Saturday, September 16, 2017

Podcast: Concrete Utopia

If you’re interested in minutiae about transportation and transportation policy - how a freeway or bridge ended up where it did, here's something worth a listen.

Matthew Roth, the historian for the Auto Club of Southern California, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the history of Los Angeles freeways. The common wisdom is that LA was car-crazy, but Roth argues that every major road project has faced major opposition and obstacles.

Back in 2009, he spoke at the Huntington Library about a few specific projects: the Ramona Boulevard highway leading from downtown Los Angeles to points east, the Aliso Street viaduct, and their effect on what became the San Bernadino and Hollywood freeways. Roth talks a bit about politics, funding, and how civil engineers get projects built.

The Huntington Library shared that lecture as a podcast; you can listen to it on the internet. If you’ve got a Mac, you can also subscribe to the Huntington’s California and the West podcasts, or download the lecture to your iPhone or iPad for easy listening.

If you want to learn more, you can read his PhD dissertation, Concrete Utopia: the development of roads and freeways in Los Angeles, 1910 - 1950.

There's a bunch of interesting audio recordings - podcasts and oral histories - out on the Internet these days, and they're an interesting change from radio or music.

  • I've been enjoying East Bay Yesterday which has done a great job of sharing stories about Oakland and Berkeley. The show covers topics as varied as Dorothea Lange and her photos, early baseball in Oakland, Richard Pryor's comedy, mudflat art, Bruce Lee, and the 1990's East Bay punk scene.
  • The Los Gatos Museum has shared oral histories with long-time residents of Los Gatos, letting us hear Jack Panghinetti, Richard More, and others tell us about the Hunts cannery, railroads, and accidentally igniting dry cleaning fluid.
  • The Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley often shares the raw tapes for their oral histories, letting us listen to Frank Nutting talk about the founding of Sun-Maid, or John Parr Cox talking about the Parr Terminal on the Richmond waterfront.


[Photo showing widened Ramona Blvd. highway at Mission Road, just east of the L.A. River, in 1935. Fun fact: Del Monte’s former Los Angeles cannery would have been behind you to the left between Aliso St. and Macy St., between Mission Road and the Los Angeles river. Photo from the USC Digital Library / California Historical Society, from the Title Insurance and Trust / C. C. Pierce Photography collection..

Monday, August 21, 2017

3d Printing in Model Railroading: The New Normal

Corey's D&RGW steel gondolas

A couple months ago, I shared my experiences selling 3d printed freight cars made in my garage. One of the first points in my talk was "you’re going to see lots more folks making kits this way in coming years."

And of course, we do see more folks making cars this way. Corey Bonsall recently told me about his drop-bottom-gondolas that he’s making on a Form 2 Printer. Corey’s model is the uncommon 42 and 46 foot GS gondola used by the Rio Grande and Utah Coal Route. It’s an uncommon prototype needed by D&RGW modelers. As I found with the Hart cars, gondolas are well-suited to 3d printing because of the complicated mechanisms and frames, need for inside-and-outside detail, smaller cross-section.

Corey is selling his models on eBay - $95 for a pair, which after my experiences seems like quite a decent price considering the labor involved.

Corey also detailed how he prints the models on the Formlabs discussion board. He made some different tradeoffs than I did. Corey 3d printed solid grab irons and steps rather than holes for wire grab irons. I'd gone with wire grab irons to match the resin models I've made; I love the detail, but I find drilling all the holes and placing the wires takes way too long. Corey's models shows quite acceptable detail, and also shows he added more detail than just a featureless bar. Corey also oriented the model for printing in a more clever way. He managed to tilt the model and add enough support structures to print the model in a single piece, with good detail inside and out. He widened the center channel for weight. Corey not only suggested usual lead weights, but pointed out that 3/16” tungsten cubes are pricey but available (about $6 / ounce as Pinewood Derby weights, but I assume there's cheaper sources. They're 1.7x the density of lead!)

These cars appear close to the SP’s G-50-9 series gondolas that Ulrich’s metal kits were based on. The Ulrich kits are still around, but like a lot of 1960’s models are getting scarcer. It would be neat to have another alternative for another of the SP’s iconic gondolas.

Meanwhile, I'm keeping my eyes peeled to see which other 3d printer owners decide to get into the model railroad manufacturing game.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Maker Faire in San Mateo: This Weekend!

If you're within driving distance of the San Francisco Bay Area, don't forget that the Bay Area Maker Faire is at the San Mateo Fairgrounds this weekend (May 19-21). Billed as the "world's largest show and tell", it's a huge, amazing World's Fair of crafty entertainment: multiple buildings full of folks showing off garage projects, manufacturers showing off the latest in electronics and tools, and tons of wacky and just plain interesting creations. I'd held off going for years because I wanted to spend the time on my own projects... but I finally went last year and found it quite amazing.

More importantly - for us as model railroaders - it's a gathering for our people. Much of Maker Faire is non-commercial; it has normal people showing off the things they've made with electronics (belly dancing outfit with an Arduino), machined metal, crazy Rube Goldberg devices (garage-sized spirograph that draws on the pavement with chalk), ham radio folks building high speed data networks, and parents helping kids understand biology by building cells out of Fimo clay.

And then there's all the crazy stuff that comes straight from Burning Man, like the Live Action Mousetrap game (with 5,000 lb safe crushing a car at the end), strangely lit art projects filling the darkened main hall, blacksmithing classes, oddly-shaped cars and conveyances, and sculptures shooting twenty foot high flames into the air.

More importantly, if you've had any questions whether the younger generation wants to make things, Maker Faire will convince you that the younger generation not only wants to build stuff with their hands, but is building some pretty amazing things. You'll see it both in the sheer number of kids watching and participating, and in the various clubs, and robot leagues, and craft projects that encouraging more kids to build things. Many booths are even interactive, allowing kids (and adults) to make something right there as a first step towards filling a garage with large metalworking tools.

Note that Maker Faire takes over most of the parking lots at the San Mateo fairgrounds, and the crowds are huge. Plan to either park at satellite lots and take shuttle buses to the fairgrounds, or take Caltrain to the show. Buy the tickets in advance, and bring comfortable shoes and a sense of wonder.

Details, details...

Now, if all that description didn't convince you to go, how about a quick run-down of what I saw last year, and what Maker Faire says about how we ought to be promoting our hobby?

Make Things, Share Things

Like I said, these are our people - many of the folks demonstrating at Maker Faire (or attending Maker Faire) have the same love of building things with their hands that we as model railroaders do. One maker space (shared shop and club) in Sacramento, for example, loved the idea of forming a team and working through a challenge. They built a spaceship bridge with multiple computer displays, and they'd have evening "operating sessions" where four people would work through some challenge set up by another - one person on navigation, another on engineering, weapons, life support, and someone sitting in Captain Kirk's chair. As a fan of model railroad operations, I can understand exactly what buzz they got out of a team co-operatively pulling through a problem.

Other booths were full of all the vendors selling Arduino, Raspberry Pis, and all sorts of other electronics that can run model railroad signals, or create a "working" car scale. I brought home a little Wi-Fi enabled microprocessor for a yet-to-be determined project on the layout. Other folks sold little boards that could be used to build a handheld device that could communicate with a cell phone over Bluetooth - just the right innards to make my own wireless throttle. Others showed off snap-together electronics kits to help kids get interested in electricity, or robots, or programming.

