Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tricking Myself Into Finishing Scenery

It's amazing what a little push can do.

On my list of projects for 2012, I'd added "Patch holes and gaps in the scenery and fascia", and I was mostly thinking of the orchard scene on the curve between San Jose and Campbell.

This area had some of the earliest scenery on the layout as I defended against derailing trains falling to the floor. I tried hardshell based on childhood memories and quickly went to foam and sculptamold about halfway through this curve. I'd also gotten the fascia height wrong early in the layout, and the scenery on the curve either ended an inch above the top edge of the fascia, or sloped away unrealistically from the track. Although I'd added the start of an orchard scene on the inside of the curve early-on, the scene had languished for years. This wasn't one of my favorite scenes, and it wasn't one of the more attractive parts of the layout.

I also had my first real test of whether I was going to stay close to my chosen prototype, or was going to use the "San Jose - Los Gatos branch" as inspiration only. Channeling my teenage modeler, I thought "oh, some elevation change would be nice in this corner!" and started building a dip or gully in the corner of the layout. About halfway through and elbow-deep in plaster, I realized that the actual scenery south of San Jose would have been perfectly flat. Sudden soul searching - am I modeling a specific prototype, or just whatever scene I wanted? I made the explicit choice that day to keep going on prototype modeling; the gully got filled in, and the scenery looks like the Valley floor between San Jose and Campbell. More importantly, I kept making decisions to keep the layout as prototypical and accurate as possible, and I've been happy with that choice. But if you look under the layout, you can still see the shape of that inappropriate gully in the underside of the scenery.

[Before photo]

So, thanks to the ProRail deadline, it was time to gut all that scenery. Over the last couple weekends, I ripped out some of the scenery, replaced the fascia, and put down a new scenery base. Today was the more photogenic day; the new scenery got covered in dirt (sifted from the garden), ground foam, and trees. The photo just above shows the layout before all this work; the photo at the top shows the scene today.

The amazing part is that I really was intending to get rid of the holes in the fascia to give the layout a more finished look. However, as I've found before, sometimes if I just get started on some project - especially one with a smaller, less challenging goal such as "replace the fascia but don't worry about the scenery", I'll have the momentum to keep going and deal with the bigger, nastier problems -- how to design the scene and getting past the fear that the scenery might not come out looking very good. Getting moving on a lingering project like this often means that I get inspired to keep going... and finishing the scene is the result.


The road through the center of the scene is supposed to be Meridian Road, just south of San Jose. The canneries are about a quarter mile up the road on the right hand side. The gas station on the right is a model of the Barnsdall / Rio Grande gas station in Goleta, California. Although there wasn't a gas station on this location, it's a model that deserves display. The buff gravel driveway also adds color to the scene.

The left side shows an orchard, barn, and drying yard. The barn on the left side of the road (just being built this weekend) is DeLoney's Barn from Showcase Miniatures - very detailed, very California-appropriate, and it's been falling together quickly. The tank house in the back is scratchbuilt, as are all the drying flats of apricots in the back. The shed in the left foreground is a cutting shed that will have a scene of women preparing the apricots. The grass in front is a Silflor "California Gold" sheet - it's pricey, but pretty stunning in smaller areas like this. Once the scenery dries, I'll be adding the Silflor clumps to disguise the edge of the sheet.

The backdrop at the back of the scene ended about an inch above the top of the finished scenery. That was partially poor planning, but I'd also had problems getting larger sheets into place when the benchwork had already been built and track was already in. To cover the gaps, I cut 2 inch wide strips of styrene, cut rough tree-shaped scallops into the top of it, painted it a bluish-green, and glued the strips to the backdrop to hide the gap. I also added ground foam and Woodland Scenics fine-leaf foilage to the tree strip to further disguise the backdrop.

