Monday, December 19, 2011

Correction: Yard Limits aren't Job Limits

A few days ago when looking at the instructions for tagging freight cars, I'd said:

Cars to Alameda got "61", Oakland "62", and Lawrence and Atherton "35". The tags hint at the likely ranges of the different switch jobs, and how work was partitioned; Campbell was treated differently from Auzerais St. because it would have been outside yard limits and thus served by road crews.

Er, no.

Jason Hill from the La Mesa Model Railroad Club at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum corrected me here. He says it well, so let me just quote him:

Do be aware that there's a difference between "Yard Limits" and "Switching Limits". They are sometimes the same physical locations, but not always and their root reasons for existing are TOTALLY different. "Yard Limits" are a operating rules issue (Rule 93). "Switching Limits" are a crew agreement & labor issue.
For example, Yard Limits at Bakersfield extend only to the crossovers at Magunden (3 miles of out of the 'main yard'), however the "Switching Limits" extended all the way out to the far end of Edison (about 8 miles). The result of this was that the packing sheds at Edison were worked by a yard crew, under yard labor agreements, not road crews.
As a modeler you might say 'who cares what labor agreement they were under'. The answer is that the road crews have to be provided with a "caboose" which complies with a Union-agreed on defined. A 'yard job' did not have to have a "caboose" as defined by the Unions. This is not to say that the yard crews didn't grab a caboose, or a 'crew riding car', but by the Union Agreements it didn't have to have things like a stove, ice box, bunks, etc.

So for the Vasona Branch, that means that while yard limits moved back and forth over the years, all that said was whether the crew needed permission from the dispatcher to be on those tracks (though it also hints at whether the traffic was dense enough to require more control over who was blocking the tracks.) As Jason points out, crews running to Campbell inside or outside of yard limits could have been road crews, or switcher crews from the San Jose yard. His comment about cabooses also highlights that my all-yard-limits job from San Jose Yard to Auzerais Street may or may not have needed a caboose; I'd probably have a plausible story for either choice in the absence of any photos suggesting how Things Got Done in San Jose in 1932.

However, that makes the list of car routing tags from track directory that much more meaningful, because if two cars were being tagged for the same destination, then it's pretty likely that they were being sorted together, and were going out on the same train for delivery. All cars for the Almaden Branch were tagged with one number; that's not surprising, as 1928-era timetables showed that the Almaden branch was served by a weekly scheduled train that went to Almaden via Campbell, and went back via Hillsdale and the main line. The car routing tags also group all the cars destined for Campbell to Santa Cruz together, suggesting that all those stations were served off the same train. (That was a Tuesday train in case you're planning a time-travelling road trip.) There's photos from later in the 1930's showing short, six car trains going towards Los Gatos, and the routing numbers suggest that train would also have been dropping off cars in Campbell.

None of this hints whether that train from Campbell to Santa Cruz handled only those towns; although the Lincoln Ave. canneries and fruit packing plants had their own routing tag, the answer's hazy about whether Lincoln Ave. was handled with a local switch crew from the yard, or whether the train from San Jose to Santa Cruz handled the work.

And I still don't know whether the routing tags were stapled pieces of paper like on the Santa Fe, or were just written in chalk. The photo of the Material Supply Warehouse at the station at West San Jose suggests chalk as one of the WP boxcars has a prominent "13" written in chalk across it - that's the routing tag for the WP Interchange, though it seems wrong that a car still at the industry would already be tagged. I don't see any signs of paper tags on any of the visible cars.

Anyway, that's the logic-puzzle fun of historical research when there's no crews around who can tell you how they worked. Maybe some conductor's books from the 1930's would help, or maybe there's some train orders hinting at how the freight trains on the branch operated. But til then, I'll need to do a combination of guessing at what the railroad really did, and also remember to break the historic rules when it might make operations on the layout less fun.

Note to Self: *Lots* More Orchards

Although I've been pretty focused on the cannery and fruit packing buildings in the Santa Clara Valley for the layout, I do remember that they're just a very narrow strip of what the Valley looked like in the 1930's. Most of the Santa Clara Valley at the time was orchards and farms, with only the thinnest strips along the railroad looking so industrial.

This panorama, for instance, is a nice reminder. This is a drying yard somewhere near Campbell, stuck in a depression on the edge of the property with railroad tracks cutting across the back of the photo. There's nothing but orchards visible. At a first guess, I'd suspect those are the SP tracks in the background, and two signs might hint at that. The post to the right has an "X" - a whistle post - indicating there's a road crossing somewhere off the right of the photo. The left shows two white boards nailed to a telegraph pole with "50" written on each, probably a railroad milepost. Milepost 50 on the Los Gatos Branch was about where the tracks crossed Hamilton Ave. near the current Highway 17 in Campbell, and was about 0.7 miles northeast of the station in Campbell.

There's also the chance that the Interurban line to Los Gatos used SP mile numbers, but I'm guessing this is the SP line. A better SP historian would know if that odd shaped whistle post was an SP prototype or not.

It's nice to know what the mileposts and whistle boards looked like so I can duplicate those. It's also good to see the orchards and the shapes of the trees. Best of all are the details from the drying yard - the prune dipper at the far left for dipping the fruit in lye before laying it out for drying, the piles of fruit boxes, and all the drying flats scattered around. But I'll have to scratchbuild it; I don't think I've ever seen a prune dipper kit in HO.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Teasing Out Operating Details from Dusty Old Paper

As I mentioned a while back, Ken Middlebrook was nice enough to share a 1931 track directory for the San Jose area with me. I've put a copy online along with some of the other SP paperwork I've scanned, so go check it out if you're interested in the businesses around San Jose in 1931. If you aren't familiar with the trackage and the street names, you might check out the Dome of Foam's 1947 clear standing room map as well as a 1970's era SP SPINS book to try to correlate track capacity, listing order, and physical location. Note that the back of the directory lists the street location for each numbered siding, and peeking there isn't considered cheating when trying to locate long-gone industries.

The document also has a list of SP phone numbers just in case you wanted to… er… go back in time and make crank calls to the Lamp Room. Assuming you knew what the Lamp Room was, of course. On second thought, the telephone list is probably better for just getting a sense of what offices and roles were needed by the railroad even in the then-small town of San Jose. They're all two digit with various letters and extra digits, so you'd probably have had to go through the switchboard operator anyway.

We've got Ken to thank for the 1931 track directory; he bought it and donated it to History San Jose. I've got more to say on what the track directory says about my 1932 era, but I'll leave those stories for another day. Check it out and add comments here about what interesting facts and details you find about the SP and San Jose in the directory.

I'll throw out one tidbit now, though. The fourth page includes a list of "tags" that clerks should apply to specify car routings - basically two digit numbers to indicate the destination. Cars going to the canneries near Auzerais St in Zone 8 got a tag of "8", while cars destined from Campbell to Santa Cruz got a tag of "72". Cars to Alameda got "61", Oakland "62", and Lawrence and Atherton "35". The tags hint at the likely ranges of the different switch jobs, and how work was partitioned; Campbell was treated differently from Auzerais St. because it would have been outside yard limits and thus served by road crews. (Wait a year, and Campbell would be in yard limits. Bet the zone would have extended, and the Campbell industries would have been switched by yard crews.) The separation between Alameda and Oakland probably hints at the volume of traffic as well as the potentially different routings.

Interestingly, I didn't know much about the tags till I read the 2012 edition of Great Model Railroads a couple weekends ago. Keith Jordan had an article on his Los Angeles switching layout, and he described the route cards idea Santa Fe used in later days for highlighting destinations for cars. On the Santa Fe, the tags were 3 inch square cardboard, intended to be stapled on the car side. I hadn't realized when reading that article that the SP would have used a similar scheme! Tony Thompson mentions route cards as well in one of his recent articles, but the two examples he had were from non-SP railroads. Time to keep an eye out for an SP-style numbered route card...

