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.

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