The folks selling all the modern shop tools were also there, with multiple 3d printer companies, laser cutters, huge CNC cutters that could carve full sheets of plywood at a time (now that would speed up benchwork!) For me, I found it great to compare the different printers and talk with the manufacturers. For folks less familiar with the different kinds of 3d printers and laser cutters, Maker Faire was the perfect way to see these machines in action, understand how they really worked, and what the resulting parts looked like.

There were also the crazy inventors that reminded me of a lot of my model railroader friends - folks making home-brew electronics for monitoring your car's diagnostics port, or some guys who had made their own pick-and-place machine for doing garage manufacturing of electronics.

We've all been enjoying many of the perks from the same electronics crowd in model railroading. In our local group, I know folks who are doing small-scale electronics manufacturing, or building CTC panels run off some of these bits of electronics. We're all quite happy about our garage manufacturers using those laser cutters to make finely detailed brick or designing kits for Southern Pacific stations. The crowd at Maker Faire are the same sorts of folks.

One Interest, but a Bunch of Directions to Explore

There's also the kindred spirits from near and far. This year, like last year, the Bay Area Garden Railway Society will be showing off large-scale live-steam locomotives. The historians and collectors were also represented, with the Computer History Museum bringing many 1970's era personal computers for anyone to come and try programming. For all of you who got a start programming on BASIC on a TRS-80 or Apple II back in 1977, getting to type "10 PRINT "HELLO"; 20 GOTO 10" can bring back some awfully fond memories. The Computer History Museum's larger projects have a lot more in common with railroad museums; Computer History Museum's restoration and operation of a 1950's IBM punch card-based computer probably has many of the same restoration stories as the folks getting an SD-9 running again... only with slightly lower amperages, and less grease.

Several ham radio clubs also showed up last year. I'm a little ashamed to say my mental image of ham radio operators is a bunch of guys tapping out morse code and trying to contact folks halfway around the world.

Their huge booth did match the stereotype a bit; they were offering ham radio license prep *and* license exams in the booth. But they also described themselves as "Not Your Grandfather's Ham Radio". The members pointed out that ham radio was a hobby for folks that liked building, experimenting with, and sharing technical projects that involved radio. These days, a ham radio operator is much more likely to be experimenting with high-speed Internet over radio than crowing about contacting a fellow operator in Russia.

I like that message. "We want to make things. Our hobby gives us a structure to figure out what to build next, past projects to build on and expand, and a community that will encourage and inspire us." Model railroading's a lot like that. We all have some interest in railroads, of course, but we all have our own reasons for being in the hobby: constructing models, experimenting with electronics, learning about geology, historical and architectural research, photography, or motors and mechanical engineering. We've got long-lived projects like our home layout or our particular subject interest that keeps us going. We've got a bunch of like-minded friends who understand our fascination with a particular locomotive, or freight car, or long-gone industry.

Like I said, Maker Faire is our people.

Be Interactive.

Maker Faire booths are often interactive; the goal isn't to get you watching someone doing something, but for you to do it as well. A friend from Apple, for instance, made a human-sized spirograph from bike parts, conduit, 3d printed parts, a scooter, and chalk. He sets it up outside one of the halls, and lets the kids ride around on the scooter while drawing patterns on the concrete. Like the Exploratorium, the infamously hands-on museum in San Francisco, Maker Faire is all about letting people touch, try, and make.

A booth last year was a bit more involved; they wanted to teach kids about the parts of a human cell, so they brought some Fimo clay and showed kids how to make little models of the cell by forming all the different bits in a multi-colored log. Slice the log apart, and the kid has a bunch of little clay cells. For a $5 donation, they'd go through the project with your child and send her home with a little reminder that biology was fun.

The fiber arts community went all-in, with a huge booth area and many volunteers teaching anyone interested how to crochet or knit. They even brought lots of spare knitting needles, crochet hooks, and yarn so folks could be sent home with a just-started project and the tools to complete it.

With model railroading, we're often not good at that kind of interaction and teaching. We can have a train show, but kids don't often get a chance to touch the models, let alone try building something themselves. Years ago, I remember a Canadian model railway show where one club had several modelers constructing models right there on the show floor, answering questions about the hobby, materials, and techniques the whole time. I loved it - both the chance to see how someone else models, and the chance to share tips while motioning with the specific model and tools. The modeling classes at model railroad conventions show how this interaction can draw people into the hobby more. I'd love it if we could find ways to introduce kids to model railroading - perhaps making a first freight car, or switching freight cars on a Timesaver (the PCR division's timesaver got me interested in switching as a teenager), or getting to make a quick cardboard building or hillside.

The breadth of Maker Faire is also stunning. I'd go from 3d printing or weaving projects from college art students, to a glowing robotic giraffe from Burning Man to scientists from Oak Ridge National Labs answering any and all science questions while making a supercomputer out of cheap Raspberry Pi computers. There was an entire section on living off the grid, gardening, and structures - I didn't even make dent that section last year.

And again, everyone was working to make their exhibits interactive. The Crucible, a shared shop for blacksmithing and metal arts, was doing their usual "shoot flames twenty feet in the air" schtick, but was also demonstrating blacksmithing, and letting kids paint and fire clay pots.

Next door, the civil engineering students from San Jose State were showing off their prototype for a monorail-like city transportation system. At a quarter scale, it must have taken several trucks to bring the vehicles, track, and supports, but they had it running automatically under computer control. Better yet, the students could talk about what they'd learned as they fabricated the rails and support, coded the computer controls to keep cars from crashing into each other, and worked through the economics. The students were obviously having a blast describing their work, even as the Crucible was setting off blasts of propane and flames forty feet away - with noticeable heat.

About Model Railroading

Honestly, I think model railroaders ought to be better-represented at events like this Maker Faire. The folks attending are our folks: interested in building stuff, in experimenting, in learning skills, and in sharing what they've learned with others. Maker Faire also shows the breadth of all the tinkerers and builders in society, from experimenting with lasers or modern computers to those who want to play around with tintype photography or blacksmithing, or the jury-rigged magic of the giant spirograph and live-action Mousetrap game. The focus on interaction - on letting kids and adults touch, and ask questions, and get a chance to see what the hobby is all about - seems essential to introducing new people to the hobby. Not everyone at Maker Faire might be interested in railroads. Those twenty-something kids who make the spaceship console, as much as they might be great candidates for yard master on a few model railroads I can think of, might never have caught the railroad bug. But if I brought out an operating layout of a yard and gave them a throttle, I suspect they'd appreciate the hobby and the games we play with model railroad operation.

How should our hobby interact with something like the Maker Faire? I don't think we need the NMRA at a table handing out brochures; we need to be interactive. We need to bring models, the people building models, and people operating trains. A couple friends and I talked a bit about an exhibit for the smaller Maker Faire run in San Jose every September. We thought about setting up a booth that could show the variety of directions in model railroading. We could bring some modules to show trains in operation, and talk about the historic research for Dave's model of the Santa Fe ferry slip in San Francisco. We could bring electronics, and talk about how John or Chuck built their CTC panels, and how the railroads kept trains from crashing into each other. We could build models with paper or styrene, give kids a paper building to cut out, put on the layout, and later take home. We could set up a timesaver to explain switching problems, and a loop of track so kids could handle a model train and get a sense for the fun of trains.

We never got around to that plan, but I think the idea is sound: share our hobby, share the fun of building things, and remind kids that they can make things too.


