Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Places I Won't Model III: United States Products Cannery

As I've been building my model railroad, I've had to be pretty careful about what I model. Some industries (such as the Sewall Brown pit processing plant) are along remote parts of the San Jose-Los Gatos branch and don't generate enough traffic to be interesting when switching freight cars. Other industries (like the humungous San Jose Brick Works on Fruitdale Avenue) are too large to model realistically.

Then we've got the industries that might have fit well on the railroad, but where I don't have space, or where I don't need another industry of that type on the layout. The Del Monte cannery stayed as the token cannery in West San Jose, and the Contadina and United States Products canneries got booted.

But being unwilling to build a model of the USP cannery doesn't mean I'm not curious about it.

As I like to say, there's really only two bits of information about canneries that make it into old newspapers: how the company's bowling team did, and when the company got sued.

Scratch that, there's two other ways to get in the paper: have the owner of the cannery give a dog to the President of the United States, and give the Smothers Brothers their big break. On both counts, the United States Products cannery in San Jose pulls off some unexpected news coverage.

The United States Products cannery was one of the four major canneries in West San Jose, located at 570 Race Street just above Moorpark. It sat a couple blocks away from Del Monte's huge Plant #3 cannery, just across the tracks from the Contadina plant, and a few blocks away from the DeFiore cannery up on Stevens Creek. Under multiple owners, it stayed active from 1922 into the early 1980's canning under the Countess brand.

United States Products wasn't even started by a U.S. company; it was a spinoff of Vlessing, a major Dutch conglomerate from the Hague that had their fingers in everything: metals, machinery, motor cars, agricultural tools, "sole contractors for America for Caucasian Manganese and Manganese Peroxyd", and even some contentious purchases of Soviet oil. Vlessing were also a major food producer, with plants all over the world, importing some to Europe, and exporting other items (macaroni, vermicelli, and oatmeal) to the rest of the world. USP was personally operated by D. C. Kok, president of Viessing, and his sons Albert and Dick, with William Neuroth, a former fruit buyer who helped organize the company, providing local talent. USP's production was probably intended for consumption in Europe (much like the Ainsley cannery in Campbell was selling to England). USP also had a plant in Salem, Oregon at one point, but I can't find any details about when it appeared.

Kok and his sons got involved with the right sorts of folks, settling in Palo Alto, Atherton, and later Hillsborough. In one of the few mentions of Kok the Elder, we find he sent President Hoover a prize English setter. Julia Morgan's account books show her in contact with the family, and the remaining news articles list a divorce and photos of a socialite daughter in the San Mateo Times.

USP's massive masonry structure on its triangular lot was unusual for the area, tall and bunker-like. A recent ebay auction for a John C. Gordon photograph shows the outside well, while another photo from San Jose State's John C. Gordon collection shows a season's workers with a "USP HAMBURG" sign hinting at where the product was going. There's a couple other neat photos in the Gordon collection; let's keep our fingers crossed that San Jose State can scan and display those photos publicly. (Helpful hint for any librarians: the cool photos, including possible reconstruction work after a 1926 fire, are in the 'factories' file.) The looming, monolithic building also appears to have a looming, menacing boiler house to provide the steam, hot water, and mechanical energy for the different processes. Multiple spurs peeled off the mainline to reach different parts of the plant - shook storage and the syrup room nearest Race Street, a spur in between the cannery and warehouse for incoming and outgoing product, and a final spur only reaching the warehouse. That's lots of action for the modeler, though because the double track ended around Lincoln Ave., it meant that any crew switching the plant also blocked trains heading towards Campbell and Los Gatos.

The building also had more than its fair share of accidents; a June 14, 1926 Woodland Daily Democrat article highlights a fire that destroyed the plant, and notes that local farmers fear no buyer for their crop. That short article also highlights how even in the 1920's the cannery was drawing in fruit from far and near, and how some of the fruit was being delivered by rail. Two years later, in December, 1928, the San Jose News shows a picture of arson damage - along with an unnaturally cheerful employee - that had been caught the previous morning. There had already been a fire a few weeks before, and folks (other than that smiling employee) sounded a bit worried about the loose firebug.

