Back in 1919, San Jose Evening News columnist Edith Daley spent a good part of her summer visiting the local canneries. In each, she pulled out her notebook and wrote a few facts on production, poetically described the magic she saw, and had kind words for the office staff that explained the business to her. When she visited the Contadina cannery on Race Street at Moorpark, she wrote:
F. Aiello is the owner and manager, but the office has a real “boss” in little Miss J. Besana. The way she juggles conversation about tomatoes and cans and hauling and open contracts and closed contracts is a joy! She has been with the Contadina since its opening and is a very valuable “office force.” She knows the machinery from scales to boiler, from copper coils in the big tomato puree cooker to the last can!
It is quite easy to get mixed up and call this clever secretary “the big little boss!”
("Contadina Co. Packs Many Love Apples": August 11, 1919 San Jose Evening News)
J. Besana was more than a secretary; she was a bookkeeper for the cannery, who managed the paperwork and sorted out the contracts with the growers. If you needed a reminder of how life in a cannery was awfully similar to life in a Silicon Valley startup, you only need to look at the "big little boss". Jennie Besana was just twenty-two years old at the time Edith met her, and she was already a seasoned bookkeeper who had worked for the local trolley line and a doctor in San Jose before keeping the books at Contadina. Even as she was living at home with parents, she was still holding a responsible position in the edgy and zany canning industry, which was probably as close as you can get in those days to working at Facebook or Yahoo.
Genevieve Besana was born in Novara, Italy, west of Milan. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. In 1898 when Jennie was two years old. She grew on Bishop Street, just off of Julian St. near the Alameda. (It’s now the stub end of North Morrison.) Her father, a laborer, worked at the Pratt-Low cannery in Santa Clara. Her brother, Melchior, pretty quickly went by the more American “Mickey”, and Genevieve always used her more informal “Jennie”.
Jennie went to school at St. Josephs (which I assume was associated with St. Joseph’s Basilica in downtown San Jose). Her walk to school would have taken her past Anderson Barngrover where they built all the machinery for the modern canneries. In 1915, she was in the school play as “Cora Brown, a spoiled child” in “The Rebellion of Mrs Barclay”. “Miss Besana is particularly pleasing in the scheme where she endeavors to assist Mr. Barclay in getting dinner, and succeeds only in making him go back on his principle that ___”. (That’s not my omission, but the reviewer trying not to spoil the ending. Go read one of the online copies to see how it ends.)
After high school, Jenny Besana worked as a bookkeeper, first at the Peninsular Interurban offices, then at a local doctor’s. All the while, she was living at home with her parents on Bishop St.
And some time around 1917, she heard about the new cannery being built by Italians from Back East, and joined in on the wild ride that was the tomato canning business in 1917. She worked at Contadina from its opening until the mid-1920’s, then walked across the street to the U.S. Products cannery for a similar job there.
In 1924, Jennie married Frank Maral. Frank was first-generation Portuguese; his father had bought a ranch out on White Road around 1900. Frank didn’t go into the orchard business, but was instead a millman at the Pacific Manufacturing Company in Santa Clara, and a charter member of the Alum Rock Athletic Club. Jennie and Frank moved into Frank’s house at 573 University Ave., currently located right in the middle of the Bellarmine campus.
In 1927, Jennie and Frank bought their own part of land, swapping the house for 5 acres on Blaney Ave. in Cupertino from Joseph D. Blabon. Blabon was a Cupertino rancher who had owned four hundred acres on the west side of the valley; the land he sold to Frank and Jennie had been bought from Ferdinand Blassey in 1905. Blabon still held significant acreage in prunes; a few years later in 1936, his hired help went on a rampage over low wages, “smashing windows and pulling fruit from trees”. (August 29, 1936 San Jose Mercury Herald, via Cecilia M. Tsu, “Garden of the World: Asian Immigrants and the Making of Agriculture in California”)
Frank and Jennie took a couple years to move (and perhaps to build a house), but by 1930, they were living out in the wilds of Cupertino. Jennie would have had an easy commute; just a quick walk up to Stevens Creek Road, and she could catch the interurban train all the way to Race Street.
I’d like to be able to say I’d heard more about Jennie from her grandchildren, but I can’t. She died in January 1935 at 37 years old; a cold or flu appears to have badly affected her heart thanks to a previous case of rheumatic fever. Before she died, she made Frank promise not to remarry. There were no kids. I couldn't even find a gravestone at the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery for Jennie.
January 12, 1935 San Jose Evening News: MARAL - In San Jose, Calif., January 11, 1935, Jennie Maral, beloved wife of Frank T. Maral, loving daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Besana of San Jose, sister of Melchior Besana of Cupertino and Mrs. Frances Isbeli of Berkeley Calif: daughter-in-law of Mrs. Agnes Maral of San Jose; a native of Novara, Italy, aged 36 years, 4 months, and 3 days. Funeral on Monday, January 14, 1935, at 9 a.m. thence to Holy Family Church, River and San Fernando Streets, where a requiem mass will be celebrated for the repose of her soul commencing at 9:30 a.m. thence to Santa Clara Catholic Cemetery.