Again, the San Mateo Maker's Faire is May 19-21, 2017 at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds, just south of San Francisco. The San Mateo Maker's Faire is one of the largest in the country, if not the world - think of it as the equivalent of the huge Springfield, Massachusetts model railroad meet for the Maker community. If you're not local, keep an eye out for similar events in your area. Although there are similarly huge events in New York and elsewhere, there's also a ton of local, smaller Maker Faires that still capture the informal, show-and-tell feel. San Jose's Faire, for example, may not require multiple days to explore, but there's more time to talk with the participants, and wander, and just enjoy the kids and adults getting excited about laser cutters, balloon rockets, pressing flowers, or making music on home-made instruments. If you're part of a railroad, science, or historical museum, consider hosting a Maker Faire to get all these sorts of weird folks together to show what they're making.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Bakersfield and 3d Printing

I gave a talk on mass-producing freight cars with a 3d printer at the NMRA's Pacific Coast Region 2017 Convention; I've put the slides for that talk on-line, along with some hints about using SketchUp for making 3d models.

It was a fun talk to give - sharing the high points and low points of starting a 3d printing business out of a bedroom. If you read my article last year, you already heard my stories and opinions. 3d printing is closer to manufacturing than crafting, so trying to run off twenty - or even ten models - requires problem solving for the issues you might have expected getting a new production line running. I also mentioned last year how the labor required with tending the 3d printer was more than I'd expected. Finally, I'd been surprised by just how many one-off tasks needed to be done to get a new kit out the door, and how much time that took. Making a new pilot model took the same effort as building a good resin kit, and the time required was hard to justify when only selling forty or fifty kits. I've had a great time getting the Hart gondolas on the market, and I'd do it again for the right model... but it's not a path to riches.

In both the talk and the original article, I'd mentioned setting the price for my Hart gondola kits around $35 to make them comparable to a resin kit, and because I wanted a string of cars to be affordable. I realized after the talk that I also felt a bit of unexpected pressure from Shapeways. Shapeways would have charged $70 to make the Hart gondolas in Frosted Ultra Detail. That price set sort of an upper limit on the kits; if I found printing the kits on the Form One took too much labor for the price, I could raise them a bit... but as the price approached the Shapeways price, I had a pretty strong motivation to throw in the towel and just sell the cars on Shapeways with a small markup. Making the cars on my own printer... and in my own boxes... required beating the labor costs, yield, and quality that Shapeways could do.

The Bakersfield convention had many other great talks. Jack Burgess shared his own 3d printing experiences. He's been using Shapeways to make small parts for a few years now; one memorable project were Adirondack chairs for his Bagby Hotel. These tiny details might seem minor, but they do add an amazing amount of realism to a scene. Jack also remarked how 3d printing was addicting, and how he'd search around for another model to create. I've had the same feeling many times. Because 3d printing lets us make models we wouldn't have been able to make in any other way, it can be quite exciting to push ourselves for the next impossible model.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Coupon-Cutting Thursday II: Sweet Deals on a Track-Pull Tractor

One advantage of living in the early 20th century is you didn't need to go far to test-drive a tractor. Forget all those Internet-based car sales places that will bring a beige sedan for you to test drive at home; back in the 'teens, you could go down the block and test out a tractor at a local ranch.

November 3, 1916 San Jose Mercury Herald

Here, for example, is an ad from a November, 1916 issue of the Mercury Herald, highlighting upcoming demonstrations of the Bean Track-Pull Tractor:
  • November 3 at W. P. Lyon's orchard in Edenvale
  • the next day at Mrs. Post's ranch on McLaughlin Ave.,
  • the Flickinger orchard on Berryessa Road on the 6th,
  • November 7 at the Dutard ranch in Campbell ("Junction Santa Clara-Los Gatos Road with Payne Ave.", better known today as "that strip mall with the Togo's"),
  • F. E. Goodrich's ranch in Cupertino on the 9th,
  • the Thompson Ranch on El Camino near Santa Clara on the 10th, and
  • A. W. Ehrhorn's ranch in Mountain View, "just beyond the school buildings own November 10.

And place your order early, for there's only a limited number available for Santa Clara County. The Track-Pull was going for a thrifty $930, or $20 more for an installment plan - $50 down, $455 on delivery, and the remainder paid within a year. That's a sweet price for a tiny tractor, and with luck, you'd even be able to drive it around William Lyons' ranch to convince yourself it's just the right thing for the modern fruit ranch.

The Mercury Herald even did a three-column piece on the Track-Pull on November 1, 1916, interviewing the company general manager, J.D. Crummey ("he is enthusiastic over the possibilities of the tractor field and the new machine which his firm is now making... no machine has yet been put on the market that fills the requirements of the orchard and vineyard conditions in the west.") "It is the first tractor that drives as a horse pulls, and hence is able to do what is impossible with other tractors." Crummey also pointed out that the demonstrations were only the beginning, and would be repeated at fruit grower conventions in Napa, Davis, and Fresno in upcoming months.

Bean Spray Pump claimed to have sold $400,000 in tractors that first year, and $700,000 the next - meaning that at least a thousand of the Track-Pulls should have been clattering around orchards and small farms across the nation.

Machinists Needed. December 23, 1916 San Jose Mercury Herald.

And if your yard isn't big enough for a Track-Pull -- and ours certainly isn't -- there's some other ads to check out as well. Two days before Christmas, 1916, you would have found the Bean Spray Pump Company advertising for machinists to come build the beasts:

On account of the demand for Bean Track PULL Tractors, we find it necessary to increase our factory force, and also to run most of our machines nights. We therefore invite application for positions from the following trades: Expert Machinists, Tool Makers, Good Lathe Hands, Milling Machine Hands, and Experienced Drill Press Hands.

And there still wasn't enough labor for all the tractors that needed to be built. An ad in the December 20, 1916 San Jose Mercury Herald declared "Our entire output for all of January and up to February 10 is already taken", so a fair number of orchardists were going to be disappointed when they didn't find Track-Pulls under the tree at Christmas. Crummey noted in the San Jose Mercury article that a second plant in Lansing, Michigan would start producing the tractor in May, 1917. Even if Crummey was exporting jobs out of California, he noted "the Lansing factory is entirely owned by Santa Clara County stockholders, so that all profits from there return to this community."

Now, this may all seem quaint - tractor demos, comparisons to horses, and questions of exporting Santa Clara county jobs to the quite-dubious midwest. But other tidbits remind us how much things aren't that different from today. An Ebay seller was recently selling the program from the June, 1917 Bean Spray Pump Company's employee dinner.

Now, the menu has its own little surprises - the dinner started out with fruit cocktail, for example, which seems like the most San Jose way to start an employee dinner I can think of.

But the list of speeches looked awfully familiar for an all-hands meeting at any high-tech company. They led off with an outside speaker. The evening led off with Ernest Richmond, formerly of the J.K. Armsby Company, and just recently the founder of his own dried-fruit company which he would soon merge to form Richmond-Chase. As an outsider, his speech title - "Loyalty" suggests something motherhood-and-apple-pie as a soft opening. There needed to be something about the key company strength of manufacturing; H. C. Lisle spoke about "Our Factory in Lansing, Michigan". H. C. Lassen spoke for the sales force. The remote offices - Los Angeles and Fresno - had their boosters reminding the head office folks that there was more to the company than San Jose. H. L. Austin and J. H. Delaney talked about future plans, improvements, and new investments. J. D. Crummey's talk on "What We Are and What We Stand For" was a classic leadership talk.

And right in the middle of it was the talk on the crazy new product that might change the company. J. H. McCollough, one of the Track-Pull tractor startup guys, spoke on "Our Tractor". He surely sold everyone in the room on how the Track-Pull would pull Bean Spray into a new and profitable business. I'm sure he had PowerPoint slides of happy Track-Pull owners rolling around their orchards, and I'm sure he had some graphs of sales showing the hockey stick growth curves so familiar to Silicon Valley types. He probably even raised the point that the tiny Track-Pulls would change the economics of small farms and bring prosperity to every corner of the nation, and put up a photo of a smiling child in an orchard.