Memories abound. Leonard McKay, one of the prolific San Jose historians, worked there as a office helper during the 1941 season, and remember the green jars they would can their pears in. USP wasn't just a summer job for high school and college kids, but also for the local judiciary; Superior Court judge M. G. Del Mutolo took three weeks of vacation from the bench and worked in the cannery as a checker, dispensing free legal advice when the production line permitted. (It's not that odd for strange characters to moonlight at the cannery; an August 8, 1980 Lodi Sentinel article highlights a Lodi school principal who spent his summers as a fruit buyer and inspector for U.S. Products, Glorietta, and Wool Packing.)

By the start of World War II, USP looks like it started to decline. World War II must have significantly cut into USP's sales, and Neuroth, the Vice President and General Manager of U.S. Products, died in 1940. The company declined and fell into bankruptcy in June of 1943, listing a collection of shareholders in the U.S., Britain, and Europe, and the European stockholders must've been near impossible to reach. Fred Neuroth, probably one of William's sons, is a trustee for the company in bankruptcy, as is John Doudell, probably related to the trucking company that had been doing the hauling for USP. The trustees got into trouble the next year because they'd leased the cannery to Sunnyvale's Schuckl cannery for the 1943 season, and the bankruptcy master gave them a stern talking-to because their role as trustees of a business in bankruptcy was to keep the business going while settling with the creditors, not changing the business model.

They must not have let the stern talking-to worry them too much; the Clapp baby food company from back east used it in 1944 and 1945 as they constructed their new West Coast plant on Newhall Ave.

United States Products ended up in the hands of Carl N. Lovegren, a prominent canner; when he was found dead in his car in San Jose in 1950, the company was sold to Consolidated Grocers, a Chicago-based wholesaler that had been the owner of the Rosenberg Brothers dried fruit business since 1947, and a reminder of how independent canners and packers were being shunted aside or collected by conglomerates after World War II.

USP was still active during the Consolidated era, and the industrial vibe in the neighborhood also meant it was a great location for an inexpensive dive. One such place was the Kerosene Club, which started as a jazz and beat club for San Jose State students, but also gave the Smothers Brothers their start, and gets mentioned in several folk and jazz histories.

Consolidated Grocers, which changed its name to Sara Lee after purchasing the bakery of the same name, eventually gave the cannery to the Glorietta Foods co-operative. Glorietta was taken over by the massive Tri Valley Growers in 1980 as it sucked up pretty much the entire canning industry, and TVG quickly shut the plant down in preparation for sale. It's not hard to see why; a 1968 research publication on peach bruising studied the damage to peaches caused by the 160 mile drive from the growing areas on the cannery in 1965. I don't have to be a canning expert to know that it might be easier to put the canneries out where the fruit is, and once it was efficient to build canneries in the Central Valley, I can't imagine any staying out in San Jose.

But of course it takes a while for redevelopment to occur. A January 20, 1984 article in the San Jose Mercury News talks about Sobrato Development's plans to turn the USP and Contadina properties into a massive high-tech office park; the Kerosene Club that that point was long gone, replaced by a strip club. The office park got built, but it only lasted twenty five years before the buildings were bulldozed a few years back for apartments and condos. There's still three warehouses on the west side of Race Street that date from the Glorietta days (including the current Western Appliance warehouse), but other than that, there's no sign of canneries over on Race Street any more.

[Sanborn map extract from the 1932 San Jose edition, captured via a quick iPhone photo in the California Room at San Jose's main library. U.S. Products building photograph from the very expensive eBay auction. Photo of the Western Appliance / former Glorietta cannery warehouses from Google Street View.] [Article has been updated since originally posted to mention Clapp baby food's short tenancy at 570 Race St.]