Holy Family Church, at River St. and San Fernando, was a symbolic place for her funeral mass, for the church had been formed explicitly to serve the Italian immigrants of San Jose. Jennie probably attended the church as a child, and was married in that church as well. The church on River Street only lasted into the 1960's when it was torn down as part of urban renewal. The church re-formed on Pearl Ave. in South San Jose.
Frank continued to live on the property well into the 1960’s. He shared the house with his mother; his brother, Antone, lived in an apartment built into the former tank house with his wife Virginia - a small living room and kitchen on the ground floor, and bedroom above. The family raised turkeys on the ranch. In the late 50’s, Frank and Antone got out of the bird business, sold the ranch, and moved to a small adobe-style house on Stevens Creek Road. When the family moved out of that house in the 1960’s and into a modern tract house off of Wolfe, their old house became Cupertino’s Adobe Inn restaurant.
Frank lived on until 1969, and, true to his word, never remarried. He worked his entire career at Pacific Manufacturing, and lived his life in Cupertino. Frank’s relatives do remember that he was married to an Italian girl. The story of the dying wife demanding such a large promise did get passed down, but they’d forgotten that italian girl had been the “big little boss” of Contadina.
Now, Jennie wasn’t unique; my own grandmother kept the books for a vegetable packer in Hayward during the 1920’s. Like Jennie, my grandmother did the overall books, but she also handled the paperwork for outbound cars of peas with the railroad. One of the mementos my grandmother saved was her “cheat sheet” for car routing: cars for the Carbone Brothers in New York City went via the Western Pacific, Union Pacific, Chicago Burlington and Quincy, and finally Pennsylvania railroads. (Although the railroads could choose routings, shippers would often do it either for the control or to reward particular railroad salesmen.) She must have gotten a good grounding in railroad rates as well. When my dad started dating my mom, my grandmother was impressed enough by his background as a railroad rate clerk that she ignored the fact that he wasn’t Portuguese.
There’s lots of other stories about the paperwork in the offices of canneries being shuffled primarily by women who needed to understand the business, law, and human nature enough to deal with an irate farmer complaining about the prices on his contract. Other cannery visits by Edith Daley introduced Gertrude Carter as running the back office at Pyle Cannery (“Miss Carter finds this a unique season for the reason that the fruit is running almost too largely to high grade stuff. The pack is practically sold before it is canned, and this year the difficulty is in getting enough low grade fruit to fill orders.”) Filipina de Rosa and Mary Cribari were active at Bisceglia Brothers in 1919, though they had the advantage that they were also the owners. Tillie Lewis, in Stockton in the 1930’s, had the same benefit.
Edith’s articles came just after the end of World War I. The canning business had been going great guns ever since the World War started, creating both a demand for canned goods for the countries at war, and cutting off competing products from Europe. The U.S.’s entry into the war pulled men away from the cannery jobs. Edith Daley was seeing a world where women were not just working on the lines preparing fruit, but also running the canning machines at Alba Canning, and actually making the cans on the dangerous production lines at American Can. (“We haven’t lost any fingers this season.”) Edith probably had an easier time negotiating for her own by-line and column when men such as the Jack Wright, the future manager of the Evening News, was sent off to France. (Jack also wrote several “slightly fictional” columns about his wartime experience under the title "Private Prune’s Diary", which are worth a read.)
But in spite of the men being gone, all that probably didn’t mean that Jennie was going to be allowed to run the place. There were women in management at canneries. Clara Cribari could do it, but she owned Bisceglia Brothers. For other women there was a very firm glass ceiling: the women could do clerical work (and clerical in this case means both secretarial work and handling records - bookkeeping, filing, etc), but no more. I suspect management or customer-facing jobs were right out. Edith Daley’s article came at a time when the reader might have imagined times were changing… but weren’t going to change just then.
And even those clerical jobs weren’t particularly secure. Some companies wouldn’t hire married women at all, and would fire a woman who did marry. Jennie Besana’s affiliation change from Contadina’s bookkeeper to U.S. Products’ secretary happened at the same time that she took her married name.
On the other hand, if a war broke out and there weren’t men to hire, then why not hire sharp women? Twenty years later, during World War II, the June 27, 1945 San Jose News included the advertisement:
BOOKKEEPER, man or woman, for one of our clients in Gilroy, Calif. Must be competent and experienced. Steady, all-year employment. Five day week, salary $225 per month. Write giving full particulars. GIULI & GIULI, Public Accountants, Morgan Hill, Calif.
The same issue had Santa Clara Packing Co. looking for a bookkeeper as well. Jennie would have been a prime catch for either cannery.
Great thanks to Frank Maral's niece, Bonnie, for stories about the Maral family and for the stories she did have about Jennie Besana Maral. The review of "Miss Jennie Besana, "Spoiled Child" in Comedy, St. Joseph" appeared in the May 25, 1915 San Jose Mercury Herald.