The orchard ate a lot of trees; the temporary trees formerly in the orchard only filled three rows, so it's time for me to start building trees again. I use the Woodland Scenics bendable tree armatures for the orchard trees because they're cheap and are short enough to look orchard live. The wilder areas (Alma and Wrights) gets Supertrees. Although the Supertrees are more fragile, there's less reaching into scenes up there, and the lacier trees look good in a forest scene.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Violent and Accidental Means"

[Yes, another packing house story. I spent the weekend playing with an Arduino I'd just bought at Radio Shack rather than making trees or detailing buildings or doing anything else worth writing about.]

Like I keep saying, the only fruit industry historic facts that make it onto the Internet are the scores from the company bowling team and the lawsuits.

Luckily, the lawsuits sometimes have details of life in the packing houses.

We all know thanks to those fancy Sanborn maps and stories of the business that most dried fruit packing houses were multi-story. The top floor had the grading equipment for the incoming fruit, the fruit went into large gravity-fed storage bins till sold later in the year, and the fruit for packing would be pulled out the bottom. Each of the packing houses needed a boiler for cleaning and re-hydrating the fruit, and an elevator to haul the tons of incoming fruit up to the top floor of the packing house. Each Sanborn map carefully indicates the presence of both the boiler and the elevator because both were likely of interest to those insurance actuaries.

But what were those elevators like?

Luckily, we've got cases like Fitzpatrick vs Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. In this particular case, John Whelan was the superintendent of the Guggenhime & Co packing house off Julian Street in San Jose. He'd bought a life insurance policy that paid off $5,000 if he died of "violent and accidental means", but would pay off double if the death was by elevator. Poor Mr. Whelan lost his life when riding the freight elevator in the packing house, and the insurance company refused to pay because it wasn't officially a passenger elevator, and because Mr. Whelan was running it himself. The insurance company lost, and his widow got the double value, but the appellate court decision (which also agreed with the double-value) was kind enough to include details about what a packing house elevator was like.
"The building in which the accident occurred was three stories in height, and was entirely occupied by Guggenhime & Co. in carrying on the business of drying and packing fruits. The only elevator operated therein was the one in which the accident occurred. It was of the hydraulic type, raised and lowered by water power, and operated by means of a cable which by pulling opened a valve and let in the water pressure. The dimensions of the floor of the elevator car were six feet by seven feet. The rear and side walls were constructed of heavy wire mesh or netting extending from the floor nearly to the elevator ceiling, which consisted also of wire mesh. The entire front side of the elevator was open. The elevator shaft was enclosed only part way up between the floors of the building, and on each floor the entrance to the elevator was protected by a gate which was raised and lowered by the movement of the elevator."

"The insured was alone in the elevator when the accident happened. Shortly prior thereto he stated that he was going to get a hand truck and go to the third floor to get some samples of dried fruit. Ten or fifteen minutes later two employees who were on the third floor heard the insured place the truck on the elevator on the first floor, pull the cable, and start to ascend. Then they heard a noise indicating that something had gone wrong with the elevator, and upon investigating found that it had stopped just as the elevator floor was about to reach the level of the third-story floor; the insured was lying on the floor of the elevator with his head projecting over the edge and it was being crushed between the two floors. Alongside of the injured was the empty truck, a couple of sample pans, and a few paper bags. An operator was regularly employed by the Guggenhime company to run the elevator, but when he was not on duty it was operated by any of the employees who had occasion to use it, and the accident to the insured happened early in the morning before the regular elevator operator reported for work.

"With respect to the use of the elevator the evidence shows beyond question that it was used indiscriminately for the carriage of both freight and human beings. The fruit manufacturing processes were conducted on the second and third floors, and the employees used the elevator generally and constantly, not only in going from one floor to another in the performance of their duties, but also to convey customers and visitors up and down whenever they had occasion to transact business on or visit the second and third floors. In this regard one of the employees testified that "in the summer time it is practically every two or three minutes a day a person might be going up". There was a sign hung on the rear wall of the elevator reading: "This elevator is for freight only. This means you. Guggenhime & Co."; but the testimony shows that neither the company nor its employees considered it a violation of the company's rules for employees to use the elevator themselves whenever necessary or convenient, or to convey other persons therein; that the sign was displayed merely to stop people not having business with the company from using the elevator for their own pleasure.