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Profiting from Prune Pits

With the Santa Clara Valley producing insane amounts of prunes and apricots, we know that there were lots of boxcars heading east (and ships heading out over the seven seas) loaded with dried and canned fruit.  But all that fruit leaving California left behind a toxic legacy… apricot and plum pits.

Well, maybe not so toxic, but certainly space-hogging.  Those pits did have value, as we learned a while back when reading about Sewall Brown's profitable apricot pit business out between Campbell and Los Gatos.  And Sewall Brown wasn't the only one making money off waste products; we've also got the story of Stanley Hiller, Sr.

Hiller was, according to his contemporaries, an inventor and mechanical genius.  Stanley was down in Los Angeles during World War I, working in the fish canneries to turn the leftovers into chicken feed, when he heard about a problem the allies were having.  The poison gas used on the Western Front required good gas masks, and the U.S. Government wanted filters for these masks.  Henry quickly rushed off to start his own business trying various materials to use for charcoal filters.  He imported tons of coquito nuts from Mexico which worked ok, but fruit pit charcoal worked better.  The government had already cornered the market, and ended the war with an extra 7,000 tons of pits, stacked on rented land. Hiller bought them, as-is, where-is, thinking that charcoal might be useful for other purposes.

Hiller and his partner Louis Clark thought of various tricks for using those pits - grinding, charcoal, etc. Meanwhile, PG&E and Western Sugar Refining, the two landowners, sent them various polite notes asking him to vamoose with the pits ASAP.  Louis remembered:

"Right here Clark tipped back his chair, locked his hands behind his head, see sawed back and forth--and looked at Hiller--and laughed!  Then they made a duet of it.  "Member, Hiller, how they howled at us to move that mountain?"

"I remember one day in particular when the whole world--looked at over our shell mountain-- turned deep indigo. The fellows working for the two big companies stood around and kidded us. They told us we were broke and didn't have enough sense to know it. Said we might as well give up. Hiller and I went back to the office pretty well discouraged. The mail almost finished us. PG&E wrote, ordering us to move that shell."

Now, one of the problems of getting rid of the shell was the time needed to turn it to charcoal. The government process required twenty days, but it was cut down to six by the end of the war. Hiller needed to create charcoal faster if he was to get rid of those shells. Hiller and Clark created a continuous kiln (like a cement kiln) for processing the charcoal, and cut the processing time down to twenty-four hours, and got rid of the pile before PG&E could complain. You can even check out their patent if you want.

By 1921, Hiller's company, Pacific By-Products, was running in San Jose at the corner of Sunol and Auzerais (390 Sunol St.) and producing 75 tons of charcoal a day, and produced ten million tons during 1920 and 1921. The bagged charcoal, sent via railroad car from their 5 car siding, went for industrial uses as well as chicken feed. Hiller and Clarke didn't stop at that; they worked on other machines - one for clarifying the cooking oil used in fish canneries. Another invention inspired Hiller when he saw sugar syrup spilling out of canning equipment in a San Jose fruit cannery. With sugar at 25c a pound, that syrup represented real money. He created a new machine that could catch spilled syrup, clean it, and return it to the canning line, saving the canners big money. The 1922 Canning Age magazine shows the waste syrup refiner, both stock and in place at the Santa Clara Pratt-Lowe Preserving Company.

They also had their mishaps; a Sanborn map illustration on History San Jose's site shows the ominous warning that the plant burned down on May 6, 1932. The San Jose News's article on the fire called the two-alarm blaze "stubborn" but Louis Clark said the loss was almost completely covered by insurance. The article also mentions that the fire didn't reach the piles of sawdust used as part of the firing process.

Pacific By-Products must have stayed at the location; the 1933 and 1934 city directory still shows them at 390 Sunol. The 1934 directory also lists the manager as Roland Roderick as the manager and F.S. Lawrence as the superintendent. The plant isn't listed in the 1936 city directory - did they move, or did they shut down? I haven't looked yet, though now has all the city directories I'll need to answer the question. Only further poring through dusty volumes will tell.