And we know how that talk went because anyone who's been in Silicon Valley for any length of time has heard that talk and that dream. Sometimes, it even came true. The Track-Pull tractor may not have been a home run or game changer for the Bean Spray Pump Company, but it's a nice reminder that this crazy place isn't that different from the Santa Clara of 1917.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Live in Bakersfield: 3D-Printing Freight Cars at Home

By the way, if you've been following my stories about 3d-printing the Hart convertible gondolas, flat cars, and those 1902-era Battleship gondolas, note that you'll get a chance to hear about them in person.

I'll be giving a clinic on 3d-printing freight cars at the NMRA Pacific Coast Region's annual convention in Bakersfield this month. If you've been reading the saga so far, you'll be familiar with what I've been up to. However, you're still likely to enjoy the specific stories about what went well and what went badly. I'll also bring many of the models so you can see the 3d printed cars in person.

Jack Burgess is also offering a clinic on Saturday morning with a nuts-and-bolts description of using SketchUp software and Shapeways print-on-demand service to print out detail parts.

The PCR's convention is April 19-23 at the Doubletree in Bakersfield; there's more information about the convention at the PCR web site. My talk will be Friday, April 21 at 2:30.

Hope to see you all there!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Coupon-Cutting Thursday I: Ainsley Dessert Fruits On Sale!

And now for the inaugural episode of what hopefully will be a regular feature: Coupon-Cutting Thursday, with newspaper ads related to Santa Clara Valley industry. No guarantees given that the vendors listed will honor these prices.

Apr 27, 1912 St. Andrews Citizen.

March 19, 1926 Kent and Sussex Courier

It's always a bit surprising to me how the Santa Clara valley fruit industry really was international, even as far back as the turn of the century. Vince Nola told me stories about playing on the burlap sacks to ship prunes to Germany. The San Jose Evening News in 1903 remarked on 200,000 pounds of A&C Ham Company's prunes sold in Antwerp in 1903. The U.S. Products cannery, run by the Dutch Vlessing company, exported canned fruit back to Europe.

But the most memorable for me is John Colpitts Ainsley's Ainsley Cannery in Campbell. Ainsley, an immigrant from Britain, worked with family back home to export fruit from the 1890's through the late 1930's. Ainsley was also known for its fruit packed quite attractively in glass jars. Although the most successful of the Campbell canneries, the plant itself is long gone; it's former location, north of the railroad tracks along Harrison Ave., is now townhouses.

April 20, 1928 Sevenoaks Chronicle

I'll admit I was always a bit curious about exporting fruit to England. I'd heard that each European country had its own preferences on fruit - prunes to Germany, apricots to England. But I didn't know much about what fruit they got, or how they used it. Luckily, with all the old newspapers scanned and put on the Internet, we've got a chance to see.

These three ads came from the 'teens and twenties. Ainsley was primarily known for its dessert fruits, at least according to the 1920's ads, advertising peaches, pears and apricots from the Valley to the Brits as they escaped the long winter. Ainsley also apparently did fruit salad and pineapple slices as well. The first sight to my modern eyes is the sheer size of the packaging - 2/12 lb apricots, peaches, and pears in cans, or glass-packed fruit for twice the price.

The earlier ad - from 1912 - highlights how folks were using canned fruit differently than how I grew up. I think of canned fruit as an old-fashioned and handy dessert source, but Ainsley was instead selling "Californian Apricot Pulp" for jam and marmalade making in seven pound tins. They even include the handy instructions for making jam at home - just add sugar and bitter almonds.

Possible Wired article intro sent back in time that inspired the St. Andrew's Citizen's typesetter.

I'll also highlight the sheer number of typefaces used in that St. Andrews newspaper advertisement, with at least eight typefaces appearing in the same ad - not just mainstays like a roman font and sans-serif font, but a stencil font *and* an Old Western typeface, all sitting there together. I might guess that a copy of Wired's Style Guide got sent back in time to land on the typesetter's desk, though it's a shame he couldn't also print the ad in several different contrasting colors.

I found these ads in the British Newspaper Archive, which also turned up a reporter's visit to San Jose in 1850:

"The valley of San Jose has quite won us by its extremely fine balmy climate and quietness... to us one of the pleasantest attractions of the place were the fine old orchards and vineyards attached to some of the old residences of the native Californians. Spacious and extensive, they are filled with sturdy and thrifty pear, apple quince, and other fruit trees, literally breaking down from the weight of the luscious burdens they bear...
We were quite surprised at the extent to which cultivation has been carried in the vicinity of San Jose, within two or three miles, quite a number of Americans have brought under cultivation large tracts of land, and with the greatest success. The labour has been mostly performed by Indians, who have been paid five to six dollars a week, we are informed. We heard of one gentleman having one patch of potatoes covering upwards of 60 acres. (October 24, 1850 Fife Herald)."

I never would have expected the Fife Herald to be featuring an article on San Jose agriculture (and a trip to the Almaden mines) just a couple years after the discovery of Gold, but we were certainly interesting enough to fill some column inches on a slow Thursday.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Before the Cannery, the Winery

One of the big themes in the Santa Clara Valley has been the changes in industry, both in the recent and distant past. If you’re looking at modern Silicon Valley, you’ll find that the seeds of Google and Apple were planted back in the 1920’s when vacuum tube makers located out here to get far away from the patent holders on the east coast. Vacuum tubes led to high-power radio and microwave; high power radio’s material scientists had all the skills to make semiconductors, semiconductors led to microprocessors, which led to personal computers, software, and eventually to hipster chicken day care. (Making Silicon Valley gives a nice overview of Silicon Valley's early history, if you're curious.)

For the agricultural Santa Clara Valley, we see a similar progression. The cattle ranches of the Mexican-era ranchos became wheat fields as the anglo farmers exported huge amounts of wheat to Europe. The wheat fields turned into vineyards. Various setbacks turned the vineyards into orchards; the orchards brought the canneries, which in turn replaced the orchards with manufacturing, can-making, and other industry. If you wander around, you’ll find signs of that past, whether a cannery now holding a microbrewery in San Jose, a grain shed in an empty field in Tres Pinos , or a remnant of a former winery in the middle of suburban Sunnyvale. Each economic or technical change created a new set of successful businesses, but caused hardship for the folks stuck on whatever was the previous boom.

I also run across those reminders of change in historical research. When I was tracking down the history of the Hunt Brothers cannery in Los Gatos, I found a reference that the new cannery was using buildings left over from the “Delpech Winery”. The name was new, but some research turned up two familiar stories: an immgrant making wine just like in the Old Country, and the fall of the wine industry and rising of the fruit industry in the Santa Clara Valley.

Amedee and Germaine Delpech

The immigrant in question was Amedee Delpech, an immigrant from Lot in southern France. Amedee came to California in 1876. It's unclear what Delpech did upon arriving, but I can suspect the common story: he worked for several years, saved up a bank-roll, then either bought or leased land for his own farm. All the good land in the Valley was already taken, so Delpech, like the new Italian, Portuguese, or Yugoslav immigrants, was pushed up into the marginal foothill lands. In Delpech’s case, he a small amount of acreage at Patchen, at the summit of the hill between Los Gatos and Santa Cruz. Hints from land sales suggest his farm was on Summit Road, just west of the current Highway 17.