Again, check out the directory and share what odd or interesting facts you notice!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Ryland Street in 1976

If you've got to say one thing for progress around here, it's pretty hard to find undeveloped dirt lots around San Jose these days. Case in point:
E. O. Gibson's 1976 photo of the Freedom Train in San Jose. It's billed as "sitting on display at the site of SP's former San Pedro St. [freight] station", though it might be better billed as "sitting on the site of several old packing houses on the north side of the old yard after they'd bulldozed everything interesting away." The street in the background is Ryland St., and Google Maps shows that the warehouses and little houses are still there. The dirt field is now condos, and Abinante and Nola's plant on Ryland St. was located about where that British bus is parked.

But those houses along the street have cleaned up nicely in the intervening years, at least as seen from Street View.

Just try finding that much undeveloped dirt around San Jose today. It's hard to believe that this pre-1930 photo would have been taken at the same location.

That 1976 photo, by the way, is from one of my favorite railroad sites, the Dome of Foam. Snarky humor, lots of San Jose content, and a serious dose of train order minutiae make it worth an afternoon of reading.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

San Jose Wants a Union Station

Like I said, the railroad- and fruit industry-related history on-line gets skewed heavily towards team bowling scores and lawsuits. Luckily, transportation law--whether Interstate Commerce Commission or California Railroad Commission--is filled with lots of fun details for the model railroader.

For example, City of San Jose vs. Southern Pacific in 1918 documents the fights going on around the time that the Western Pacific started building south. WP's proposed line looped down the east side of San Jose, across the south side well past where the canneries stopped and the open fields began, and then looped up through Willow Glen and the west side of town to a new freight depot just off the Alameda. San Jose, instead, fought for a union passenger and freight station to limit the trouble from the WP tracks.

The full article has a bunch of nice tidbits about railroad history in San Jose. Southern Pacific lost its franchise to run down the middle of Fourth Street in 1918. They'd started talking with the City in 1906 about getting the mainline tracks off of the downtown streets as early as 1906, and bought the land for the bypass through Willow Glen in 1913 for a bit less than a million dollars. It took the railroad (and the city, and the neighbors) until 1935 to actually agree on the details of the re-routing and build the tracks.

There's also all sorts of numbers and building costs, details of the routing, and hints at streets that changed names. Polhemus is what we now call Taylor Street, and Senter St. is a phantom street that's now fully occupied by the tracks approaching Diridon station. There's also reference to whether the WP's plan to build an independent and parallel track from Fremont to Milpitas was justified, or whether they could run on the SP's track to avoid the cost and duplication of effort. The California Railroad Commission is obviously worrying about whether the extra line is justified and worth building, but they're leaving that question to the "Director General of Railroads" because the case is taking place during the World War I government control of the U.S. railroads.

It's also interesting to see that the California Railroad Commission made sure to accent the e in San Jose in every use. I don't know if they did that because of the legal name of My Fair City, or if it's an affection because of the popularity of the Missions and Spanish/Mexican California in those days, but it's an amusing detail that must have made the typesetter curse.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

What's With Those Crazy Railroad Historians?

I suspect there's at least some readers out there who see the recent chain of articles on the history of the apricot and prune industry, and just don't get it. "Why bother to look at a bunch of dusty old books" (or, for that matter, dusty old PDFs.) "It's not helping you run trains."

Well, maybe... but where else am I going to find that perfect period Sunsweet logo for the side of Sunsweet Plant #1? The plant on Lincoln Ave. in San Jose had one painted prominently.

Luckily, a Sunsweet promotional book from the 1920's was kindly scanned in by the Library of Congress and made available to the public. With a few minutes of capturing the image from the PDF version of the book, I've got a logo, ready for trimming and photoshopping to turn it into a suitable decal.

The book also has a nice picture of the Hyde drying yard, looking north towards downtown Campbell. The original halftone image is rough, so it's hard to make out details. There's also some nice shots of prune grading machinery if you're looking to superdetail your dryer or packer scene. There's also a sample "Inspection Certificate" showing the documentation provided to a buyer. Note that the packer is the mythical A. & C. Ham I've seen mentioned, and the boxcar bound for Chicago had 1,500 twenty-five pounds boxes of prunes for a total of 37,500 pounds of prunes. We also see that the sale was in January of 1918, reminding us that the packers stored the fruit til the sales came in.

We also see that Iron Chef didn't originate in Japan, but in 1920's San Francisco. A "Prune and Apricot Battle" was waged by Victor Hirtzler, "maitre de cuisine of the Hotel St. Francis, San Francisco", who prepared a dinner using Sunsweet's apricots and prunes:
Prunes en Supreme
Chicken Soup
Salted Almonds
Filet of Sole with Sunsweet Prunes
Stuffed Squab Chicken with Sunsweet Apricots
Peas etudes, Potato Chateau
Prune and Apricot Salad
Pudding Glace Prune et Apricot
Assorted Cakes
Demi Tasse
Prune and Apricot Punch, Prune Bread, Apricot Rolls
One wonders how Iron Chef Morimoto would have responded to challenger Hirtzler.

Sunsweet declares that recipes will be furnished on request; I'm tempted to call them up and see if they're still honoring that offer.

I found the book "A Fact and Picture Story of the Prune and Apricot Industry" when doing a search on Amazon for Sunsweet-related books; the seller mentioned their $12 book was "a scan of a period document", and the lack of any photos of the book made me very suspicious that they, like some of the eBay photo sellers, were just doing cheap prints of material already available out on the Internet. If you see interesting historic documents out on eBay or Amazon, always do a quick search to see if they're available elsewhere for free.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Collecting Packing Houses

And for those of you who wonder how I'm finding and remembering all these details about the different packing houses of San Jose, check out my list of all the fruit-related businesses in San Jose and nearby. I've been keeping up this document for the last several months. I've been most interested in keeping track of locations - which businesses were at which locations (and thus where they were on the railroad), but it's been interesting to see just how incestuous the various businesses were as salesmen jumped off to form their own packing houses, packers occupied the spaces of defunct businesses, and 1940's and 1950's mergers combined the packing houses like playing cards.

If I was more of a game player, I'd be so tempted to make a collectible card game based on the dried fruit industry. If you've got a salesman and contract card, you trump the grower, unless the grower has a "bad weather - small harvest" card. Packers generally win against the growers unless they all team up, or someone has a "form fruit pool" or "co-operative!" card. And woe be on everyone if someone plays the "speculators accidentally short the market" card and everyone from a broker card has to rush to buy as many prunes as possible.

Gem City Packing becomes Sunsweet Becomes Sewall Brown

The research for the Sunsweet #1 plant hinted at a pair of packing houses in Los Gatos: Curtis Packing and Gem City Packing. I didn't know anything about either, but I've been trying to fill in the holes in my fruit business knowledge in hopes of finding railroad-related details. Some judicious Google searches turned up more on Gem City.

Gem City Packing (whose name refers to an old nickname of Los Gatos) existed from before through 1918. There's not much about it; in the usual fashion, the few tidbits we get are from the crime pages. The packing house was built in 1902, according to a newspaper report on the fire that destroyed it. The plant's location can be guessed based on California Railroad Commission case debating whether San Jose Water Company or the Los Gatos Municipal Water should be building a half-mile line down the County Road (Winchester Ave.) to serve the plant.

Nice location, that - it's next to the main road, it's got a seven car siding on the Vasona branch (according to a 1931 SP industry list), and there's plenty of orchards nearby.