Their five-car siding lasted into the 1950's, even if they didn't. I even modeled it on my layout, unsure when I laid the track why there was the long siding along the property line. I'd just assumed it was storage or perhaps (as one switching crew on my layout discovered) it was a handy place to store part of the train while switching the Del Monte cannery.

And if you're a Bay Area kid, that Hiller name ought to be familiar. Stanley's son, Stanley Junior, was also quite an inventor, and went on to design clever, utilitarian helicopters through his Hiller Helicopter company, a long-time fixture out on Willow Road in Menlo Park. Stanley Junior also tested some of his helicopter designs at the family estate above Oakland, now the area called Hiller Highlands above the Caldecott Tunnel portal. Stanley Junior also funded the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos. He wasn't the only aviator in the family; Stanley Senior had also built and designed planes in his day back in the 'teens, but luckily for us came back to the stable and profitable fruit business in San Jose.

[The interview quotes come from the Edith Daley columns in San Jose Evening News, July 19, 1921 and July 20, 1921 The photo of the infamous mountain of pits comes from the March, 1922 March 1922 Canning Age magazine. Sanborn map image from History San Jose - I'm glad I copied it because they've taken down the original site.]

Monday, May 14, 2012

Campbell Ave. and Wigwags on a Rainy 1970 Day

It's outside my era, but it's still a great photo. Check out Stan Praisewater's shot of an SP diesel at the Campbell Ave. crossing taken in 1970 - the photo's at Dan's Rail Pix site as part of a collection of wigwags; scroll halfway down to see the photo, and click on it to see an enlarged version.

Interesting details: even in 1970, the Campbell Ave. crossing is protected with wigwag signals and wooden crossbucks - very little protection for the errant driver. The Sunsweet packing plant is just visible behind the diesel, but the 1970's era downtown is fuzzy but present, as are the smaller crossbucks to warn the tiniest railfans to be careful around the crossing.

There's also a "Truck Route" sign just beyond the crossing; in the days of multiple canneries and packing plants, keeping the trucks from blocking the main drag must have been a high priority. Although the tracks and Campbell Ave. are still there, downtown Campbell's a much livelier place these days.

The Best Day to Make Trees Is Two Years Ago, Or Today

Yep, even in dry California, I never have enough trees on the layout. This weekend's hot weather encouraged me to go on a tree-building kick, pulling out the Supertrees, the matte medium, and the tarps for an afternoon of sunburn and ground foam stuck to my hands.

It took me years til I figured out how to make trees that I found at all realistic. As a teenager, I found Woodland Scenics' metal armature trees a pain to make and unrealistic, both in color, shape, and size. I never understood why their trees were so small til we drove through Texas one year and I saw what counted as trees out in North Texas. Heck, we've got chaparral bigger than that. I didn't have any better luck stretching the foilage over the plastic armature trees, and the results never looked like my favorite places in California (whether up in the drier hills, as seen in the first photo in this set, or down in the canyons near the redwoods).

In the last few years, I've finally found the styles I'll stick with - Woodland Scenics' plastic armature pine trees for the redwood forests around Wrights, their small plastic armature trees for my orchards, and a combination of Supertrees and Woodland Scenics fine-leaf foilage for small trees and bushes. The Supertrees work well for the larger deciduous trees - the buckeye, laurel, and sycamore - start with the cone-shaped tops of the Supertree weed armatures, and get pale green ground foams. The round coast live oaks are shaped from the lower portions of the armatures, and get the dark green Noch leaf flakes.

I got about 40-50 trees done over the afternoon, and would have done more except I ran out of clothespins to hold them while drying. More clothespins are on my shopping list before next time.

All the trees went along the tracks between Alma and Wrights. This stretch had been completely empty and distracted from two nice scenes on either side, but now it's a continuous stretch of trees. Here's some photos of the completed scene.
[Real California scenery photos both from Almaden Quicksilver County Park.]