It's a tragic story, but it gives some details about life in the packing plant - the mesh-covered elevator and industrial controls, carrying visitors and customers up and down, the worries about the local kids sneaking in to ride the elevator for fun, and the "This elevator for freight only" sign - gives a little more detail to what would otherwise just be a dusty picture in an album, or a dark building on the edge of the model railroad.

[Photo: The Deadly Packing House itself, from a photo in San Jose State University's John C. Gordon Collection.]

Saturday, February 11, 2012

"The Social Network", 1921 Version

Obvious meme based on that summary of Santa Clara County's agriculture numbers from a couple posts ago.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Movie Night #3: Fruit Drying

When my great-grandfather harvested and dried the apricots on the family ranch, processing the fruit was a frantic time. He'd need laborers for picking, cutting, and drying the fruit handy. He'd need the drying yard area to be clean, and the drying flats handy. My great-grandmother also needed to be ready; I've heard stories that she was doing all the cooking for those field workers during the harvest.

After some long, hard, days, he'd have the product of all that work - the year's crop of dried apricots, ready to take to the packing house.

I don't know all the details of how my great-grandfather picked and processed his crop; not many stories made it down through the generations. I'm not even sure where he sold his apricots, but I ought to poke around and see who was buying dried fruit in Hayward in the 1930's. But I can imagine it was hard work.

It's not that much easier now. Here's two videos on modern fruit drying, one on prunes and one on apricots. Both hint at the action that would have been seen around San Jose in the 1930's, and would hint at the work going on at packing houses like Del Monte's Plant 51 on Bush St. and Sunsweet's plants in San Jose and Campbell.

The prune drying video comes from Stapleton Spence, formerly of San Jose but now processing fruit in the Yuba City area north of Sacramento. They've turned up before in the stories of the Vasona Branch before because they had interactions with Abinante and Nola, and also bought the machinery at the Woelffel Cannery in Cupertino. They use a lot of machinery, but the operation probably matches what Sunsweet was doing at the Campbell packing house from the 1930's or 1940's up until the 1970's.

There's also videos from Stapleton Spence of shaking trees to harvest the prunes - there's no need to hire the local kids to pick prunes up off the ground any more. They've even got a video report on the 2011 crop from one of the field managers.

The second video from Bella Viva Orchards out near Modesto shows the process of drying apricots. Some of the steps are mechanical - handling and cutting the fruit - but there's still an awful lot of hands that need to be present during the harvest to pick out the overripe fruit, space the fruit out on the drying flats, and take the fruit out into the drying yard.

Bella Viva Orchards has a bunch of other videos worth watching - pruning, harvesting, and taking the fruit to the San Francisco Farmers' Market at the Ferry Building.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Santa Clara County: 99.4% prunes.

A couple people have asked me this week "just how big a deal were prunes in Santa Clara County?" That's a good question, and a quick search turned up a a San Jose News article from Dec. 30, 1941 summarizing the numbers.

So, first, some caveats - these numbers are for 1941, ten years after the era I model, with twelve years of bumper crops and horrible prices. Numbers for 1931 might be higher or lower, depending on how much faith the local farmers had in the prune market returning.

