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.]

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