Amedee planted his land in grapes, and quickly set to work making wines and brandies. In 1888, Delpech presented his wines at the 6th Annual Viticultural Convention in San Francisco, offering up a Sauvignon Vert, White Pinot, as well as mission and peach brandies, all from the 1886 and 1887 vintage. (His nearby neighbor, E. Meyer in Wrights, was meanwhile making some lighter red wines -Carignan, Ploussard, and a Zinfandel-Mataro blend.) For the 1892 and 1896 voter registration, he listed his occupation quite solidly as winemaker. By 1903, he'd moved up in the world; a city directory listed him as a “Wine Manufacturer.”

Possible location of the Delpech vineyard at 22231 Summit Road. Perhaps that's even the Delpech barn?

It was an odd time to be in the wine business; although Santa Clara County had been a center for wine-growing, the trade had been in decline since the 1880s thanks to a glut of wine on the market and the plague of phylloxera. The disease hit the Santa Clara Valley just before Delpech decided on the Los Gatos expansion. Cupertino, for example, had been a center for vineyards. (Vineyards were preferred over fruit because it only took three years, rather than five, to start getting marketable crops.) Between 1895 and 1905, phylloxera hit Cupertino and decimated the vines. By the end, almost all the vineyards had been replaced with fruit trees. The effect was also seen in the wineries. The California Wine Company along the narrow gauge railroad at San Fernando Street became Griffin and Skelley's dried fruit plant in the early 20th century. Zicovich’s Winery, a competitor in the wine and brandy trade, burned down in 1899 during the Great San Carlos Street Just West of the Railroad Tracks fire. There's no indication it was rebuilt.

Gustav Hueter's Mountain Springs Ranch. See if you can spot the rolling tree stumps! From Los Gatos Public Library, Linda Ward collection.

Delpech also apparently continued to expand his vineyards. In 1899, he managed to annoy his downhill neighbor by rolling tree stumps onto his property. The neighbor, Gustav Hueter, the San Francisco varnish king, appeared to be a bit high-strung, suing his downhill neighbors over water rights in Sheppard Gulch creek, and spending more on the lawsuit against Delpech than he claimed in damages. Delpech, in his defense, declared that his workers brought the errant stumps back:

In the Superior Court defendant Delpesch contended that although some of the rolling stumps had invaded the premises of Heuter they had done no harm except to bend over two madrone and three tanbark trees, and furthermore it was claimed that when a hired man of Delpesch had learned that some of the stumps had gone beyond their legitimate moorings they hitched onto them and hauled them up the hill again where they were blocked up to prevent their rolling tendencies.

If you ever thought the early landowner's life in the Santa Cruz Mountains was easy, just imagine trying to haul a bunch of huge redwood tree stumps back up a hill before your cranky downhill neighbor got annoyed. Almost makes wrestling a bear sound fun.

Hueter turns up in a couple other news stories, including one about some drunken yahoos shooting up the stuffed bear he placed at the entrance to his property on the Old Santa Cruz Highway. Then, in 1905, 65 year old Hueter was shot and killed by his thirty-three year old wife after he threatened her during a fight. The grand jury discovered that Kate Hueter had been overly friendly with the Los Gatos doctor which had spurred the row. Hueter had been in the process of contracting for oil drilling on his property to see if the Moody Gulch oil strikes might be repeated on his land. Hueter's land is now the Redwood Estates development.

By 1898, Amedee, was beginning to appear quite successful. His wife Germaine, and daughter Marguerite, had moved to San Jose, living in the Liberte Hotel (San Pedro and Post), then at 312 El Dorado (now Post) St - just about the time his daughter, Margaret, would have been starting school. They also had a small lot near the railroad tracks in Alma, bought in 1900, and another lot in San Jose downtown. Amedee was also active in politics, serving as a delegate for James G. Maguire for governor in the 1898 State Democratic Convention.

1900 was also the time for Amedee to try to grab at the gold ring of business. That year, he started building a winery in Los Gatos, at the intersection of the Saratoga Road and Santa Cruz Ave, with Jacob Lenzen and son designing the building, and Z. O. Field building the structure. The winery itself was incorporated in early 1903 as the “Los Gatos Winery”, with A. Berryman, P. J. Arnerich, J. J. Stanfield, and J. Bazus as directors - all proud burghers of Los Gatos business.

But even as the winery was built, its future fell into doubt. Amedee Delpech died suddenly in August, 1903:

"Amedee Delpech the well known winemaker of Los Gatos died at his home in that city on Wednesday from an attack of pneumonia.  The remains were forwarded to San Francisco today and the funeral will take place in that city on Friday at 2 o'clock under the auspices of the I. O. O. F. of which he was a member.  He was a native of France and was 52 years of age."
His friends in the Franco-American Lodge of the I.O.O.F. described him more explicitly in an obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Prominent Vineyardist Dead
Amedee Delpech, one of the best-known vineyardists and wine men of this county, died at his home near Los Gatos today. He was a native of France, aged 52 years. The funeral will be held in San Francisco tomorrow under the auspices of the Franco-American Lodge, I. O. O. F., of which he was a member.

His wife, Germaine, had the task of settling the estate; a sequence of real estate sales showed up in newspapers for the next couple years, selling the property at Patchen to Joseph McKiernan in 1904, and selling the downtown San Jose land in 1906. She later moved to San Francisco, “four children and one child still living.” Germaine ran a candy store for a bit, worked as a dress maker, and held a couple other jobs. In 1928, she lived in the Marina district.

The new winery itself spent a few years in limbo. At first, there was talk about the Los Gatos Cannery using the building for dried fruit packing in the 1906 season. The Los Gatos Fruit Growers’ Union, associated with George Hooke, claimed to have secured a lease for the 100 x 150 foot building, “half of which will be floored immediately and a model packing house will be arranged. Whether the union will pack its own fruit or not will depend on the prices offered in the bins by packers.” (August 27, 1906 San Jose Mercury News.) Another article claimed that quite substantial work was already in progress. After that, little can be found on the Los Gatos Fruit Grower’s Union.

That same year, George Hooke, the owner of the Los Gatos Canneries, decided he didn’t have enough excitement in his life, and decided growing a new cannery would be more fun than running the old one. Hooke sold the Los Gatos Canneries to the Hunt Brothers Packing Company, and left to manage new canneries in Watsonville and Sunnyvale. The Hunt Brothers needed to modernize the very victorian plant in the middle of Los Gatos’s downtown; by the next spring, Hunt decided that the best solution would be to build a modern plant, and saw the Delpech cannery as the perfect location - a huge space, easy rail access, and an existing building ready for reuse. Hunts also brought in their own people; Hooke had claimed Hunts would keep the existing management in place, but the manager and other staff were replaced within a year by Hunt veterans.

Hunt Brothers Making Extensive Improvements for New Canning Plant” - April 16, 1907 San Jose Mercury News.
“Very few people realize the vastness of the improvements that are underway at the Hunt Brothers big cannery at the corner of Santa Cruz Avenue and the Saratoga Road. The immense winery building that was erected by the late A. Delpech has been ceiled overhead, and a floor three feet above the ground, and ventilator and light shafts installed at convenient distances. At the north of the main building boilers are being installed, and when that is completed a suitable building will enclose it. The southwest corner of the lot has been covered with a high one story building that will be used as a receiving room, and as the fruit is processed it will finally be placed in the large warehouse alongside the track, the foundations of which are already laid. This building will be eighty feet wide by a length of two hundred and twenty five feet, and on the east side of it for the whole length is the spur track adjoining the main track of the Southern Pacific Company... Their superintendent C. C. Van Eaton has made his home here permanently. All the operations of moving from the old plant, which they purchased from the Los Gatos Canneries, has been made under his personal supervision. He brings with him skillful assistants in several departments who have been with him a number of years."