But when Sunsweet starts building up the core set of packing houses to serve as their initial plants, Gem City joins up:

The Prune and Apricot Growers Association will convert one of its packing house plants into an institution for cracking apricot pits and nothing else. The pits from other packing plants will be collected and shipped to the Gem City packing house at Vasona.

General Manager Mr Willes has numbered the packing houses as follows, each plant being called a “Sunsweet Plant”:

Campbell Farmers’ Union, Campbell, 1; Morgan Hill Farmers Union, Morgan Hill, 2; Gilroy Farmers’ Union, Gilroy, 3; O. A. Harlan & Co., San Jose, 4; Hemet Apricot Growers Association, Hemet,5; G. N. Herbert, San Jose, 6; Gem City Packing Company, Vasona, Campbell, 7; O. A. HArlan & Co., Mountain View, 8; Hollister Packing Company, Hollister, 9; G. Frank Fruit Company, San Jose, 10; A & C Ham Company, San Jose, 11; F. H. Holmes, San Jose, 12.

So in 1918, Gem City gets swallowed up by Sunsweet, the old name plate gets taken off over the door, and the employees get to work breaking large apricot pits into small apricot pits. Sewall Brown rolls into town with his Stanford diploma around 1921, and takes over as superintendent of the plant, and they keep breaking large apricot pits into smaller ones. By 1934, Sewall Brown buys the plant off Sunsweet. He christens the business Sewall Brown & Co and runs it for another twenty years until all four million pounds of apricot kernels on-site catches fire and destroys the plant in 1955.

The Los Gatos Times - Saratoga Observer reporter knew how to turn a phrase when describing the fire:

The three-story, red-painted main plant literally burst at the seams as the wooden siding gave way under the flames and apricot pits stacked 50-feet high in burlap sacks steamed in huge mounds from cracks and corners of the walls.

The processing shed, a well-known landmark, dates back to 1902 when the original building was constructed by the late Sewall Brown, who died three years ago...

I'll trust the "Three story, red painted main building" quote, and the "bags of apricot pits fifty feet high" gives an idea of what sort of volume of apricot pits you need to get four million pounds. We do know Sewall Brown didn't build it, but I'll be generous and let the inaccuracy slide.

And (long) after the fire, Netflix put their offices on the site, and if you take a good whiff of your Netflix envelope, you might just smell the faint tang of burned apricot pits left over from the fire.

There's at least three packing houses listed there I'm clueless about: A & C Ham, G. Frank, and F & H Holmes. Those of you getting tired of packing house talk might check out cute pictures of cats for a little while...

Sunsweet Plant #1: Progress

Back in August, I mentioned how the SP valuation maps had convinced me I needed to redo the tracks in Campbell. I finally decided to fix two major flaws: to add a team track and move the Hyde Cannery down a foot so I'd have room for Sunsweet (California Prune and Apricot Growers) Plant #1.

The track changes were done within a couple weeks, but the Sunsweet packing house has been lingering for a few weeks. Here's some photos to show my progress.

But first, let's check out the prototype building!

Sunsweet Plant #1 started out as the Campbell Farmers Union Packing company. Farmers Union was a co-operative - a packing house owned by the local growers. The growers would promise to send their crops to the co-op, and the co-op would use its larger volume to better deal with the East Coast brokers. Co-ops were popular because the growers never trusted many of the independent packers, and the packers played enough shady games to deserve their reputation. The previous co-operative in town, the Campbell Fruit Growers Union, had started in 1892 and had initially done well, but slowly started losing the support of growers and eventually sold out to George Hyde in 1913. Farmers Union must have done okay; they built their own modern packing house along the railroad tracks in 1912, just south of Campbell Ave, just north of the separate Hyde Cannery.

(If I was modeling a few years later than my chosen 1932, I wouldn't need separate buildings for Hyde and Sunsweet; Hyde sold out to Sunsweet in 1937, and the Hyde Cannery became the Campbell Cooperative Dryer. That site was famous for a forty-eight tunnel dehydrator that could process 480 tons of fruit a day.)

By 1917, after several co-operative collapses, speculator binges, and arguing, the rest of the prune and apricot growers were thinking that joining a single, large co-op might help them. Those growers, as well as forty five packing houses in California, signed up to join this single, new co-operative - the California Prune and Apricot Growers. The list of initial packers included all the big names I've been seeing in my research: A & C Ham, George Herbert, J.W. Chilton, O. A. Harlan, Warren Dried Fruit, Pacific Fruit Products, Inderrieden (all in San Jose), George Hyde and Farmers Union in Campbell, Gem City Packing Company and Curtis Fruit Company in Los Gatos, and a scattering of other packing houses from Red Bluff to Santa Paula. The co-op had the production and storage capacity, and had enough of the market to get decent prices for their crops. The Campbell plant, for some reason, got labeled Plant #1.

And Sunsweet did well - well enough that it still exists, and still controls two-thirds of the world's prune supply. It had its drama - Couchman's The Sunsweet Story is filled with the troubles facing the industry and the co-operative. Reading it's a bit like reading the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, with all sorts of names, ancient battles, grand monuments (like Plant #7 on the south side of San Jose) and cunning ploys, but in between, it's scattered with enough facts to help me with my modeling.

Plant #1, however, only did well as long as there was fruit in the area to dry and pack.As suburbs ate the remaining orchards, Sunsweet closed the Campbell plant in 1971. The building was converted to office space, and still sits next to the railroad tracks that processed just south of Campbell Ave.

Regular readers can guess at what the plant looked like. The fruit was driven in by truck from the drying yard, and a scale at the plant weighed the incoming fruit. It would have been hauled upstairs to the top floor for grading, and dumped into bins by size. When the fruit was ready for sale (perhaps months later), it would be taken out of the bins by wheelbarrow, washed and hydrated, inspected, and boxed for sale. The John C. Gordon photos shows what the inside of the Campbell facility probably looked like with modern equipment and hordes of men and women packing the Sunsweet prunes into attractive Sunsweet boxes. A 20,000 fuel oil tank in the ground ran the boiler for the steam and hot water.

It must not have been a fun place if you were a truck driver. The plant is squashed tight against the Campbell Ave. businesses on the north, and has a remarkably small lot on the south end which must have been a pain for maneuvering trucks. Some photos from the 1960's hint show forklifts and crates littering Central Ave.

Finally, here's my model as it currently exists. I've placed the windows on the front walls based on the 1915-era photos of the plant because I haven't found any good photos from later times. Construction is straightforward - 1/16" styrene sheet with 1/2" strip styrene to fight warping, and Campbell corrugated siding on all the walls. The loading docks are scratchbuilt from strip and sheet styrene. As usual, I'm scratchbuilding my own freight doors from scribed sheet and tiny (1x3) strip styrene for the various bracing.

Unfortunately, it's a cramped space, so I'm not planning on building any of the building extensions seen on the Campbell map, and I'll hold off on any of the accessory buildings until I've figured out what will fit in the allotted space.

Sunsweet Plant #1 has been a bit going slow; first, I had problems with warping because of the solvent in the contact cement, then held off on building the platforms until I restocked my double stick tape from the local art supply store. I'll need to work to get the freight doors and loading docks painted before I can start assembling the model. It's amazing how those little hiccups can slow down a model.

Next step: painting, assembling, and detailing.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

"Sixty Millions of Prunes Still on the Floors of Warehouses"

So it wasn't just the Great Depression that was making life difficult for prune growers; the problems mentioned last time in 1931-1932 were problems for the industry even back in 1927, as the San Jose News commented on at length on Thursday, July 21, 1927.

