Monday, November 21, 2011

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...


  1. Bruntz's "History of Los Gatos: Gem of the Foothills" gives more details. Sewall Brown started out with Howard Scott in 1925 as the "Scott and Brown Apricot Kernel Company"; both were employed by Sunsweet. The company was dissolved in May 1952 upon the death of Brown. They also had a branch plant in Santa Paula.

  2. Robert, Google recently made the following 1920s article available. There's a photo of Sewall Brown that further hints at the considerable size of the building, and the content of the article is remarkable - it reads like an intro to a modeling article.,1841413&hl=en

  3. Thanks, Chris - it's a great article! If you like articles like that, also check out the Edith Daley columns from around 1920. She did a bunch of industry profiles - some shorter, but others that were along the same lines as the Sewall Brown article. I particularly liked the Pacific By-Products article (Stanley Hiller's company). I've got a list of her articles at:

    There was also a similar article on Larson Ladder in 1928, the makers of the orchard ladders:,3132977&hl=en

    Time to poke through those 1928 issues to find more long-form articles on local industries!