Overall, Santa Clara County measures 825,000 acres. Of those, 126,000 acres (15%) are in agriculture. Of that 126,000 acres, there are:

  • 59,494 acres of prunes (producing 40% of all the prunes in California!)
  • 18,584 acres of apricots.
  • 7,511 acres of pears.
  • 2,628 ares of cherries.
  • 7,117 acres of grapes.
  • 1,000 acres of mixed fruits and nuts.
  • 23,000 acres of vegetables: tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, spinach, sugar beets, broccoli, garlic, potatoes, celery, beans, peas, peppers, and cauliflower.
  • 1,500 acres of berries.
  • 6,000 acres of alfalfa.
  • 1,500 acres of seed and nursery stock.
  • 7,372 acres of walnuts.
That's 135,000 acres total, so something's double-counted, but that does give us an idea of the importance of prunes - almost half of the land is covered with prune trees, and apricots are the next largest crop with only a fraction of the land covered by the plum trees. If you're looking at a typical Santa Clara Valley packing house - maybe Del Monte's Plant 51 on Bush Street, or the Sunsweet packing house in Campbell - prunes dominated. Only some of the apricots would have been sold as dry fruit; others went to the canneries, with the ratio varying depending on prices. dominated.

All that fruit was packed in 35 canneries in the county, 32 dried fruit and fresh fruit packing houses, and 102 evaporators and dehydrators (!). They county as a whole was responsible for 3-400,000 tons of dried fruit a year, shipped by rail and water - that's around 5,000 freight cars a year.

But, yeah, if you're modeling a packing house or drying yard, it'll all be prunes. Don't put any yellow fruit on those drying flats.

That Dec. 30, 1941 issue of the News is worth a bit of a look even beyond the prunes article. Between the lack of hot news action over the Christmas holidays and any self-censorship about the war a month after Pearl Harbor, I suspect an entire edition of puff pieces was one of the few ways to fill the paper. Luckily, the puff pieces are handy for those of us trying to understand what the town was like then.

[Postcard of "California Orchard in Bloom" from

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Projects for 2012

Well it's time for reflecting on the past year. Right after the Bay Area LD/OPSIG meet in January 2011, I wrote about how I'd held back on risky projects till the meet's operating sessions happened, and then had time for the big, messy, risky projects that might require damaging completed work, or beginning projects that might take several weeks to fix.

So how'd I do on that list of big projects?
  • Add another lighting fixture: Done, three new fixtures added to replace two rusty 1970's fluorescent fixtures. There's now better light over the layout. It's surprising how different the layout can look when the hot spots of lighting change.
  • Break the lower deck into separate power districts. Done, though there's times where they appear to affect each other.
  • Redo the Campbell sidings. Done.
  • Rough in scenery at Vasona Junction.Done. Looks good!
  • Fix dips causing problems for 4-8-0 and 4-6-2's. No work.
  • Continue scenery in Alma. A bit done, but not enough.
  • Strengthen the layout, and relevel. No work.
  • Mine or oil at Alma. No work.
  • Build the Del Monte cannery. No work.
  • Build Ainsley cannery. No work.
  • Fix tortoises in Campbell. Done.
  • Ballast more. Not enough.
That's not too bad, and much more than I expected when I thought to re-check my list. Because last year's to-do list did so well, here's my to-do list for 2012. My big milestone is participating in the invite-only Prorail weekend later this Spring, so I'll probably try to avoid any… destructive rampages… till them.
  • Finish the buildings and scenery at the south end of Campbell. (Station area, Hyde cannery, Sunsweet).

  • Mock up and redo the Abinante and Nola scene) (to be renamed Higgins-Hyde), terrain, and add Los Gatos Creek.
  • Back-date the layout to 1928, and replace the West San Jose depot scene with the building supply warehouse that existed before Diridon station.
  • Buildings and scenery at Del Monte cannery.
  • Extend lower staging another foot so 11-12 car trains will fit comfortably.
  • Mine or oil pumping at Alma.
There's also a bunch of minor issues, probably to be done before ProRail:
  • Redo track around Glenwood that gets more than its fair share of derailments.
  • Redo switches at the west end of Campbell.
  • Improve the rough scenery on the Santa Cruz staging, and cover gaps in the benchwork.
  • Ballast everywhere to help keep track from moving.
  • More trees for Wrights, and perhaps carve out space for the prototype water tank.
  • Reprogram some flaws in the ABS signals.
  • Patch holes and gaps in the scenery and fascia.
  • Keep filling in the orchard around Vasona Junction.
  • Dig and sift lots of dirt from the backyard for continued scenery projects.