In a front page editorial on July 21, 1927, the San Jose News highlighted the awful figures: Four hundred million pounds of prunes on California trees for the upcoming season. Sixty million pounds of prunes still on the floors of the warehouses. Only two hundred and sixty million pounds of prunes sold the previous years.

"It can be seen by anyone that if 460,000,000 pounds of prunes are dumped on a market which is capable of absorbing only about half that amount, ruinous prices are going to be the result. There is no element of chance, of luck. It is dead certainty."

Their plan: get all the growers and packers together into a single organization that could control most of the acreage. The new California Prune Producers concept had the approval of ninety-five percent of the packers, and half of the growers (all already members of Sunsweet). But that still meant that half the growers weren't ready to sign a contract with the new organization.

So, in late July, meetings and personal pleadings took over. Standard Oil lent ten crack salesmen to the Prune Producers for the remainder of the drive for contracts on prune acreage. The president of the Lawrence Terminal Co. of Oakland was sending staff to help with the drive. Santa Rosa's business men were pleading with the local growers.

In San Jose, mass-meetings were planned that evening at the Union Grammar School, Los Gatos Town Hall, and Evergreen grammar school. Contracts were being offered at all the packing houses:
  • California Packing Corporation at San Fernando and Bush
  • Rosenberg Brothers on Railroad Ave. in Santa Clara
  • Richmond Chase at 64 West Santa Clara Street in San Jose
  • Guggenheim & Co at Julian and Pleasant St.
  • Interrieden Company at 200 Ryland St.
  • O. A. Harlan & Co. at Fourth and Margaret
  • Libby McNeil and Libby at Fourth and Lewis
  • Pacific Coast Canners at Third and Keyes

The San Jose News closed with a quote from the manager of Hart's Department Store: "There is a grave necessity that something be done to save the prune industry, and that is something before us in this co-operative campaign. It is the most important task before San Jose now."

And if they thought the situation in 1927 was bad, it'll be much worse in just four years.

Also in the news: $80,000 of opium seized from a steamship docking at San Francisco. Aimee Semple McPherson rushes home to Los Angeles because of an "odd shortage of funds" at Angelus Temple, and local blacksmith Russell P. Kenyon dies the day before he inherits a half million dollars. Meanwhile, Union Furniture Co at 353 South First Street offers an entire bedroom set for $49.75, or $1.00 a week, as well as "smart new lamps" and a "General Electric Midget Radio."

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Dark Story of Higgins-Hyde Packing

Oh, that poor little packing house across the tracks from the Del Monte Cannery. When I first built my layout, I saw that the building had been Pacific Fruit Products in 1915, and Abinante and Nola in 1950, so I declared my model would be Abinante and Nola because I liked the name better.

Then I discovered an old city directory, and found that J.S. Roberts occupied that big, rambling barn, at least between 1936 and 1949.

Then I found that photo of the J.S. Roberts plant, and it didn't look anything like my building.

Good thing I didn't start rebuilding my packing house model… or lettering a new model.

Ken Middlebrook, another local railfan, just sent along a 1931-era Southern Pacific list of sidings in the San Jose area, both with the name of the industry at each siding, its length, and the capacity of the plant or warehouse. It gives me a whole bunch of new data points about the businesses around Santa Clara County. More importantly, it tells me about the local fruit industry just as the Great Depression's about to completely shake up the industry. Up on Ryland St., the Chicago grocer J.B. Inderridden is still around, and Winchester Dried Fruit hasn't yet occupied the space.

When I got Ken's e-mail, I downloaded his scan of the document on my phone and went straight for the area around the Del Monte Cannery. And J.S. Roberts isn't there - in 1931, it looks like the building was occupied by Higgins-Hyde Packing, owners of the Sun-Glo brand.

There's not a lot about them out on the Internet. A couple of their prune crates are for sale on Ebay. There's even one Higgins-Hyde crate being used as a ballot box in Vermont, and hopefully is encouraging regular and productive voting.

But there's one place you'll find lots of mention of Higgins-Hyde Packing, and that's on the front pages of the San Jose News between mid-July and mid-August of 1932. That's one of the oddities of the Internet; the bits of history we discover are biased towards the news sources that have survived. For a typical fruit business, all I ever find are how their bowling team did (Abinante and Nola: very well!), and the court cases they got caught in (Winchester Dried Fruit blending offgrade fruit into their boxes in 1936: bad!).

But Higgins-Hyde - well, that's a bit special, so let's go through the story.

The depression hits the Santa Clara Valley in 1930 and 1931. The American economy is in horrible shape. Crops are huge. Packers are trying to sell dried fruit as soon as it comes in so they can get cash for the crop before prices drop further… and that makes prices drop even faster. Attempts by Sunsweet (California Prune and Apricot Growers) to control tonnage going into the market and increase marketing to consumers languishes over the winter of 1931-1932 and prices plummet. Finally, the independent growers and Sunsweet come to an agreement: together, they'll work to control 85% of the prune production, and they'll form a "United Prune Growers of California" stabilization pool in order to (1) regulate the amount of prunes going into the market, stabilize values, establish standard grades for fruit, and increase consumer demand. Most are for this because of the horrible prices of the last couple years. The San Jose Chamber of Commerce jumps in to help with management support, all the major growers and packers volunteer to be involved. Only four packers decide not to join the Prune Pool.

And in mid-July, it turns out one packer - Higgins-Hyde - has been silently soliciting growers to sign its contract and sell outside the program. Worse, it appears Higgins-Hyde was misrepresenting their position:

"With Regard to the Higgins-Hyde Pool, Mr. Boland reported he found definite misrepresentations had been made to growers, among them that the pool would enter the United Prune Growers; that the growers joining the pool would be exempt from the industry prune advertising charge; that united prune pool members could not hope to get all their money prior to from ten months to two years after delivery, while Higgins-Hyde members would receive 90 per cent of their money before January 1 of the following year and the balance not later than the April or May following. (San Jose News, July 28, 1932)


A.A. Higgins didn't think his pool was a problem; he'd been running a prune pool for the last four years, but probably spreading less fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the competition in previous years. But the Prune Pool didn't appreciate his attempts to break the pool and send prices lower, so they argue against the remaining wildcat packers and demand an investigation of Higgins-Hyde claim.

And they win, and the world starts believing the California Prune Pool will cause prices to go up. By August 13, the price of prunes in London (yes, San Jose was affecting London!) went up 1/2 cent per pound (on a crop selling for 2-3 cents a pound) on the assumption that the Prune Pool would go through, and Fred Lester and Otto Van Dorsten walked away from their contracts with Higgins-Hyde. By August 23, Higgins-Hyde explicitly released the others who had signed contracts with them. With that, the Prune Pool controlled 160,000 tons of California prunes, with all the major packers - California Packing Corporation, Guggenhime, Libby, Richmond-Chase, Roseberg Brothers, Anchorage Farms, Hamlin Packing, Herbert Packing, Inderrieden, Napa Dried Fruit, Warren Dried Fruit, and Harter Packing… but no Higgins-Hyde.

The Prune Pool slowly foundered over the next couple years. They suffered from off-grade prunes getting sold on the market and dropping prices further. They argued with New Deal architects about whether advertising would help, or whether it would just steal demand from some other industry. Mostly, though, they suffered from supplies that exceeded demand so significantly that there was little chance that growers could make a profit. The 1935 crop was 256,000 tons. The Great Depression was just too big for the world to buy all those prunes.

And Higgins-Hyde disappears from the news. Maybe they were doing the pool in a last-ditch effort to make their own mortgage payments. Maybe they thought they could make more by selling ahead of the Prune Pool, and pissed off the rest of the industry and the Valley. Maybe they just got doomed by the lack of any market to sell what prunes they could get. For whatever reason, there's not a trace of A. A. Higgins or Higgins-Hyde in the 1936 San Jose city directory.

