Monday, May 16, 2011

Places I Won't Model: Sewall Brown Co.

[Title borrowed from Derek Lowe's "Things I Won't Work With" series from his "In the Pipeline" blog. Worth reading, especially to hint at why you might not want to be a chemist.]

I knew when I started building my Vasona Branch layout that I can't fit every possible scene on the San Jose-Santa Cruz branch into the available space. Sometimes that meant hard decisions about leaving out representative scenes, and sometimes it meant having no problem taking the mental pruning shears to my ideas.

The Sewall Brown Co. was one of those easy-to-prune ideas. [Horrible pun completely unintended, I swear.] Sewall Brown collected apricot kernels from the local farmers, drying yards, and canneries; they were processed and sent to Europe for sweets and baking. Others were in the same game; even Del Monte Plant #3 had a portion of the plant to handle this valuable by-product. Brown's warehouse was on the Winchester Road just north of Vasona Junction - about where Highway 85 and the Netflix offices are now located. One of the Vasona Junction photos in Railroads of Los Gatos shows the buildings in the far distance.

It's also a well-known location because of some photos of trains serving the site, and because of the attached painting which I've seen in a few places. It's an interesting industry, both because it's located in an otherwise empty stretch of track, has the huge billboard sign on the wall, and is an unusual industry that modern-day audiences may never have thought possible.

From a model railroad standpoint, it's less of a draw. The industry location was in a stretch between towns, so it either needs to take the conceptual space of a full town, or needs to be shoehorned in between Campbell and Vasona Junction, and removes some of the distance and emptiness along the route. Sewall Brown is also probably a low-traffic industry; I can imagine it having a hard time filling one car a month, let alone one car a day. For an operating model railroad, an empty spur is at best scenery, and wasting a few feet of layout on that scenery might not always be appropriate. (I find it interesting the painting shows two cars being retrieved on a rainy winter day - would that have ever really happened?)

So Sewall Brown was struck from the layout. Every now and then, I think about adding it back into the area around Vasona Junction, but that stretch from Campbell to Los Gatos really needs to be wall-to-wall orchards, so the apricot pit processor loses.

I was doing some searches on Sewall Brown tonight hoping to find some photos of the Vasona Junction area, and found Mr. Brown's biography transcribed online. One of the interesting facts in that article is the tidbit:
Sewall S. Brown attended the grammar and high schools of San Jose and afterward became a student at Stanford University. After completing his education he became connected with the San Jose Water Works and then secured a position as field representative with the California Seed Growers' Association, with which he remained until June 1, 1921, when he came to Los Gatos as superintendent of plant No. 7 of the California Prune & Apricot Growers' Association. He has a comprehensive understanding of the work in which he is engaged and is seeking in every way possible to advance the interests of his employers, who thoroughly appreciate his services.
California Prune and Apricot Growers' Association is better known to you frequent readers of the blog as Sunsweet, which also had operations in downtown Campbell, on Lincoln Avenue in San Jose, and elsewhere in the Valley. I hadn't heard of a Sunsweet packing house in Los Gatos, but the
list of Sunsweet packers in 1920 I presented back in December showed that there was a Los Gatos/Vasona packing house at that time.

I'd bet that the Sewall Brown Co. warehouse at Vasona Junction was actually the Sunsweet packing house, and Mr. Brown took over the property when Sunsweet realized that having two packing plants within a couple miles of each other was inefficient. I can't find any mention of the Vasona packing house in The Sunsweet Story, so proving that Sewall Brown had been yet-another-Sunsweet packing house will require a bit of rummaging in city directories.

Off to and the San Jose Library to poke through musty city directories!

(Additional note: The Santa Clara County Fire Department collection of historical photos says that the Sewall Brown plant burned down in September, 1955.)

[Both images from History Los Gatos. I think the painting was done by Michael Kotowski, and appears in Bruce MacGregor's "South Pacific Coast: A Centennial", and I seem to remember seeing it in an Orchard Supply catalog at least a decade ago as well.]

1 comment:

  1. And just as a hint for anyone else researching in this direction: the San Jose Fire Museum notes that the Plant #7 number was reused for Sunsweet's big cannery at 7th and Alma south of downtown in 1944. Some of their collected fire equipment was from the cannery's fire suppression equipment.