And with that, Delpech’s dream of a winery in Los Gatos instead helped the canning industry expand - the industry that chased the vineyards out of the Santa Clara Valley. Delpech’s would eventually see wine again; after Hunt Brothers closed their doors in the early 1930’s, the building was sold to Paul Masson (then owned by Seagrams), who used the former cannery for storage.

Delpech's winery and the Hunt buildings were torn down in the late 1950s; a strip mall took over the land in the late 1960's. If you go to the site of the old Delpech winery today, you’ll find a rather nice little wine-bar where you can enjoy some very good wines, and wonder what Amedee Delpech would have thought.

Amedee Delpech's story isn't that uncommon. There are shades of it in my great-grandfather's own story - immigrant comes to the United States, buys his own (marginal) land, and makes a home, vineyard, and farm. Delpech's story also matches Paul Masson, another French immigrant. Masson, who came to work for Charles LeFranc in his Almaden vineyards, later created his own winery that became world famous - probably just the ending Amedee Delpech was hoping for.


Photo of Amedee and Germaine Delpech courtesy of Sandy Herve. Mountain Springs Ranch photo from Los Gatos Public Library; they have several other photos of the Heuter property.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Los Gatos Plan

A few years back, I confessed that “Los Gatos was always sort of a compromise, a town crammed into too tight a space, added because I needed a destination but didn’t have room to do it justice.”

I’d written that before I started scenery - not that there was much space for scenery. A main track, passing track, and spur fill the foot-wide shelf it sits on; my layout’s main staging yard sits right in front of and below the town site. The Los Gatos space also short - just a six foot siding, with one end curving away behind a backdrop and into the helix, and the other end right up against the Vasona Junction scene. For a town with multiple photogenic locations - the station area, team track behind the downtown strip, Hunt's cannery, rural stretches - there wasn’t room to fit all of these, let alone do them justice.

Panorama of Los Gatos with staging exposed.

Well, I’m finally trying to do it justice. I started scenery last year. My plan is pretty simple - omit the station area, let the downtown buildings serve as backdrop for much of the scene, and let the Hunt Brothers cannery serve as the dominant element - not too surprising for a model railroad where the freight trains are the interesting part.

Railroad tracks at Elm Street, Los Gatos. California Railroad Commission photo, Los Gatos Public Library collection.

My inspiration came out of a small set of photos. The California Railroad Commission (now the California Public Utilities Commission) came through Los Gatos in 1928 to check out the safety of the grade crossings, and photographed many of the intersections in downtown. The photos are particularly interesting - in that “lots of weeds and the back sides of buildings and fences” sense of interesting that would make a civic booster cringe. The photos show tracks running through an isolated right-of-way, with downtown buildings on the edge of the photo, and the back fences of houses along University Ave. framing the opposite side.

Railroad tracks at Grays Lane, Los Gatos. California Railroad Commission photo, Los Gatos Public Library collection.

Occasionally, a business shows up - a lumber yard at Elm and University (not rail-served) a modest building that was apparently an ice cream factory on the other side of Elm, and a corrugated iron building doing auto body work at Grays Lane. All this seemed just right for a freight railroad - a modest and industrial scene showing what was happening on the other side of the back fences. The location also still exists and is identifiable by visitors to my layout; the former railroad right-of-way now serves as the parking lots behind downtown Los Gatos. When I point out a scene, folks will be walking there the next weekend.

Of course, I needed more space to do all this justice. Years ago, Dave Bayless, a model railroader, suggested building a shelf over the staging yard. I finally took his advice, and added a simple plywood shelf over the staging yard. The new shelf was just the right place for the houses and back fences that the scene required. Better yet, the scenery could be taken out during operations. That whole back-fence scene means that there were no industries or details critical to operation, and the fence itself served as a nice way to block the gap between the real scenery and the movable scenery. When I’m showing the layout, the shelves stay on; when operators come over, the shelves come out.

Panorama of Los Gatos with staging covered.

All this leads to a few buildings to build:

  • flats for the downtown area
  • the lumberyard and its low sheds (originally Lynden and Sylverson, though operated as Sterling Lumber in my era. )
  • additional buildings, such as the ice cream factory
  • the Hunts cannery.
  • Houses and backyards for the foreground (representing the houses along University Ave.)

Downtown buildings: Downtown Los Gatos dates from the 1870’s, so the downtown strip is a collection of brick and frame buildings. It’ll be easy to model with bits of plastic kits or scratchbuilt flats.

Lumber yard: Sterling Lumber, had been at that location since the 1860’s, though it never had its own railroad spur. Instead, it relied on the team track across the tracks. The lumberyard’s low sheds and fancy gate on the south end of the yard were obvious details to model.

Ice Cream Factory: The ice cream factory was the work of Hans Nielsen and the Eatmore Ice Cream Company. Sanborn maps show a simple concrete block building with an eye-catching cooling tower at its back. Old stories of Los Gatos remember Eatmore, so it’s worth adding.

The houses along University Ave.: sometimes I'll model the house, and sometimes the back yards. To be thoroughly correct, the houses would need to be a mix of Victorian, craftsman, and traditional.

And finally, the Hunts cannery - the focal point for both the scene and for operations.

So that's the plan - extend the shelf so there's more room for scenery, build the unfashionable parts of Los Gatos, and deal with the disapproval of the Chamber of Commerce for ignoring the attractive parts of Los Gatos. I’ll talk about each of these in turn and show some of the work needed to model each.


Photo of Elm Street railroad crossing taken by California Railroad Commission as part of a study. From the Baggerly collection, Los Gatos Public Library.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

How the Freeway Came to LA, and other links

Time to share a bunch of interesting links related to the 1930's.

If you're interested in maps, geography, and civil engineering check out Matt Roth's talk on "Concrete Utopia: Roads and Freeways in Los Angeles", which he gave at the Huntington Library a few years ago. It's an interesting lecture, talking a bit about how the LA freeways came about, as well as the challenges of getting folks to pay for major infrastructure improvements at any time in the past.

Available here, or in the "California and the West" series of talks in iTunes.

I found this as part of my search for interesting podcasts. I've been listening to a bunch on my drive into work - both oral histories such as interviews with Los Gatos resident Richard Mors, as well as You Can't Eat the Sunshine, a Los Angeles history-and architecture series that interviews folks interested in Los Angeles and its downtown. The creators of "You Can't Eat the Sunshine" also worked on the 1947 Project and On Bunker Hill. Both websites documented the seedier side of Los Angeles through newspaper articles, crime stories, and historical research on old hotels.

If you're modeling the 1930's and want some reminders of what life was really like, Frederick Lewis Allen's Since Yesterday documents life in the United States from September 1929 (just before the great depression until September 1939 (just before World War II). It's a remarkably readable book, combining major news items, trivia, and a strong sense of how our grandparents might have seen the changes occurring before their eyes. Allen wrote a similar book, "Only Yesterday", about the 1920's.

And finally, for some San Francisco content: the YouTube channel Dirty Old Bar visits old-style neighborhood bars around San Francisco to meet the folks who run them and who visit them. The visits hint at San Francisco history; for example, their visit to Clooney's, a Mission-district working-man's bar that opens at 6:00am, lets you one of the last bars catering to swing-shift workers coming off duty. It's easy to imagine the place filled with cannery workers, machinists, and longshoremen; the Vasona Branch deserves a bar like that.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

3d Printing a Bean Spray Track-Pull Tractor

See the previous article for a history of the Bean Spray Track-Pull Tractor.