So for my model railroad set in Spring, 1932, Higgins-Hyde Packing ought to be in that building, and if I'm particularly snarky I'll make sure to include a model of the salesman who thought he could sneak one past the Prune Pool by signing some farmers with a slight bit of misinformation...

(If you're interested in the gory details of prune prices, growers associations, and the effect of the Great Depression in the Santa Clara Valley, search for a copy of "The Sunsweet Story" by Couchman which provides more dtails than you'd ever want.)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

And you thought nit-picking model railroaders were bad!

Model railroaders tend to be an opinionated lot, and it's always interesting when an expert on a particular area sees a model and highlights the incorrect detail:

* Rio Grande didn't use that logo until 1945 - I thought your layout was set in the 1930's?!
* The barbed wire is on the wrong side of the posts - it should be on the cow side!
* Why didn't you update all the reweigh stencils to match your target year?

Turns out that Los Angeles historians can be just as picky, as the gang writing a blog about Los Angeles in the 1940's show in their critique of the LA Noire video game. Personally, I'm impressed the video game designers did as well as they did, even if they had 1959-era lettering on a 1947-era building:

We're careening up Fig, and in the distance, the Architects Building, but see those letters atop? They read "Douglas Oil" and weren't placed there until after Douglas purchased the building in 1959. Guess you should probably be more worried about the big scary car crashing into you, and all the flying sparks, but, well, we each have our own issues.

They're still nice people over there, and I've found their On Bunker Hill website has some nice photos and stories of Los Angeles's Bunker Hill neighborhood before it got razed for redevelopment in the late 1950's and early 1960's. If you're a fan of film noir movies filmed in the area, there's still some great articles here.

Monday, November 7, 2011

And Down At Fifth and Martha...

I may seem completely biased towards the canneries and packing houses along the Espee's Los Gatos Branch, but that doesn't mean I'm bigoted towards other parts of San Jose. Some of my favorite canneries, in fact, are in other parts of San Jose.

Take, for example, the Barron-Gray Packing Co. located just south of downtown San Jose at Fifth and Martha. It started out as the J. F. Pyle Cannery, located on Mr. Pyle's ranch out in Berryessa at King and Mabury, but moved along side the old SP mainline down Fourth Street in 1907. Standing on its loading dock, you could have watched all the name trains - the Lark, the Daylight, the Sunset Limited, the... uh... Coast Mail - gathering up speed. They'd just finished a sedate trip down the middle of Fourth Street through the center of San Jose, and the enginemen were probably fed up with vegetable trucks and crazed pedestrians, and just waiting for the chance to let the engine "show what she can do."

By 1922, 300 people worked there during the season, and Western Canner and Packer includes a blurb that same year describing their new building at Fourth and Margaret (now under I-280), needed thanks to a "large tomato pack" the previous year. Ernest Barron and Herbert Gray bought it that year or the next, depending on the source. Like the Internet companies today, Barron was an outsider who worked his way up, and decided it was time for him to hit the big time. He'd come over from England on the Lusitania in 1915, and after several years at the Ainsley Cannery, decided Campbell wasn't big enough for him, so he went off to do his own startup.

Barron-Gray also changed the world in their own way by bringing us fruit cocktail. (Heck, we saw them making that very fruit cocktail at movie night a couple weeks ago!) However, by adding pineapple chunks to that mix, they sowed the seeds of their own destruction.

This photo, from the latest Willow Glen Resident paper, shows the Pyle Cannery around 1915-1920. It doesn't capture my image of a top-brand company; the corrugated steel for the garages and wooden water towers seem a bit functional, even for the 'teens, but it does hint at some very photogenic projects for the layout.

So now dash forward twenty years to May 1948. After the Second World War, "merger" seemed to be the key word as smaller canneries and packing houses got bought by the larger operators, and Barron-Gray gets an offer they can't refuse from the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, a.k.a. Dole. Dole's Pine Parade newsletter (placed online by the Lanai Culture Heritage Center) gives news of the buyout, but more importantly shows this great aerial photo showing the sheer size of the Barron-Gray plant and the American Can Company's plant nestled in the center.

And this is what industry should be. American Can stretches for an entire city block down the former SP mainline in the center of the picture. They need a separate yard just for fruit receiving and for storing the boxes for fruit. There's six buildings dedicated to warehouse space, one just for the pears, and four probably devoted to storing the year's canned crop and to dribble out a bit at a time to the grocers - the A&P, Safeway, Piggly Wiggly, the mythical corner store. Better, it wasn't just a string of modern buildings, but a hodge-podge of modern concrete buildings, modernist office buildings, and old brick warehouses from the turn of the century. (Obligatory model railroad reference: Silicon Valley Lines is in the building between warehouse 9 and warehouse 11, which I'd strongly suspect was part of the Barron-Gray plant.)

And if you're a model railroader, this ought to tell you to think big. The canneries needed huge amounts of space and and huge amounts of labor - room for marshalling the trucks of fruit, all arriving during the harvest rush. (Remember the comments from Vincent Nola about how his dad liked the San Carlos St. plant because it was easy for the truckers to bring in the dried fruit?) Room for the can company, because no one wants to ship the fragile, light, cheap cans all over, and the can company needs to work all year to have enough stock for the month or two of the canning season. Room for processing the fruit - the processing lines, the hundreds of women cutting fruit, the cooking rooms, and the boxes and packaging. And finally room for the finished goods, the cans of pears that were going to sit for months until the broker found a buyer for the fruit. And this is just one of the canneries that would have been running full-tilt back in the Santa Clara Valley's heyday as a fruit and vegetable processing center - the same chaos would have been happening around Contadina, Del Monte, Pratt-Low, or Libby's. It makes Internet startups seem sedate.

So don't put a single plastic building next to a siding on your layout and call it a cannery. Put ten.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

SwitchList: Keep Those Sidings Open!

If there's one problem all small layouts have, it's space. There's never enough yard tracks for the incoming freight cars, and the sidings never are long enough to hold the arriving cars.

The new version of SwitchList keeps your sidings from overflowing. SwitchList 0.9.0 now lets you name the length of each siding. If SwitchList notes that an arriving car will cause the siding to overflow, it'll hold that car at its current location till space opens up.

Don't worry, you don't have to go and measure all your sidings right now. Like SwitchList's door spotting location feature, you can turn the siding length checks on and off. SwitchList also doesn't demand you fill in every single detail about your layout. You can fill in the lengths of only the troublesome or short sidings, and then add information for the rest of your layout when you've got time. SwitchList works just fine with partial information.

Also in SwitchList 0.9.0: The new version also allows you to design your own report styles, just as you can design your own switchlists. If your railroad has a custom or recognizable style of paperwork for yard crews, you can now provide a template for SwitchList that matches that look, and SwitchList will print that report exactly the way you want. You can do this for the common report styles. The industry reports that show locations of cars grouped by siding, car reports that list cars in reporting mark order, and yard reports that show the train for each outgoing car all can be customized.

Check out the example custom reports in the Handwritten, Southern Pacific Narrow, and Line Printer reports inside SwitchList. Check out the documentation on how to write your own switchlist and report styles at the SwitchList development site, and consider sharing your favorite switchlist style with the rest of the SwitchList user community.

Finally, our next stop is SwitchList 1.0! What features do you think SwitchList needs before it can be declared "complete"? Add your suggestions on SwitchList's bug list, and join the SwitchList mailing list and discuss your ideas, and consider making your own changes to SwitchList!

[Photo: Snoboy transload facility on Seth Neumann's Niles Canyon layout.]