Check back next January and see how far I got. And til then, what's your own to-do list for 2012 look like?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

New Photos

BTW, for your amusement,

Del Monte's Plant 51

East end of Glenwood siding, with some fine-looking static grass.

Op Session for the South Bay's Annual LD/OPSIG Meet!

The Bay Area's annual Layout Design and Operations Weekend is now over. As usual, I had a great time - fun presentations on Saturday, invitations to operating sessions on Sunday, and layout tours throughout the weekend. Byron Henderson also arranged his layout design advice sessions for all comers, and the folks looking for advice all enjoyed getting hints about their layout designs from the experts. (If you arrange meets and conventions in your own area, consider offering the same consulting. You don't really need *experts* at layout design, just some knowledgeable folks who can listen and give good suggestions. The help seekers will be very, very grateful.)

If you didn't make it out to Mountain View this year, make sure to mark the weekend before the Super Bowl next year on your calendar, and come out and attend. It's a great event!

I'm particularly proud of the LDSIG Meet's tradition of inviting participants who may never have done serious operations to op sessions at the local layouts; my visits to Don Marenzi and Dave Adams's layouts back in 2000 and 2001 got me interested in switching, timetable and train order operations, as well as operations in general. I remember coming home from each of those operating sessions with a different view of model railroads, fired up to improve and run my own model railroad.

This year, I helped repay the favor by hosting operating sessions at the Vasona Branch for a few of the attendees. I was behind on preparing; between work, a nasty cold, and family issues, I didn't start my usual preparation til Saturday night. While I got the layout presentable and operating with around six hours of cleanup and prep, it wasn't the smoothest operating session (though it wasn't the worst either.) One of the serious problems was that I didn't check for problems detected in the last operating session in... um... October. The last thing I wanted to do the night before an operating session was try to fix balky switch machines and frogs that were intermittently losing power for fear of breaking things worse. Next time, I block out a full day for the little repairs.

But the guests seemed to all have fun; the photo shows Don and Nolan handling the Campbell Cannery Turn, with Jeff checking his timetable to figure out when the Los Gatos commute train leaves town. Brett, another guest who's a professional railroader, was impressed that my small layout could give him a realistic and busy day of switching. Note the tall shell of the Sunsweet building on the right hand side of the scene, and the new Hyde Cannery spur at the far end of town. Also note the bright blue erasers I leave around as handy brakes to keep free-rolling cars from moving.

Brett also noted that my switchlists with door assignments listed are a bit unprototypical. In the real world, the crew arrives at the industry, finds the plant's foreman, and asks where the different cars need to be spotted. They then do the necessary shuffling. The computerized switchlists with the doors chosen do add more complexity (sometimes too much), but loses that sense of "we've gotten somewhere, let's figure out what we need to do or find someone who'll tell us what to do." I'm tempted in the future to require the crew switching a big industry to stop, send a switchman over to me, wait til I stop b.s.'ing with the guests, then ask for door assignments. I can give him some specific assignments ("the Pennsy boxcar needs to go at door 5"), some random ones ("the SP cars can go in any order at doors 1, 2, or 3") and some don't cares ("why are you bothering me about those cars? You're the railroaders; just put 'em where you think they go!") I don't know if the interruption would be annoying or fun, but I'm tempted to try it next time. Model railroaders interested in auditioning for the operating session role of "cranky plant foreman" can drop a resume and head shot in the comments.

Model railroad operations and layout design are both fun, but they're more fun when shared with others. Don't forget to have some operating sessions for the new folks in the hobby. Someday, they'll be building the cool layouts you'll want to operate on!