Normally, I’m not much of a fan of making models “because they’re cool”; I’d prefer to focus on models that I can use on my model railroad, rather than build some cute models that will just get in the way. I'll usually describe projects that aren't appropriate for the layout as "spec(ulative) projects" in a pejorative sense. I don't have much storage space for random models, and would prefer to focus on stuff that will improve the layout.

However, the Track-Pull caught my attention because of a great publicity photo, the San Jose connection, and because - to be blunt - I was bored.

Track-Pull Tractors in front of Anderson-Barngrover. History San Jose collection.

The publicity photo, from History San Jose’s collection, shows a whole herd of Track-Pulls rolling in front of Bean Spray Pump on their way to the Southern Pacific freight house on San Pedro Street. It’s a great shot, both for the Track-Pulls and the Mission-style Anderson Barngrover headquarters in the back of the photo. When I saw the image a few years back, I knew I wanted to do something with that scene, and saved it away in a set of photos I keep around for inspiration.

Last month, I was looking for a little 3d printing project, and remembered those wacky Bean Spray tractors. “Huh, I wonder if I could 3d print one of these.”

Unlike some of the other models I’ve done, there’s precious little information available on the Track-Pulls, and only a few examples still in existence. (If I was smart, I’d also drive by a few lots around San Jose that have rusty farm machinery, just in case there's an actual Track-Pull tractor hiding nearby.) The nearest actual Track-Pull is at a museum up in the Sacramento Valley - reachable, but I'm not enough of a tractor fan to drive up there just to get measurements of a model.

I did a bit of searching on the Internet, turning up a few historical documents and a bunch of photos from the tractor restoration crowd. The best I found was an article from the October 30, 1919 issue of Motor Age, where the magazine reviews the tractor. Motor Age describes the Track-Pull’s engine portion as 30 inches wide, 43 inches high, and six feet long. The tricycle rear wheels were 66 inches apart (though a separate magazine review claimed it was only five feet wide), and the whole machine had a length of 110 inches. Beyond these rough numbers, there’s no other data on the Track-Pull apart from photos.

First part of design: tread

Full model

With the little information I had, I started trying to draw the Track-Pull. Like most of my models, I sketched my version of the Track-Pull in SketchUp. I used the rough dimensions, but eyeballed nearly everything else from the few photos.

To get started, I first modeled the Track-Pull in terms of rough shapes, and slowly refined and detailed the model. The caterpillar tread assembly was the first bit; I guessed at an overall size, drew its overall shape, then slowly added the treads and machinery. To increase my confidence, I printed out that assembly on its own just to prove that it could print, and so I could actually see the model in the flesh. (That's a nice aspect of having a 3d printer in my office - I can print out half-done models just for the encouragement, rather than having to send to Shapeways only when I've got a model that I'm willing to spend the money to print.)

Once I had the tread, I started roughing out additional parts of the model - first the gross details such as the outriggers, then the rough shape of the engine and radiator. I then started throwing detail on each piece, sort of how movie model makers throw on "greebles" - random detail - to make their models look more realistic.

Detail at front of model - node mount for fan bearing

This model was a good deal more complex than many of the models I've done for the model railroad. One trick was to work in terms of subassemblies. I used SketchUp's "group" command to make the larger assemblies (the tread, radiator, fuel tank, and outriggers) into single elements. When I needed to get to a hard-to-reach section of the model, I'd select the group that blocked access, and would move it so it was ten feet above or below the model. I could then move the part back into place easily.

I also added 3d parts for much of the piping, such as from the radiator to the engine and back. Normally, SketchUp has lots of problems with curved and round surfaces; having pipes intersect or turn right angles is particularly painful. Because many of these pipes were small (at most 2-3 inches across), I instead drew all the piping with hexagon shapes, and hand-edited the intersections between piping.

HO scale version

O scale version

For this model, I also printed the model in HO and in O scale both to see the detail and just for the fun of making a larger model. The HO model can print as one piece (with some extra supports to cut away); the O scale model had to be printed with the engine and tread as one piece, and the two wheeled outriggers as a separate part.

These models aren't complete and are still missing features. One obvious omission are the dual wheels for controlling steering and engine speed. As is, these are still impressive models.

Now, the Track-Pull isn't my usual sort of model to build, but it was a fun project. Better yet, it's a nice reminder how the 3d printer really broadens my modeling. Even a few years ago, my only choices for an orchard tractor would have been a die cast or plastic model (maybe one of those modern John Deeres I bought a while back), or else a detailed but pricey white metal kit such as any of the really nice Holt bulldozer tractor kits available from Rio Grande Models. 3d printing gives us the chance to get a wider selection of models.

Drawing those models also gave me the chance to find some interesting stories about how one particularly crazy tractor design came from San Jose. Crazy startups aren't just a 21st century creation of Silicon Valley.


Great thanks to the Flickr user who took pictures of the Track-Pull at the Hendricks Agricultural Museum up in Woodland.

Crazy Ideas in the Valley of Hearts Delight

Track-Pull Tractors in front of Anderson-Barngrover. History San Jose collection.

Out here in Silicon Valley, we’re a little crazy.

Well... a lot, actually.

We come up with crazy ideas: dog food delivered in bulk by drone. Uber for sharing underwear. Self-driving unicycles. Luxury chicken day care.

And, after all, it’s a tradition out here. We've been coming up with crazy ideas since the 1880's. We saw that in the past with stories of Victor Greco’s early adventures in the tomato paste business, Stanley Hiller’s apricot-pit charcoal gamble, or Johnathan Coykendall's prune coffee.

Or even Alfred Johnson's single footed tricycle-style caterpillar tractor.

Oh my, you haven’t heard about the Bean Spray Track-Pull?

At the turn of the century, San Jose had several businesses making farming equipment, all finding success by filling the needs for the orchardists and canneries filling the Santa Clara Valley. The Anderson Prune Dipper Company, Barngrover-Hull, and Knapp Plow are all well known. There was also the quite successful Bean Spray Pump Company, founded by John Bean back in 1884.

John Bean, the Steve Jobs of orchard spraying equipment.

John Bean was a prolific inventor, designing farm equipment and vehicles in the midwest. When he sold his design for a deep well pump for a significant payday, he decided to leave the midwest and find a climate better for his tuberculosis. He settled on an almond orchard near Los Gatos, prepared for a quiet retirement. However, like many gardeners, he quickly got frustrated with garden pests as scale infested his orchard. When he found that commercial sprayers were poorly designed and couldn't reach the tops of the trees in his orchard, he invented his own… and founded a new pump-making company in 1884. That company grew to produce many different sorts of machinery for agriculture.

The Crazy Startup Guys

By 1915, the Bean Spray Pump Company was a big, established company in the Valley, and its namesake inventor was long-retired. Just like today's big tech companies, Bean Spray had to search around for their inspiration for products to keep growing, either from folks inside the company, hiring new designers in-house (such as acqi-hiring engine design expertise by purchasing the Cushman company in Nebraska), or sometimes seeking help from some crazy startup guys.

The startup guys, in this case, were Alfred C. Johnson, James H. McCollough, and Fred D. Calkins. Alfred was the machinist and entrepreneur, Calkins the assistant, and McCollough apparently was the business guy.