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Movie Night 2: Watching Fruit Cocktail Get Made

Just as the Sunsweet video a couple months ago showed us what happened at a fruit dryer and packing house, this video from Dole shows what happens in a cannery. Dole's cannery in San Jose was at Fifth and Martha, and had been (up until 1948) the Barron-Gray Packing Co. cannery. Some say fruit cocktail was invented there, and the video shows how to make several million cans of fruit cocktail in a season.

Dole closed the cannery in the 1970's; the Dole headquarters building on East Virginia St. still stands as an example of modernist architecture in San Jose.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

WP and SP: Like Cats and Dogs, or Best Friends Forever?

After the discussion a while back about the 'Friendly' Southern Pacific and Western Pacific's fight over Valley Wholesale Grocery's spur in Sacramento back in 1935, I'd have assumed that the two railroads would never get along, and certainly wouldn't encourage customers on their line to use the competitor even a bit.

Then we get photos like this one, again from the John C. Gordon collection at San Jose State. Go off and look at the full photo for a moment, then come back here; it's worth examining in detail.

Now, the photo's pretty innocuous - brick warehouse, lots of Western Pacific cars, non-specific industry name, some late 1920's color (like billboards and probably a Model A). My first guess would be that it's some random industry on the WP in San Jose, but a quick glance through Track and Time's track diagrams don't hint at any likely sites around San Jose... nor in Oakland.

But let's stare at that photo a little closer. The far right shows a long straightaway, and a masonry building off in the distance (along with a flat car full of lumber or telephone poles.) The isolated passenger cars suggest we're near a station, but the only passenger station on the WP would be over on the east side of San Jose near Santa Clara Ave. and 26th Street, and there's no signs of any industries over there. That building looks a bit like the PG&E generating plant just off Montgomery Street in San Jose, next to the Santa Cruz branch (and eventually just south of Diridon Station), but... nah, can't be - why would WP boxcars be there?

The warehouse itself gives us no clues, so let's look on the left side of the photo. Hmmm... gas holder - there were the ones at the current site of the HP Pavilion, but unless this warehouse sat on the eventual location of Plant 51, there's no way a railroad track would be in line with the gas holder. There's a building in front: "Henry Cowell B... and Cement". A quick check of an old city directory shows Cowell Cement's retail operation was at 583 West Santa Clara Street... right where HP Pavilion and the Shark Tank is now. Zoom in on the building, and see the number "591" suggesting that we've got the address right.

And if we look carefully to the extreme left, we see a *tiny* bit of wood trim that might match the original South Pacific Coast's West San Jose station. In fact, photos of that station in "South Pacific Coast: A Centennial" show the billboards behind the station.

So what we really have here is a photo of a warehouse along the former Cahill Street just south of the Alameda / Santa Clara Street and north of San Fernando Street. These warehouses would be disappearing in a few years, torn down so Diridon Station can be built on this exact location. If I could read that truck license plate towards the right of the photo, I might even be able to guess at the year of the photo, or perhaps the "Kopp's Transfer" gives another detail.

The warehouses appear on a 1915 Sanborn map, which correctly notes that the two side structures are 25 feet high, but the central warehouse section is 31 feet high. Sanborn also labels all as owned by the SP at the time. The Sanborn maps completely ignore the spur track in front of the warehouses, though. Behind the photographer would be the bulk of California Packing Corporation's Plant 51.

I still have no clue why Material Supply Corp. is receiving so many WP cars. Maybe the SP was remarkably friendly during the 1920's about spotting cars for the WP. Maybe those ICC reciprocal switching rules were iron-clad, even when the cars needed to be delivered to an SP-owned building. Or maybe Material Supply was getting most of its incoming supplies from the WP...

But the photo does highlight what the West San Jose area looked like before Diridon Station went in, and it almost convinces me to backdate my layout a couple years. I've modeled this area as if the construction and track raising for Diridon Station had started in 1932 or 1933, but the area for these warehouses is just an underused siding and a temporary station in a passenger car up on blocks. If I was willing to get rid of the Alameda underpass and the slightly raised ground level, I could get a lot of traffic from that warehouse... and I'd also get the advantage of the insane traffic levels that would be prototypical in the late 1920s.

Got ideas why there's so many WP boxcars spotted here, see something interesting in the picture, or got an opinion on whether I should move my layout back a few years? Add a comment and throw in your two cents!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The *Definitive* History of Abinante and Nola

Just when I thought I was done, I got contacted by one of Frank Nola's son who filled in even more details on Abinante and Nola. The result is a more complete, more detailed history of Abinante and Nola, along with photos and excerpts of Sanborn maps showing the various packing plants they occupied.

And one more thing... many packing plants list "shook storage" where the boxes waiting to be assembled would be stored. This California Railroad Commission case explains why you shouldn't just dump the materials for boxes on the end of your spur, and assume the railroad will switch you twice a day.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Train Orders on a Small Layout? Answer Hazy.

Thanks to the fortunate arrival of a coworker from out of town, I had my first operating session in months today, and it went well.  One fatality - a brakeman was brutally run over by the Santa Cruz Passenger.  Although all crews are warned to use flagmen on the broad curve between Campbell and San Jose, I need to warn folks to put the flagman far enough out so a crew in the aisle might see it.  All the trains also ran, even the San Jose Turn with its mixed freight that had twice as much to do because it didn't fully run last time.  The new track at Campbell for the Hyde Cannery and Sunsweet packing house worked well, though it would have worked better if the track didn't get filled with eight cars by session end.  (For those of you wishing that SwitchList would avoid sending cars to overflowing sidings, lets just say I feel your pain.

More importantly, I tried out my idea of simple train orders for trains going between Vasona Branch and Santa Cruz.  On the good side, I think it did encourage the crews to think a little bit about where they were going and where they'd have to meet those other trains, and it did encourage some of the typical railroader "oh, great, we're stuck at lowest priority."  I did make sure to write the orders at the last minute so no one ended up stuck on a siding for an hour because of bad planning.  On the bad side, there was still an awful lot of paper to write up, and for the crews going from San Jose to Los Gatos, the amount of interpretation they needed to go that last two feet from Vasona Junction to Los Gatos was a little annoying.

But a good time was had by all, and except for a couple balky cars, one unpowered frog, some dirty track, and a tree leaning into the right-of-way, things went well.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Training Wheels for Train Orders

I'm prepping for an operating session this weekend, and after my experience writing train orders at the La Mesa club's Tehachapi layout, I thought I'd try running trains a bit more formally than just calling out "yeah, come on down the hill."

I'd already suggested keeping simple train orders on hand to give out to crews, but needed some forms to make them realistic.  Some work with the word processor and a lot of block printing gave me some basic train orders to give out on Sunday.  The orders are simple; the photo shows the clearance card and train order for the Campbell cannery job; nothing else will be on the railroad when it's out, so the train order and clearance card merely says "you've got the railroad from 6:15 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. except for the passenger trains."  I also wrote up orders for three trains that will running in the second half of the session; we'll see whether my plan on where those trains will meet will stand up to reality.

I've done much of the work ahead of time, just to cut my stress.  Most of the orders to give out will already have been written up, and can be handed to the crews with no work on my part.

You can do this too! Here are PDF files for blank train orders and clearance cards; right-click on the links to download them to your computer.  Print them out on your favorite printer, cut them apart, and fill them in.  The train order sheet prints two orders per 8.5 x 11 inch sheet; the clearance card sheet prints three cards per sheet.

If you're unfamiliar with train orders, go over to the Dome of Foam, my favorite railroad site that's filled with Bay Area and Southern Pacific information, and read through their very informative lessons one and two of train orders.  Poke around on the site; there's also lots of stories of life during the time of train orders.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Operating Sessions in a Nutshell

Yep, that's what an operating session looks like. Some moments of quiet and distraction, other moments of frantic repair (in the background), and yet the trains keep running.

