps show the likely location as the triangular lot at 1400 South Bascom in San Jose; it's now the home of a dated 1950's strip mall, but the USGS maps show signs of buildings and industries around the turn of the century.
So when the buyer gave Morrell the contract, he also handed over $1 to seal the deal, and then everyone waited for the harvest. And it wasn't too bad a year; after the drying was done, Morrell grabbed a bunch of teamsters and hauled 134,000 pounds of dried prunes down to the Wrights train station, then loaded them on the equivalent of five or six railroad cars.
But Morrell had actually harvested and dried 172,000 pounds. San Tomas Drying Company, with its bins already packed, asked Mr. Morrell to hang on to the rest of the prunes for a while… They went up to the Morrell Ranch in December, inspected the prunes, and said all but a ton were in fine shape, but again asked to hold off on taking the prunes until May because their bins were still full. Finally, in April 1908, San Tomas dances around for a bit, and says they're not willing to take the last ton of prunes. Morrell, fed up, sells the remaining prunes at auction, then sues San Tomas for the difference in the promised price and what they got at auction.
San Tomas Drying Company lost the suit - they'd promised to buy the crop and they didn't. Considering the times, it's possible to guess why they were being so ornery. 1906 had been a bad year for dried fruit as the Great San Francisco Earthquake destroyed packing houses and disrupted travel. Even with that, the crop came in larger than expected, and prices dropped from an expected 3.5 cents/pound to 2 cents a pound.
1907 was better, with some of the highest prices in memory for fruit. But a sulfur scare caused France and Pennsylvania to ban sulfured fruits, and even though the prohibitions were loosened within a year, prices for the 1908 crop were unbearably low. For Booksin, with his packing house full of fruit that might have been selling slowly, picking up additional fruit must have been an awful risk, especially as the 1908 crop approached.
I like this story best for the details about what it took to ship hundreds of tons of prunes out of the mountains. The packing house had to send up sacks, which would have to be hauled to the orchard. Fruit would have needed to be harvested, dried, sacked, and stored. Multiple wagon loads would have needed to haul all the fruit down from the ranch and over to the station to fill a freight car. The fruit would have been hauled down to the packing house and placed in bins for storage until sale, then it would have been pulled out, cleaned, boxed, and shipped out again. All this work would have been manual, with the sacks handled multiple times. In these pre-automobile days, just hauling all that fruit around must have been costly and tiring.
And those teamsters at Wrights were only the first ones to get tired.
This story also states an important lesson: if the packing house asks you to hold onto the fruit for a while because their bins are full, start looking around for other buyers.
No matter how good their baseball team might be.
[Photo of wagons at Wrights Station from History Los Gatos.]