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.)


  1. "...and hopefully is encouraging regular and productive voting." FTW :-)

    Great post, Robert. I'll keep my eyes open for a sneaky salesman figure.

  2. Robert,

    SP created "industrial maps" which show the corresponding spur number. HSJ has a 1932 revision for the San Jose area and I have confirmed a matching of the spur numbers with the 1931 document. CSRM library shows that they have a few "San Jose industrial maps" in their collection. My assumption is that the CSRM documents are various date revisions of the same map.

    The zones and spur numbers in the 1931 document do not match with the same in the SPINS documents. A large scale spur numbering change must of occurred during SP's system-wide implementation of the SPINS program