[From tonight's operating session at David Parks' Cumberland West layout, where many trains ran.]

Thursday, September 29, 2011

San Jose's Japantown, and CalPak's Pickle Factory

Even with all the historical articles lately, I'm still building models. The California Prune and Apricot Growers (Sunsweet) Plant #1 for Campbell is on my desk. The thick styrene walls still warped from the contact cement and Campbell corrugated siding. I also built the first plastic models I've touched in a while - Walther's interlocking tower, which was nicely designed so that trim and clapboards could be painted separately. The tower will stand in for San Jose's Fourth Street tower on my Market Street layout, guarding the east end of the passenger station and the switches leading either to Milpitas or Los Angeles.

But some quick searches turned up this great map of San Jose's Japantown in 1940, and shows track arrangements around the two Del Monte plants on the east side of San Jose - California Packing Corporation Plant #4 and Plant #339, the pickle factories. They cover three blocks east of Japantown.

It's also an attractive and detailed map, with color coding for the different types of buildings (businesses, industries, etc), comments on history, and details about the occupants in the 1940's. Go check it out.

San Jose's Japantown is still an active neighborhood, so wander over to check out the Nichibei Busson department store and have lunch, or stop by for one of the regular festivals in the neighborhood.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Photo of Another Abinante and Nola site

Another photo in the Gordon Collection captured a glimpse of another Abinante and Nola plant site. This time, a photo of Albers Brothers Milling on Ryland St. shows the back side of the packing sheds on the north side of the tracks near the San Jose Market Street station.

Here's the full photo if you want to see what other details you can find.

In the full photo, Albers Bros. Milling is at the corner of San Pedro and Ryland (either 100 Ryland St. or 395 N. San Pedro St, depending on the occupying company. Beyond that is 200 Ryland St. with the "FRUIT CO." sign - it probably holds Warren Dried Fruit right now, but about 1944, it'll become Abinante and Nola, and they'll redo the foundation as seen in the building permit. The larger building is Rosenberg Brothers, and past it is J. B. Inderridden as I mentioned in March. That posting in March showed the opposite side of these buildings, and the aerial view.

That corner looks a little different now; it's under the Coleman Ave. overpass.

This was a hard photo to track down; the Sanborn maps show that Albers was on the south side of the tracks, but the shadows and the weedy distance didn't match with the position of the San Jose Freight Depot just visible to the left of the building. Luckily, I realized those ventilators on the roof were uncommon, and matched the photos from the other side of the tracks.

By the way, this photo, like many of the photos I've found in the different libraries, is catalogued over on Lookback Maps so I can remember which photos I've found near a specific location. Why not mark where some of your favorite historical photos were taken?

Monday, September 26, 2011

More Photos from the Gordon Collection

And if you need some other HO scale structure projects, how about:

Post if you find any other interesting photos in the Gordon collection.  Note that all of San Jose State's digital collections provide a RSS feed so you can watch as new photos are added to each collection.

Paydirt: Photo of Abinante and Nola Packing House!

All the research I've been doing on Abinante and Nola started with a single question: what did the packing house at 750 West San Carlos St. look like? Although aerial photos on Historic Aerials show a rough silhouette and Sanborn fire insurance maps show the floor plan, I've never found photos of the actual building.

Luckily, one of the rules of research is to keep looking till you do find something. When I did a recent search for "J. S. Roberts", the previous owner of the packing house, some new panorama photos from the 1930's turned up at San Jose State's John C. Gordon Collection. (The Gordon collection is a great set of photos for anyone interested in San Jose in the 1930's.) An image of the San Carlos St. viaduct shows one building for Del Monte Plant #3, a row of maintenance-of-way cars along the tracks, and the J.S. Roberts dried fruit plant. The photo is also from 1934 - pretty much my era.

Full photo here.
So let's compare the photo with the scene I actually built:
  • The packing house is large and barn-like with clapboard siding and a corrugated tin roof. It's definitely different from the model I built, and much plainer.
  • Hidden in the trees, you can just barely see the tiny boiler house made of corrugate steel, with what appears to be a tall smokestack twenty feet in the air. The boiler house looks like it's behind a worn, whitewashed fence,.
  • The railroad crossing on the former street is blocked off at the bridge; that fence is still there, as far as I know, but the bridge was removed long before. That line of parked cars behind the barrier would be a great detail in the scene. I'm not modeling Los Gatos Creek, but modeling at least part of the bridge and creek would be a great bit of detail for the scene. I don't have room for both sides of the creek, but I wish I could add the sign on the telephone pole just before the bridge: "BRIDGE UNSAFE: NO MORE THAN 6 TON EXCEPT RR R.T.WAY SPEED LIMIT 8 MILES".

    Also note the road on this side of the creek is bordered by the creek, and has the nice boardwalk and railing to protect the locals from falling. On the other side of the road, the Del Monte property has its own fence to protect folks from falling in the creek.
  • The bridge supports have an unusual shape, with the actual supports narrower than the bridge. Those might be a good project for the 3d printer. The last portion of the viaduct is solid - again details to get right in the model.
  • I'd forgotten the stairs from the viaduct - they're still there, and I assume were designed for workers the Del Monte workers - again a detail to reproduce.

    On the far side of the viaduct, there's a line of what appear to be maintenance of way cars with windows and steps. The static maintenance-of-way cars might be a nice addition to my scene, as the curve on that side of the viaduct is pretty bare.
  • There's telephone poles and wires everywhere, some power, and some (on the viaduct) for the trolleys and Peninsular Railway interurban line.
  • One surprise for me is that there's little sign of construction of the new mainline in this phot. The Park Ave. underpass is obviously in place off in the distance, but I don't see any track other than the Los Gatos branch in the scene. However, if I look at another photo of the viaduct, taken from a lower angle, I can see a great deal of construction activity hidden behind the viaduct - debris, a maintenance of way shed, and several boxcars.
By the way, the current mainline SP tracks will pass just in front of the solid viaduct support, between that barricade and the bridge. Google Earth shows the relationship of the tracks and the viaduct piers quite nicely. This photo from Google Street View (a few years old, considering that walls of the Del Monte cannery are still standing) shows how the scene has changed in the last 80 years.

This photo again shows why I like modeling real scenes. Much of the set dressing - the abandoned bridge, blocked street and line of parked cars; the plain packing house building, the stairway from the viaduct, the odd supports, and the row of maintenance-of-way cars - they are all details I would not have placed on my own.

Stay tuned for a future episode where I'll describe plans to redo the Abinante and Nola scene!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

History of a Dried Fruit Packer: Abinante and Nola

Early on in the planning for my Vasona Branch model railroad layout, I poked through old Sanborn fire insurance maps for ideas about industries. One of my finds was a dried fruit packing house next to the tracks at 750 West San Carlos St. in San Jose. It sat across the street from Del Monte Plant #3, the huge cannery in San Jose that I was already planning to model. Depending on the year, the building was either labeled as Pacific Fruit Products (1915) or Abinante and Nola (1950).

The Sanborn maps hinted at a building that would make a great model: tall (30'), multiple floors for processing fruit, additions (sulphur box on the second floor), and a boiler and oil tank along San Carlos St. Model railroads need lots of industries to ship enough cars to make an operating system fun, and this place looked like the kind of shipper I needed on my railroad - busy, rambling, and photogenic.

The Vasona Branch is modeling 1932, but at the time I didn't know whose name should be on that building. I flipped a coin, annointed Abinante and Nola the current owner, built my model, and many crews have shipped dried fruit from the place ever since.

