Friday, January 13, 2012

Bad Years in the Valley

I've heard it said that all the worst mistakes on an engineering project happen on the first day when our assumptions and premature decisions appear on the whiteboard. We start building, then six months, a year, or five years later realize that reversing that mistake on day one will be near impossible.

That certainly happens with model railroads. We'll decide on the towns we absolutely must have, or we'll choose a prototype and setting that won't carry the traffic we want, or we'll overestimate (or underestimate) the number of operators we can easily fit.

My worst mistake, it appears, is right there at the top of my blurb about my Vasona Branch layout:

It's summer 1932, and the Great Depression has taken hold in the U.S. Even with the depression, Santa Clara's crops still head for Eastern markets. Apricots fresh and dried, prunes, and cherries from the Valley of Heart's Delight all are grown here, and all get exported to the rest of the country.

If I've learned anything over the last couple years, Santa Clara's crops were not heading for Eastern markets. Hunt's Cannery closed for 1931 and 1932. Crop prices were insanely low, and crop sizes were huge. Packers and farmers tried to sell their crops ahead of the rest of the market, causing prices to plummet further. California Packing Corporation (aka Del Monte) had earnings collapse from $6 per share in 1930 to 9 cents a share in 1931, and produced its worst year ever in 1932.

My visit to the Campbell library and quick glances at the Campbell Interurban Press highlighted how much worse it was. It turns out that the Hyde Cannery, one of the two canneries I model in Campbell, shut down in 1928; although there are hints in "The Orchard City" that it opened for a couple seasons, I doubt it. The March 30, 1930 issue quotes Mr Squibb, secretary for the cannery, declaring that the cannery will be open for the 1930 canning season. Not so; the advisory board for the company overruled him, and the July 1 issue included the front page banner "Hyde's Cannery Will Not Operate This Year, Is Decree of Directors."

Having the cannery news on the front page must have been a pretty big deal in town, as the Campbell Interurban Press rarely had business articles on the front page. I suspected it would cut into the column-inches that could be devoted to the local Sea Scouts chapter. (For the record, I have nothing against the Sea Scouts, but it was just a bit tedious to read through four years of meetings, and mysterious fires in their boat-house, etc. I'd also like to know why they even had Sea Scouts when the bay was miles away!)

Hyde must not have been open in 1931 either; the October 20, 1931 issue includes an article "Local C. of C. Asks Growers to use Hyde Plant" with explicit hopes of stealing 12-15 jobs from the association's San Jose packing plant:

The Directors of the Campbell Chamber of Commerce met Monday in a special meeting to ask the California Prune and Apricot association to consider the Hyde packing plant for processing and packing prunes. Thousands of tons of prunes are temporarily stored here by the association."

Hyde stayed dark till 1937 when Sunsweet bought the plant and turned it into the "Campbell Cooperative Dryer". Hyde's days as a cannery were, as far as I can tell, over way back in '28.

[Update: I spoke too soon. The "Campbell Packing Corporation" used the facility in 1933.]

Luckily, it appears, the Ainsley Cannery (which became the Drew Cannery in 1932/1933) kept running. A June 30, 1932 article mentions that Ainsley was "running 'cots" starting the next day. Although it was "a fair crop with regard to size and better than usual quality", the cannery production was going to be considerably lighter than usual because of "depressed business conditions throughout the world." There would also be fewer jobs, with folks who'd worked for Ainsley in previous seasons having priority for the available jobs. This same season was the one that paid the Olsons fifteen dollars for their entire 1932 crop of apricots. And they were lucky; one of the advantages of growing apricots was that the farmer could sell to the canner or the dryer depending on demand. The prune farmers had no such choice, and were completely at the mercy of the dried fruit prices.

But that's not the worst of the Depression stories. The Hunt's Cannery might have been closed for the 1931 and 1932 seasons, but that didn't mean it opened again afterwards. Hunts sold the cannery in 1942 after using it only as warehouse space for the intervening years. The cannery changed hands again in 1943 to Seagram's which must have been buying it as warehouse space for the Paul Masson wine business they'd recently bought. The May, 1943 article describing the sale mentioned "the cannery has not been in operation for 10 years. Recently, 13,000 of the 70,000 square feet it comprises were leased by Louis Devich of San Jose. He stated he would can apricots there this year."

I hope Devich managed to do some canning for the 1943 season, if only to perfume Los Gatos one last time with the smell of cooking apricots.

The Hunts cannery survived, by the way. Drive by the intersection of Highway 9 and Santa Cruz Ave. just north of downtown, check out the shopping center on the northeast corner now inhabiting the buildings.

Some of the disappearance of the canning industry in Campbell and Los Gatos was obviously caused by the Great Depression. I could also imagine that some of the pressure on Hyde and Hunts was from more modern and efficient plants in San Jose. Either way, Campbell and Los Gatos would have been a lot quieter in 1932 than I'm modeling them.

So I'm at a crossroads. Do I keep my 1932 era and pretend that the canneries were running full-bore? Do I push my era back a few years into the late 1920's when the cannery traffic would have been more appropriate? Or do I rethink my choice of industries, and keep 1932, but downplay the unused canneries and instead focus on the businesses that were running?


  1. And, it turns out, things were even worse. This article from April 28, 1934, says that the Hyde cannery was to be sold to Campbell Packing Corporation "within days", and had been shut down since 1926. The Hyde company itself went bankrupt in 1928.,2495151

  2. The news also made it to the San Jose Evening News, for the July 9 1930 issue also says that Hyde will not pack apricots or peaches that year.
    "Samuel Squibb, who is at present in charge of the company's Campbell office", will superintend the summer activities of the plant. Disposition of last year's hold-over and preparation for next season will be included in the company's summer program." The references to last summer imply they did pack in 1929.