Monday, May 7, 2012

Why I Model the 1920's

As much as I'd like it to be true, "why do you model the 1920's" isn't the most common question I hear about the Vasona Branch layout. "How long have you been building it?" or "You've got trains in your garage?!" probably are the most common questions. But I wish it were.

And here's one reason why. Here's the photo of Del Monte's dried fruit packing plant, Plant 51, after a recent operating session. That's 9 cars on the siding. There's room for another six (and it appears busy, not crowded.) Some crew is going to get lost navigating between those cars trying to figure out what they're pulling out today.

Here's the photo with modern cars. Eight cars, room for another three, and the scene's looking a little bit overstuffed.

That's called more fun per unit area.

[Modern boxcars and covered hoppers courtesy of teenage me. The silver Swift reefer was on my original HO Bachman loop of track.]

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The problems with model railroad operations...

One of the problems with model railroad operations, of course, is that it's all book learning. We read the rule book and learn a bit about how things should be done, but unless we read stories by real railroaders, we don't learn how things *really* are done.

Luckily, the infamous Dome of Foam helps out with my education:

Basically, the switchmen's unofficial rulebook, in total, read, "Know what you can get away with." Road crews, on the other hand, were highly educated, their credo being, "Know which rule that you are violating."
I can do that.

For your own education, read the article on How to Get By A Red Automatic Interlocking Signal Using Rule 663bs. You'll find that handy if I ever put signals at my WP crossing.

Abinante and Nola site, 1970.

As I've mentioned before, 740 / 750 West San Carlos Street, just at the SP's Los Gatos branch, had a number of occupants - Pacific Fruit Products in 1915, Higgins-Hyde in the early 1930's, J.S. Roberts a bit later, and Abinante and Nola after World War II. The J.S. Roberts photo's the best one of the barn-like site which ought to resemble Del Monte's Sunnyvale plant a bit.

I've known there's some other photos of the site out there. The Dome of Foam, one of my favorite SP/San Jose sites, fixed a broken link to a photo recently, so now it's possible to see the Abinante and Nola site as it looked in 1968. Check out the Dome of Foam's page on the Diridon Station depot goat for more photos of the industries around San Jose's Diridon Station and the caption for the original photo.

The photo of the site is worth some extra examination. The buildings to the left are the Del Monte cannery (as taken from the San Carlos St. bridge. Abinante and Nola was on the empty lot to the right of the photo, with its four car spur still in place. The Dome of Foam caption says the siding was used for commute car storage in the 1960's.

Further up the track, and sharing the same spur was the former Santa Clara Mill and Lumber yard was on the right (though it was Cheim Lumber by the mid-1930's). The two tracks to the left were part of the Del Monte cannery's trackage, as seen on the Dome of Foam's track standing room space map - look at the bottom of the page for the West San Jose trackage and the nine and three car spurs at the north end of the cannery trackage.

The warehouses behind the triangular empty lot were warehouses for a billboard company that took over part of the lumber yard's space in the 1930's. I'm surprised at all the trees in the near-foreground; there's no trees in 1948, and only slight trees in 1956 after the packing house was torn down.

A recent Dome of Foam update also included images from this railroad valuation map, showing some planned improvements to the trackage in 1965. This map has a bunch of interesting details - the cafeteria at the Del Monte Cannery, Abinante still in existence, and the original San Carlos St. route (including the bridge across Los Gatos Creek!) See the Cahill realignment page for more details about the planned 1965 trackage changes and some more fragments from that nice valuation map.

None of this matters particularly much for me as a 1932 modeler; it's partially interesting if I were ever to have more modern operations on the layout, but the photo does hint at the flat and plain look of the area around West San Jose. This ain't dramatic scenery culture, and that's ok.

[Photo from E. O. Gibson's Dome of Foam. It's his photo originally; I've cribbed it because it's just too cool a picture not to share. Go read his pages. Send him money and a Britney Spears CD.]