But I was still curious about Abinante and Nola. What did the building really looked like? How did the dried fruit packing business work? There's a reason for my curiosity; my grandmother grew up on the family fruit ranch in Hayward, and similar families in the San Jose area would have been selling apricots and prunes to Abinante and Nola and the other local packers. So I kept searching around for information about that packing house.

Luckily, I started trading e-mails with Don Abinante, son of one of the founders, and learned a bunch about dried fruit packing. Here's a quick history of Abinante and Nola, and some quick notes on what the business was really like (as opposed to how it appears on the
model railroad.)

Abinante and Nola's History: Abinante and Nola actually was founded a bit after the era for my railroad. Abinante and Nola Packing Co. was started in 1935 by Sam Abinante and Frank Nola. Sam had been a fruit buyer for other companies in the Valley, and Frank knew how to run the processing plant, so they teamed up, started the business in a barn owned by Frank's parents, and ran their own show.

By 1940, they must have been doing well. They moved to a new property on Stevens Creek Road, a couple blocks away from the current Nissan dealership. (If you're eager for exact location, let's guess at Woodhams Road between Lawrence and San Tomas Expressways.) A 1940 issue of Engineering News-Record notes the request for bids for the new warehouse in September, 1940.

The Stevens Creek Road plant burned down in 1945 (arson, according to Don, and an event that almost made Sam give up on the business, according to a granddaughter. For a couple years the company primarily acted as brokers for fruit processed by others: Valley View Packing (run by the Rubino family down on Hillsdale Ave. near the Guadalupe River) and CalPak (California Packing Corporation, aka Del Monte). There's also signs they were developing additional warehouse and packing space. A 1944 San Jose city building permit shows them doing repairs to the old Warren Dried Fruit plant at 200 Ryland Street, just across the tracks from the old San Jose Freight Depot near Bassett Street and San Pedro St. They were still in the building through at least 1949 according to another building permit (for the addition of a canopy), as well as entries in San Jose phone directories of the time.

In the late '40's, they finally moved to that building that I model at 750 West San Carlos St, but kept the building on Ryland St. Within a few years, though, they bought a former Mayfair Packing Plant #2 at 631 Sunol St. (Mayfair was one of the larger independent packers in the San Jose area, and was moving to their new, modern plant over on South Seventh St.) Abinante's new plant was on the Western Pacific, and a late 1950's WP track diagram in Track and Time marks the building as Abinante and Nola. That building still stands, by the way, occupied by a roofing supply house at a new addresss of 991 Lonus St.

By 1966, though, the encroaching suburbs were eating up the remaining prune orchards in the Bay Area, and the fruit to pack was coming from further afield. Abinante and Nola moved to a modern prune processing plant in Fairfield to be closer to the farmers supplying the fruit, and thus leaves our story.

The Business: Abinante and Nola's primary business was packing prunes, but they also handled smaller amounts of dried apricots, peaches, and pears. They produced a good quantity of fruit-typically around five or six million pounds a year.

To understand what Abinante and Nola's packing houses was like, Sunsweet's 1950 video gives a good overview of the dried fruit packing business. The fruit packer had already bought the crop before harvest, estimating price based on the buyer's rough guess of what would be produced and the fruit rancher's past yield. Farmers would dry the fruit before delivery, either in their own drying yard or at a commercial dryer. When the fruit first went to the dryer, it would be washed then run through the dehydrator to reduce the water content and preserve the fruit. The dried fruit would then be delivered in sacks (early days) or in 2000 pound wooden containers (later years) to the fruit packer.

The fruit would arrive at the Abinante and Nola in August and September. Upon arrival, the packer would sort the fruit, then store it until sales came in. Packers generally sold the fruit bit by bit over the year, so the packing house needed enough storage space to hold the year's crop. When the fruit was ready to sell, it would be inspected, washed in hot water, and steamed for easier processing and sanitizing. It would be inspected again, re-hydrated to 20% humidity for consistency, and boxed as appropriate for sale. At Sunsweet, the fruit would have been boxed for individual sale, but Abinante and Nola were processing for others to distribute. In the early days, they exported the fruit to Europe and even Cuba, but as time went on, they started selling in addition to brokers and retailers on East Coast, Chicago, and Texas. From the 1930's to the 1950's, most fruit would have been packed in 25 pound containers (first made of wood, then cardboard).

It's interesting that all of Abinante and Nola's facilities (except for that first one on Stevens Creek Road) had rail access. Much of their fruit was exported via ship in San Francisco, and so was usually sent by truck in the 1950's. When the company shipped product to the east coast in the same era, it would tend to go via rail, and they'd ship only two or three cars a month. Either rail was an acceptable way to send cargo to the piers in San Francisco in the 1940's, or the large warehouses that Abinante and Nola needed just happened to be next to the tracks.

Abinante and Nola wasn't the only dried fruit packer in the valley. Mayfair Packing and Valley View were two other privately held fruit packers, and were considered "friendly competitors" by Abinante and Nola -- not cutthroat, but each company had to be aware of the other's prices when trying to make sales. Guggenhime & Co (which had plants over by the San Jose Market Street Station) handled both dried and fresh fruit, but was a smaller competitor. The big producer - then and now - was California Prune and Apricot Growers (Sunsweet); they had a major effect on prices, but tended to sell into retail and didn't compete directly with Abinante and Nola.

Sunsweet still dominates the industry; check out the Prune Barganing Association's history to see how 60% of prunes are still sold through Sunsweet.

I'd assumed that canners would have been competing for the same fruit, but each crop and farmer tended to specialize in either fruit for drying or canning. Del Monte, Stapleton and Spence, Filice and Perelli, and Rosenberg Brothers were primarily canners, and did not compete with Abinante and Nola. Although Del Monte had a bit of a dried fruit business, they didn't cross paths with Abinante and Nola because of the size of the market and the fact that Del Monte was processing for their own label.

The Building: 750 West San Carlos: According to the Sanborn maps, 750 West San Carlos St. was four stories tall. The top floor was for grading and storage. The third floor stored the unprocessed fruit waiting to be sold. The second floor had the processing machinery and the sulfur box for re-treating apricots just before packing and sale. The first floor was for packing, storage of finished product, and the office. Separate from the main building and out by San Carlos St was the small boiler house for the hot water and steam and an underground 6000 gallon tank. That's a big tank - think eight feet in diameter and sixteen
feet long.

The San Carlos St. building, like all of Abinante and Nola's buildings other than the one on Sunol, is gone; Historic Aerials shows the building disappeared some time between 1948 and 1956.

The Model: So that's what I know about Abinante and Nola. The building with their name on it on the Vasona Branch was theirs only for a few years, and if I were more earnest, I'd change the name to J.S. Roberts, the actual occupant in 1932. But I like it, and now that I've learned about Abinante and Nola, I'm not too interested in correcting the anachronism.

All this research also hints that I might need to run the layout differently. For the sake of argument, let's assume that the business would have been run the same way by the building's occupant in 1932.

  • I should consider loading fewer freight cars at Abinante and Nola. With most fruit going to Europe, I ought to have fewer east coast boxcars loading there, and either direct more fruit out in SP boxcars (for traffic being sent to the piers) or cut the total number of cars and put
    more trucks in the scene.
  • Ship fewer cars. I set my layout during a fruit rush (either early for apricots or later for other crops), but because Abinante and Nola was shipping continuously during the year, it wouldn't have been the same beehive of outgoing activity that I would have seen in the canneries.
  • Don't bring tank cars to Abinante and Nola. Because of the size of the oil tank, it's unlikely they would have gotten oil via rail. I'll bet the oil dealer would have stopped by every few weeks to top off the tank.