Alfred Johnson had been quite the tractor entrepreneur. Although only in his mid thirties, he'd already convinced his family to join him in previous crazy tractor projects. The Johnson family, originally from Iowa, moved to Dixon (near Davis) before 1900. Alfred must have been quite the precocious engineer, for in 1907, the family appears in Sunnyvale (just after the arrival of the Hendy Iron Works in town.) Together, Alfred and his father started the Johnson Traction Engine Company, eventually pulling in brothers and assorted helpers to the cause.

Johnson Toe-Hold Tractor, built by Hendy Iron Works. Photo from Bancroft Library collection

Their first design, the "Toe-Hold Tractor", was a low-power, low-to-the-ground model suited for orchard work first sold in 1911. The Toe-Hold tractor's "secret sauce" were the fins on the wheel, particularly suitable for traction in wet soil. Alfred and his brothers originally prototyped the idea by welding horseshoes on a wheel, but the patented design used steel fins instead. The Johnson family sold the design to the Hendy Iron Works folks, which put the design into production in 1911. In 1913, Hendy shared the rights to the design with the Rumely Company from Indiana (but continued producing the tractor). Rumely claimed forty tractor sales as soon as they bought the design, even as they struggled to open their San Francisco sales office.

Johnson also designed a variant called the "Johnson Improved Tractor" for Hendy, (the recumbent bike of the tractor world). The Improved Tractor was similar to the Toe-Hold, but had additional sheet metal covering the motors, moving parts, and wheels, probably to avoid snagging tree branches in the orchard. Johnson, his father, and Calkins patented several of the improvements from their tractors in subsequent years.

Meanwhile, McCollough was just out of U.C. Berkeley with a degree in Commerce in 1904. He apparently was searching for his chance at great glory, but meanwhile worked various jobs, running a dry goods store in Sunnyvale and running the San Jose Roofing Company for a couple years (according to old city directories.) Johnson, McCollough, and Calkins must have met up around 1910 in Sunnyvale, and decided that designing tractors wasn't a bad way of life.

Yuba Ball Tread Tractor. From Yuba Construction Company catalog, Wisconsin Historical Society collection..

The new team decided to take a second crack at the tractor market. Together, Johnson, McCollough, and Calkins bought a patent for a "ball tread" tractor from Clarence Henneuse, a tractor designer working for the Best Tractor company in Oakland. Henneuse's design had simplified caterpillar tread design by using huge ball bearings between the caterpillar track and race. Although Best didn't think much of the design, our three heroes apparently saw its virtues. Johnson worked to make it practical and designed a transmission for the new tractor design. The three then pulled in some manufacturing help from Detroit, and built the "Calkins & Johnson Ball Tread" tractor, which outwardly resembled the early Best caterpillar tractors. The three ran a business selling them in San Jose for a very short time, but after a quick bankruptcy sold out to the Yuba Construction Company around 1913 which continued making the design.

Advertisement, Track-Pull tractor.

All these designs were large, bulky tractors. Their next focus was going to be quite the other way.

The Crazy Startup Guys Pitch Their Idea

In 1915, the trio took their next crazy idea to Bean Spray. "Orchards," the crazy startup guys said, "need small, light-duty tractors. Those caterpillar-style tractors are just the thing for orchards. But all the caterpillar-style tractors had two separate caterpillar treads - which seemed two times as much as any tractor really needs. Why not have a tractor with a single caterpillar tread?"

The Track-Pull tractor really did have all those features. It had a single caterpillar tread, and a tricycle-like rear body for the driver and to attach plows. The tractor was low-to-the-ground to move under the trees, and narrow enough to fit between orchard rows. The narrow and compact body was unlikely to snag on tree branches. It was lightweight and spread its weight so it wouldn't compact the ground under the trees. It could also turn on a dime, with a five foot turning radius.

Bean Spray Pump was convinced, and bought the idea; the new Track-Pull Tractor became quite the hit. The original model sold $419,000 in tractors in 1916, and $723,000 in 1917 in 1917; the photo of the Track-Pulls driving from the Bean Spray Pump plant to the Southern Pacific's freight station at San Pedro Street represents some of those sales. The era's equivalent of Consumer's Reports describing it as appropriate for two or three plows, and farms less than 160 acres.

The initial models had a four-cylinder engine mounted on the right side of the tractor, and a radiator on the opposite side, making for a boxy appearance even as the tractor balanced on its single tread. The initial Track-Pull was the 6-10 model (6 hp pulling, 10 hp on the tread), but the company eventually made models ranging from 10 horsepower to 32 horsepower. Regardless of the strangeness of a single-footed caterpillar tractor, Bean Spray sold these tractors through at least 1921, showing that crazy ideas could still be profitable.

Can't Take the Tractor Out of the Tractor Designer

McCollough, Johnson, and Calkins each took their own path after the Bean Spray purchase.

Fred Calkins apparently took the quiet way out, appearing as an orchardist in Sunnyvale from 1919 on; the 1920 census shows him as a fruit buyer, living with his sister and brother in law on Murphy Ave. By 1940, Calkins was President of the Santa Clara Valley Fruit Exchange, and living on Alta Vista Way in San Jose's eastern foothills (as if there were ever a better address for a startup guy.)

McCollough and Johnson both joined Bean Spray, and each took a different path with the big company.

Johnson continued, now with the title "mechanical engineer" at Bean Spray and later Anderson-Barngrover through at least 1926. In 1945, patents with his name on them were still being filed by Food Machinery Corporation.

Although McCollough was working for Bean Spray Pump Company in 1918 when he registered for the World War I draft, he was a bit... detached... from his job in Big Tech. He listed his occupation as "fruit ranch proprietor, also promotor and head of Tractor Repair, Bean Spray Pump Co." He was also still living with his mother at 57 South 19th Street, on the unfashionable side of Coyote Creek.

By 1919, McCollough cut out of the big company, listing himself as a "machinery promoter" on his 1919 passport application and "promoter, traction engine" in the 1930 census. City directories from 1922-1925 show McCollough continued working on tractor designs out of an office in the First National Bank building. Soon after, he switched to real estate.

The tractor bug bit both men again; in 1935, McCollough and Johnson again pushed a new design called the "Unitrack". The new tractor had a family resemblance to the Track-Pull, but with a solid body that suspiciously resembles a Jawa Sandcrawler from Star Wars. Its small size and low price certainly would have been handy in those post-Depression days. The new tractor shows up in ads in the Santa Cruz Evening News in May of 1938:

Farmers Attention: Before you buy any small tractor on which you can ride, investigate the new Unitrack tractor, the most complete track laying tractor of its kind. Very economical in operation. Price $495.00 plus tax. Demonstration given. Kroneder & Son sole agent, Glen Canyon, CA. [near Santa Cruz]

By April 1942, when McCollough registered for the World War II draft, he was living in Santa Cruz while working for the Irving Lee & Co. investment company back in San Jose. Johnson, always looking for interesting things to design, was in Long Beach, designing and building airplanes, but continued consulting and designing for FMC, Bean Spray's successor. "Alf" Johnson died with his boots on; he died in 1954 while field-testing a new tractor in Sunnyvale.

Five designs, three designs purchased by large companies, one fire sale, and one bankruptcy. Not bad for a set of crazy Silicon Valley tractor entrepreneurs.

Next time:3d-Printing a Bean Spray Pump Track-Pull.


Photo of Track-Pulls on a rampage on Santa Clara Street comes from History San Jose, and dates to around 1917. Thanks to the many tractor enthusiasts who have written about the Track-Pulls over the years, especially September 1985 Gas Engine Magazine. Bill's Page supplied much of the history of Johnson, McCollough, and Calkins's tractor startups.